On Monday morning this past week, staff arrived at work to discover that internet connectivity was zero. Local emails could be sent and received, but email from outside the college could not. Connection to college pages was possible but slow, with normal features malfunctioning. The situation apparently extended beyond the campus and, we were told, was the result of a utility fire in Philadelphia.
Suddenly bereft of 80 percent of my usual activities, I began weeding some books from the reference collection -- a project long put on hold. I assumed this would be something I would not need the internet for, but I was wrong. First, there was no ability to check "if this book wasn't here, could a patron find the information on the internet?" Nor could I look at how many other libraries keep it in their reference collections. Nor was there a way to check if there was a more updated edition/version. In fact, I couldn't even tell if our own library had a more current resource online.
Suddenly I felt very much alone, without the online community that I so frequently rely on. In fact I felt deprived of a basic function, and I caught myself repeatedly reaching for something and then remembering it wasn't there, as though the internet was a sweater or a pencil or a drink of water. I caught myself opening web pages to look something up or follow a lead, then running into a wall.
We simply aren't building our systems to be offline. Library services on that day were stymied -- we couldn't reliably locate a book in our own collection, never mind check it out to a patron or connect to an ebook. And all those students who emailed themselves their papers to print out at the library were out of luck.
I suppose I should be thankful for this reminder of how web-based my productivity is, but in fact the experience made me irritable. I should have glorified in the additional contemplative space allowed to me, but instead I spent most of the day impatient for the fix so that I could go back to doing things properly. Perhaps it's true that decisions were less hasty, but fewer things were completed. In a small way, it was like being on vacation at work. I had to fight my initial impulse to go home to work and use the internet there, and if I were my own boss I probably would have done so.
Instead, faced with boredom and lack of opportunity for action, I turned to what I often do in times like these: brainstorming & writing. And so this post is a gift both to and from the internet outage, for without the outage I would not have stopped to think and write about it.
(Thank goodness everything was back to normal the next day.)