By Cassidy Haines, Guest Columnist
Where classrooms were once full of students with thick textbooks on their desks and a metric ton of books in their bags, will now only reveal a sea of laptops and tablets in academic buildings across the country. In Musselman Library, students flock to the computers and printers, but seldom skim the browsing room or scan the stacks the library was built to house. Instead of physical books or newspapers, we keep up with the news and learn on our phones and computers. It is plainly untrue to claim that “no one reads,” but it is imperative to our society and future generations that we read from more than just our screens.
We now have easier and nearly infinite access to knowledge than ever before in human history, thanks to the Internet and modern technology like smartphones. With the emergence of resources like audiobooks, e-books, and electronic devices dedicated to reading like Kindles or Nooks, society has taken steps away from physical books and libraries, which are slowly turning into relics of a century we no longer live in.
Over the past couple of weeks, I spent a few hours in Musselman Library working on papers and other assignments. Between shifts of tapping my keyboard, I sat back in my chair and observed for a while. With my bird’s-eye view of the first floor, I could see just about everyone there: no one had an open book on their table. A few people had a book on their table, but chances are they were using it for quotes for an essay like I was. Laptops, of course, brightened the faces of every student working on a report or their millionth online assignment of the day.
This much is also true for college campuses across the country. I asked ten of my friends at different colleges to observe their libraries, too. They all reported the same findings of students hunched over their laptops at their institutions, ranging from Brown University and George Washington University to the University of Miami and the University of California at Berkeley. A few of them also noted that they only know a handful of people that still read for fun.
That phrasing in itself is concerning: the amount of people that “still read for fun” is dropping as the years drive on. As a society, we simply cannot budget the same amount of free time to our schedules as we could ten or so years ago. By no means are we consciously trying to stop reading—we have access to the world at our fingertips, and that information reaches us in a much quicker fashion than flipping through pages waiting for the grand finale. Then, as a result of our collective lack of time during the day, we scroll and scroll for hours at night trying to catch up on everything we miss while working.
As a personal example, I consider myself a lifelong bookworm, but I so rarely have time to pick a book off my to-be-read shelf. When I do have time to read, more often than not, it comes after finishing long-winded readings or excruciating discussion boards for class, whatever the assignment might be—my brain is fried, and I cannot force myself to concentrate on more words. A few of my friends attending Brown University, Georgetown University, and the University of Connecticut agreed with this sentiment; they consider themselves “big readers,” but can hardly focus on a novel if it is not for class. Some seek e-books or Kindles to get back into reading, but their devices often display textbooks or required novels instead. It is safe to say the overload of work—while to some extent expected in higher education—is wearing out college students and our desire to read for pleasure. Some call it burnout, others attribute the problem to society’s shortening attention span. This is certainly a factor that plays a role in other issues, but at the end of the day, our attention spans are only shrinking as a consequence of our technological advancements. We are used to Google’s instantaneous answers to any query we come up with, accustomed to gluing ourselves to screens for entertainment, and conditioned to keep refreshing our feeds.
Some days, it is hard not to absorb more blue light working on assignments than sunlight. The only way to combat the work-filled weekdays is by putting the blue light glasses aside and blocking out an hour or two on the weekend to read for fun. As a substitute during weeks with a few too many long readings for class, at least try to do something for those couple of hours away from the temptation of the Internet. Try going outside and experimenting with a new sport, drawing, practicing an instrument, painting, journaling, meditating, working out, or even walking around town with your phone on airplane mode. The options are as endless as the many universes that books can transport us to as long as we look up from our phones.
When we scroll on and on, it can be tough to look away. They say not to believe everything we read on the Internet; as we reload Tiktok and Twitter, sometimes it is hard not to stumble upon blatant misinformation marked as the truth, lacking context, or encouraging the spread of it. When these deceptions circulate, we sometimes cannot find the lightning-quick facts on the first page or two of Google results. With the emergence of new technological advancements such as artificial intelligence, it is becoming more and more difficult to discern what is real and what is fake. For the sake of preserving history and documenting this period of humanity, it is imperative that we keep up with physical books and libraries. They say the Internet is forever, but it is not a failsafe way of preserving history thanks to artificial intelligence and the platform itself being a never-ending void. It is useful but not infallible. In the same way that we trust Word documents to safeguard our assignments after we press save a hundred times, for example, it still can sometimes lose hours of our work due to glitches or crashes. We need to read away from our screens and choose a book off a shelf, or at the very least, use our resources aside from search engines.
At Gettysburg College, our esteemed Musselman Library is one such resource. Curious about what started a certain war? Interested in finding out what sparked this major political shift or another? Musselman Library most likely has a reference for you, or the kind folks at the research help desk can direct you toward a trusted academic source.
Alternatively, for any fellow readers who want to get back into their yearly challenges or those who need somewhere to start, check out the browsing room and pick a novel for a couple of hours on the weekend. The library’s browsing room has a great selection of contemporary novels across a plethora of genres, including memoirs, graphic novels, fantasy, and more. From modern cult classics like Stephanie Meyer’s “Twilight” and Suzanne Collins’s “The Hunger Games” to trendy BookTok options like Nina LaCour’s “Yerba Buena,” the browsing room has it all. Personally, I cannot recommend Madeline Miller’s “Circe”—my number one book of 2022—enough. Jesmyn Ward’s mind-blowing “Sing, Unburied, Sing” is another hidden gem of the browsing room. Plus, the brilliant library staff undoubtedly have their own favorites to suggest.
Regardless of where society ends up technologically, it is imperative that we retain our books and libraries. Classics like Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451” were written in fear of and to warn against screen-based futures. There is a reason Bradbury said that novel in particular represents “the art of the possible. It could happen. It has happened.” As the next generation up to bat at changing the world, it is up to us to protect knowledge in its purest form, and to ensure that we do not create a future without books and information like the dystopia of “Fahrenheit 451.”