Information Overload and Stress

The Ailments of Modern Living

This article has been adapted from The Enduring Library: Technology, Tradition, and the Quest for Balance;Chapter 10: Information Overload and Stress: the Ailments of Modern Living; by Michael Gorman; © 2003 by the American Library Association. Developing a Compensation Plan for Your Library is available from the ALA Store at

It is 10pm-do you know where your mind is tonight? Your day started when you rose early to check your e-mail at home, your cell phone for voice mail and text messages, your fax machine for overnights, and newspapers on the Web for news and other texts and pictures.  Breakfast was accompanied by the local newspaper and radio news or an early morning TV show.  On the latter, you saw not only the pictures of the host and guests with text identifying each as they appeared, those appearances being punctuated with advertisements containing images, text, and sound, but also a small box showing a live event, and a “crawl” of “breaking news” and news snippets. Then it was time to leave for work, the commute being accompanied by more reading on the train or ’bus, not to mention consulting and updating your PDA; or more spoken words on the car radio or audiotape player, interrupted by calls on your cell ’phone. By the time you actually reached the library in which you work, you had already read more words, seen more images, and heard more music and spoken words than you could possibly absorb and process.

At the library, there were the usual memoranda, e-mail messages, faxes, voice mail messages, post-it notes and other handwritten messages, professional journals and newsletters, meetings, and conversations-a never-ending stream of communications of all kinds. All of these are supposed to support your work-life and private life and to assist you as you go about the tasks for which, at least in theory, you are paid-administration, cataloguing, reference work, library instruction, etc.

At the end of the workday, you returned home, in all probability to deal with yet more communication. These messages that invade your private life come from the television, chat shows on the radio (the natural habitat of the ignorant in possession of random information they are incapable of integrating), the Web on your home computer, magazines, manuals, and more e-mails and faxes. Perhaps you are like the journalist William Van Winkle who “gets antsy after a single day without checking” his e-mail and confesses “[a]t night, I read constantly from the dozen or so periodicals to which I subscribe while my wife channel surfs. This is our relaxation time?”

The blight from which we all suffer is called “information overload”-the result of a society in which the technologies have outstripped the ability of the human brain to deal with its results. Writing on a Web news site, Paul Krill tells us that information overload “results from having a rapid rate of growth in the amount of information available, while days remain 24 hours long and our brains remain in roughly the same state of development as they were when cavemen communicated by scrawling messages on stones.” Information overload is more than an annoyance and worse than difficult to deal with. It can be dangerous to your mental and physical health.

What should we do, as librarians, to deal with the information overload (and concomitant knowledge deficit) that is our lot today? Here are some rules.

  • Avoid electronic discussion lists and newsgroups

  • Avoid meetings. Meetings have grown in number and in length and the amount of time devoted to them has expanded at the expense of time devoted to real work

  • Have and stick to priorities. The fog of messages can easily obscure your priorities and may even make it difficult for you to formulate priorities. Some time in thought a few times a week in which you formulate short lists of what you want to achieve can be most refreshing and helpful.

  • Have a wider vision. How many of us pause to think what our library is about and why being a librarian is important? Information and data overload is the enemy of vision and the broad view, and, since we all perish without a vision, we have to deal with the overload issues if we are to function in a productive and healthy manner.

  • Take breaks from work and communications.

  • Avoid self-sacrifice. I believe that librarians should be more self-interested than many are and also should recognize that their self-sacrificing behavior can have adverse effects on themselves and their colleagues.

  • Learn to say “No.” Invitations to be on time-consuming task forces with no clear outcome, to attend meetings that are of peripheral interest, or to participate in continuing e-mail discussions on almost any topic should be resisted.

  • Do not spread your home phone number, individual (not office) work number, fax number, e-mail address, etc., widely.

  • Find time for informal discussions. I think it very important that the working day affords time for informal discussion between colleagues in which they can cut through the haze of information overload and speak about more than the problems of the moment or the latest facts and information.

  • Concentrate on your real job. It is imperative that every librarian understands clearly what her or his main job is. How else can she or he assign priorities (see above) and make intelligent choices when confronted with 60 hours of work in a 40-hour workweek?

  • Never “surf” the Web. More and more librarians (and others) turn to the Web for information and find that they are adding to their information overload.

  • Get a hobby and devote time to it. Family, libraries, and outside interests are the three things that every librarian has to balance. Library work and the information overload it generates should never be allowed to be negative influences on the other two.

  • Eschew trends and resist peer pressure. These are times when taking a step back and considering the forest are the most useful abilities a librarian can possess.

  • Meditate. There is ample written evidence that, for those with the skills and training, meditation has great value for mental and emotional health. It is the perfect antidote for information overload.

  • Make time to read. This is the simplest, most rewarding, and most effective of these precautionary injunctions.


Van Winkle, William. “Information overload.” Computer Bits 8, no. 3 (Feb. 1998).

Krill, Paul. “Overcoming Information Overload.” InfoWorld ( Jan. 7, 2000.

See, for example The psychology of meditation, edited by Michael A. West. Oxford: Clarendon Pr., 1987.