As some of you may know, escaping the echo chamber has been a concern of librarians for a while now. American library bloggers, and more recently UK library bloggers, share their experiences and discuss innovative ideas for developing their libraries, whether they are public, academic, law, health or special libraries. For approximately four or five years now, I’ve been reading about all these fantastic developments and joining in conversations with other library and information workers in the profession.There’s some great stuff happening and some even greater stuff being developed for the future.
And yet, we find ourselves in the unfortunate position whereby libraries are facing closure threats, funding is being cut drastically, and staff are facing redundancy. Obviously, these new stories are due to the economic climate, but why are libraries suffering worse than some other areas? Is it because libraries aren’t seen as important as some of the more vital areas of public spending such a healthcare and education? Possibly. Is the problem exacerbated by the lack of communication outside of anyone working in the profession or our regular users? I think so.
Of course, I’m biased – I’m passionate about providing information to help people, and I choose to work in this profession so I have a vested interest. However, I’m pretty new to the profession, and before I left University I knew very little about libraries or librarians. I had no idea that you needed to be qualified to become a librarian. I didn’t know that stamping books was something that very few librarians do, and that there is so much else they do. So when I get the standard reaction from other people when they ask me what I do, I initially feel a little defensive of my profession, but then I think back to my previous (lack of) knowledge about librarianship, and I explain to them what it’s all about. I’ve had conversations with taxi drivers, railway staff (often on the way to a library related conference), and occasionally with my friends and family.
But I have a confession: I’m not doing anywhere near enough of this.
I recently found this blog post by Emma Cragg fascinating (go read it!), and it inspired me to do something similar. I didn’t email my family and friends, but I did ask some of them what they think I do. I’ve had the excuse to talk about it as I’ll soon be changing jobs, so it’s coming up in conversation now probably more often than normal. It wasn’t a big surprise to me, but the people I asked didn’t really have any clue what my job role entails. One person had actually read the job description for my new job as well as my application, and still didn’t really know what it was I actually do for a living. My new job title includes the word “researcher” so my sister thought I’d be helping people with their research which I probably didn’t do as a librarian – in actual fact the opposite is true.
This brings me to the echo chamber. According to Wikipedia (yes, I’m a librarian who uses Wikipedia, so shoot me!), an echo chamber in terms of media refers to:
a situation in which information, ideas or beliefs are amplified or reinforced by transmission inside an “enclosed” space
This is what we have in the biblioblogosphere (library bloggers), on Twitter (probably about 90% of my Twitter network work in library related jobs), and at library-related conferences and events I attend. Obviously, this is a problem. Even if someone had the most fantastic idea ever, or there was news about an amazing new library scheme, only those of us who already had an interest would find out about it. So how do we escape the echo chamber?
It’s been a concern for a number of other UK librarians recently, and Ned Potter and WoodsieGirl recently presented on the topic, giving a great overview of where we currently are, and sharing some examples of when librarians have successfully broken out of the echo chamber (such as Ian Clark‘s excellent article recently published by the Guardian Comment is Free section) – check these links out if you haven’t already seen them, although of course most of you reading this will already know about them as I’m aware that I’m currently speaking to the echo chamber!
I’ve been thinking recently about ways I can help us break out of the echo chamber.
One thing I have been working on in my role as Marketing Officer for CILIP West Midlands is organising a debate with a local debating group, the Birmingham Salon. As you may be aware, Birmingham is having a brand spanking new library, but it’s not been without its criticism. Firstly, it’s costing a lot of public money, and secondly, there are a number of people who oppose the destruction of the current library building, as it is an example of brutalist architecture which they feel should not be destroyed. We thought it would be good to encourage discussion about the new library, and about the future of libraries in general by holding an open debate. It’s being organised jointly, and we’re hoping to encourage both people from the library and information profession, and the general public. I’m promoting via all the usual library channels, and we’re utilising the Birmingham Salon contacts to promote the event locally. Hopefully it will be a way to begin to engage with the local community and escape the echo chamber. If you’re interested in coming along and live near Birmingham, the details are on the event flyer and the Facebook event, or follow remotely with the #libdebate tweets.
Something else I’ve been thinking more about is how important it is to act as ambassadors for the profession. We need to be objective (which I am aware is easier to say than do), and we need to demonstrate the value of libraries where that value truly lies. Although I would of course be disappointed to see libraries disappear, I’m also a pragmatic person and only want libraries that provide value to succeed. I myself rarely use the public library, because even though it’s only a 5 minute walk away, it’s just not convenient enough for me. It has confusing opening hours varying each day (often shutting for lunch and closing before work finishes), and many of the books I’d like to read are either on loan, or in another branch. I have paid 40p to reserve books in the past, but then I struggle to collect during opening hours. For me personally, I’d rather use a postal scheme, and I’d be happy to pay into something like Lovefilm but for books. For others in my town, the library is about the community; for example I imagine I’d use the local library far more for this purpose if I was a parent. As a distance learner and user of an academic library, for me it’s all about electronic access to the resources. For others it may be the study facilities. In my workplace, I’m not sure that I know what exactly it is that our users and non-users would like from the library. In order to address these different needs (and acknowledge that these needs change rapidly reflecting changes in society and technology) I’d like to see us, as a profession, listen more to our users and our potential users, and actively involve them in our planning and development.
And in the meantime, I’m going to be talking more about what I do and what libraries are all about to the people I come into contact with. I’m also going to make more of an effort to find out about different types of libraries and librarians, so that I’m armed with the knowledge to help both myself and direct other people to help.
What else can we do to escape the echo chamber? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments, or join in the Twitter conversation using the hashtag #echolib.