Short attention spans tend to preoccupy people who write about “our generation.” We've grown up with pop songs that rarely last longer than 4 minutes (not something to emulate, gentlemen), movies that are almost always shorter than 90 minutes (at which point, while watching on your laptop, you should probably take a break), and most of our reading is online.
We have iPads and smartphones, Netflix and Hulu, Google and Wikipedia—and we’re often using all of them at once. I actually even watched an episode of Arrested Development in between writing the sentences of this paragraph.
However, Columbia likes to portray itself as an antidote to all this multitasking and hurry. Where else do you spend four hours a week for two years discussing the classics of Western literature and thought? (I mean, yes, technically, lots of other colleges, but they probably don’t have as effective mailings.)
Those of us who’ve been here a while know better, though. We answer emails in class, rush from class to a meeting, answer more emails in the meeting, and then rush to work. Last semester I had a class that ended at 6 p.m. and a job that started at 6 p.m., and yet had no problem eating dinner between the two.
And yet there is one countervailing force that Columbia students face from time to time: library reserves. With a limited time to read, or watch, or listen, we have no choice but to focus on the task at hand. If it’s a non-circulating book, all the better. Unless you’re one of those people who lives in Butler (and you don’t want to be one of those people), you're forced to do your work trapped within a single reading room.
Like most Columbia students I know, I used to get frustrated when the only way I could access something was on reserve. It feels confining. It messes up my schedule. But I've realized that having to amble into that room off the corner of 209 and fill out one of those little yellow cards has helped me focus. It has allowed me to approach the task at hand with greater composure and helped me complete it with greater enjoyment.
In fact, the idea of course reserves now even strikes me as somewhat liberating. It designates the library as the place for work, giving us the freedom, without guilt, to play elsewhere. It suggests that a work/life divide should exist, that we shouldn’t see our days as just a flux of thinking about working, actually working, and distracting ourselves from working.
In the current American imagination, college is supposed to be about freedom. Perhaps contrary to our normal perceptions, library reserves might actually give us a little bit more of that.