On multitasking

Continuous Partial Attention gets a lot of love (and hate) in relation to online multitasking. But I’m sitting at our reference desk for my weekly shift, and since it’s Crisis And Chaos time (end of semester blues all over the place), I can guarantee that this three hour shift will be filled with short frantic moments in which my help is desperately needed, interspersed with long stretches of pointing at the stapler and saying “there are more computers in the basement or over in the Levitt Center”.

For those long stretches, I brought some work with me. Weeding work, to be specific.

And so here I am, pointing at the stapler, checking MLA to see if book chapters are indexed, looking at our catalog to check for ToC notes, looking in Worldcat to see if anyone has put in those ToC notes, editing bib records, and filling out weeding slips, all while watching the students coming and going from the lobby and reference area, monitoring the printer, and watching the reference IM and email accounts.

I believe that’s not just multitasking — it’s CPA. I am, in fact, paying attention to all those things continuously, not just multitasking. It’s also just the reality of being a librarian, at least in my experience. I’ve also watched colleagues do exactly the same thing, at this same desk. And so… why are we so amazed by and interested in and critical of online CPA?

I realize that it may be that my disinterest in CPA as a discussion topic is because I’m good at it, and it’s not a struggle for me. But given the realities of who we are and the work we do, I can’t help feeling like we’re creating an issue that’s not an issue. Sadly, I’ve seen CPA be an issue that adds to the conflict between us as we move from the “old” offline way of living and working to the “new” more online way of working and living — CPA is the issue that leads to generational and work-style conflicts based around “you think we should do that because you don’t understand why I don’t like it.” Really, what I don’t understand is how online CPA is so very different than what we already do. It’s not content, or action — it’s format. We already employ CPA in our daily work, particularly at a service desk where we’re constantly taking the emotional temperature of the environment. So, as I see it, online CPA is just taking the skills we’ve built over the years as service professionals and employing them in a new place, using new tools.

Doesn’t our profession have enough conflicts in philosophy without creating new ones where they’re not necessary?


  1. Is that like calling walking and chewing gum at the same time multi-tasking? Or is that CPA? The librarian’s reference desk has always been this way. Bring your work to your desk and still appear available, not an easy skill.


  2. Jeff, I guess that’s part of my question. At what point do we stop calling it Multitasking or CPA or some other signifier of “special”, and just say that THIS, here, is what we do. Walking and chewing gum isn’t “special”, it’s what we do. I think that giving the “special” signifiers to things is part of what makes them ‘other’, and ‘different’, and ‘new’, and in some cases, therefore ‘bad’. As in, rather than saying that I’m doing the traditional work of a librarian and exhibiting continuous partial attention behaviors at the same time, I’d rather say that I’m doing the work of a modern librarian. Because I’m not sure that the distinction has any value anymore. Aren’t they the same thing in our modern information culture?


  3. I think the answer to your question is:

    Do you do this all the time, no matter what your primary task is, or only when it’s appropriate?

    If the latter, then it’s multitasking or CPA–and it’s something you set aside when you really want to (and can) focus on a single task. And I don’t think it’s a generational thing or whatever; I think it’s realistic–part of the time.

    If the former–if you’re “continuously partially attentive” to lots of things even while you’re writing an article or a book or doing something else that I believe would benefit from focus (or concentration, if you prefer), then maybe there is a generational thing, or at least a deep cultural/personal difference.

    I don’t believe our “modern information culture” requires that we be doing three things at once 100% of the time, and I don’t believe it requires that we be “on” all the time. I’m reasonably well convinced that most people do their best at certain kinds of tasks when they’re unitasking. I know that’s true for me. Walking and chewing gum is one thing; participating in LSW Meebo and doing careful editing or writing is another. For me, the latter doesn’t work. If it does for you–if your best writing, your best thinking, whatever, takes place while you’re also engaged in several other things–well, that’s great, but I don’t think it’s a prerequisite for modernity.

    The piece you linked to is interesting in two ways: One, the writer seems to be saying that CPA isn’t always appropriate. Two, maybe if the writer had been paying better attention, she wouldn’t have used italics for the entire post, making it painful to read…and quite possibly accidental.


  4. Walt, I don’t disagree with any of what you just wrote. This morning I spent an hour reading the latest OCLC research report, and I did it in my office, door closed, music off, focused on one thing, because I wanted to absorb and understand in a way I wouldn’t be able to otherwise.

    But. The thing I’m dancing around is the statement that I’ve heard and read about how librarians can’t be asked to take on/learn/implement/employ a technology tool because they can’t multitask in that way, or they can’t provide good service in person if they have to be focusing on more than just the patron in front of them.

    And in my experience academic library reference has never been a unifocal task. It never was, unless you had the luxury of working with backup staff to handle the next user in line and in an environment that allowed you to block out the hubbub of the public space you were working in. My experience with reference has always been about multitasking, and about continuous partial attention to the people, spaces, resources, and other work at hand. And. So. CPA as applied to online reference interactions and tools isn’t, in my opinion, any different than the CPA we’ve always done at a service point, and saying that it is feels disingenuous to me. Which is why I think we need to ditch the term, and stop talking about it like it’s special. It’s just what we do in service to patrons at a reference desk… whether what we’re monitoring is online or off.

    My point was not as clearly developed as it could have been, in part because I was thinking out loud and working it out in my head as I wrote, and also because I wrote it at the reference desk, rather than in the solitude of my office. 😉


  5. Thanks for the clarification. I certainly agree (not ever having done it, but observing it) that front-desk reference work will generally be multitasking/CPA, and with one person on duty has to be that way. No argument at all.


  6. Good points. I work in a part academic/ part special library where I 90% of the time when I work I am the only staff member around so if I did not employ CPA nothing would ever get done. I think being a librarian (no matter what area) requires some type of doing many things at once capabilty simply because of all the things that need to happen in order to make a library work. Just some thoughts.


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