Road sign for Echo

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.

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  • The debate up in Birmingham is a fantastic thing. Just the sort of CILIP partnering with non library groups to promote debate and intellectual life in society at large that I imagined in the #cilipfuture conversation. I wish you every success with it (I sent the flyer to my Dad who is Midlands based!).

    On your public library experience – the opening hours things is very poor – how can they not open at lunch time – seems basic.

    I guess I am lucky as there is no reservation charge in my part of the world . My usage is 90% reservation based with the odd random pick up when collecting reservations / something catches my eye / trawling the returns trolley. There was an interesting item on use of empty space in rail stations on the news this morning. Made me wonder if people could not reserve online and then collect / drop off from a smallish space at the station. Bring the library to the reader.

    When I say I work for the NHS few people expect me to be a librarian but once you talk to them a bit about what happens at a hospital and how we tie in to that they soon see the logic.

    • Glad you passed on the flyer, hope your Dad can make it! I’m really hopeful it will be an interesting event, could potentially be very useful for getting a better understanding of what local people want from a public library service.

      The closing at lunchtime thing is odd isn’t it? The closing times vary every day too, and one afternoon they are closed completely. I can never get my head around it!

      Oh – and railway station libraries would be excellent for commuters, I’ll be moving to more rail transport soon so I’d definitely welcome that. I did answer a survey recently from The Train Line and one thing they are considering is a library on the train for people to loan books for their journey duration (I think). Sounds potentially interesting but only really for long journeys; I would think branches at stations would be more beneficial.

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  • Great post Jo!

    I especially like the idea of Lovefilm for books… we could call it Lovebooks yeah?

    I’m not a big user of my public library either. In fact I only registered three weeks ago. I’m yet to borrow anything as again the opening hours means it’s difficult for me to get there. Luckily there’s no charge for reserving items but it’s frustrating that I’ve been waiting three weeks for my reservation to come in.

    Looking forward to following the #libdebate tweets.

    • Yeah, Lovebooks sounds like a good plan! I do recall that some public libraries are looking into this sort of scheme, so hopefully it’s something that might be a reality in future.

      I think I’d reserve more if there wasn’t a charge, but it’s a good source of revenue for them so I can understand the reasoning.

  • In passing – do either of you perhaps have a branch closer to work? I work in a different authority to where I live and am registered with both services – I can take a small detour on my way home to pass by one that has very long hours every day.

    Waiting for reservations to come in is like any waiting process – sharpens the appetite ๐Ÿ™‚

    That said – there are cases where after waiting a few weeks you might want to ask them why you are waiting – sometimes things have walked but they leave the reservation on – and you can then nudge them to buy more copies. I wanted to reread Watchmen when the movie came out and found myself 50 something in the queue but they soon bought more copies when it was pointed out.

    • I’m a member of two different authorities, but my current workplace is in a different one, and my new workplace yet another; guess that’s one of the disadvantages of living close to county boundaries!

      I really don’t have much excuse for not getting to my local branch library, it’s literally a 5 minute walk from home. I think the main barrier is not knowing the opening hours – they are open until 7pm a couple of evenings and they’re open Saturdays and Sundays so I’ll just have to learn the opening hours and fit it into my schedule. Postal scheme would still be preferable as I’m lazy!

      • Postal scheme fails for me as I cannot imagine anything worse than having to make yet another trip to the post office to pick up something that won’t fit through my letter box. Or worse – they could go cheap and use the HomeDeliveryNetwork or DHL or whatever and I could look forward to never seeing the book.

        I don’t think there should be a charge for reservations myself – it strikes me as being penalised for a lack of stock.

        • I’m fortunate in having a partner who works from home so post deliveries aren’t an issue. I guess you could always get them delivered to a work address?

          As an aside, interesting to hear your views on DHL – we always find them far more reliable and make more of an effort to make a delivery (i.e. likely to leave with a neighbour rather than return to depot 6 miles away!).

          • Ah – a home worker – every home should have one!

            I prefer the GPO. Less keen on Parcel Force. DHL seems to depend on the driver.

            Worst is CityLink. I traipsed miles out of my way – miles – to collect a parcel as I knew I could not be in for the redelivery. I waited an hour – an hour – before they bothered to serve me. Only to tell me they had sent it back out for delivery – despite me arranging to collect it using their own system. Suggested I “pop home” on the off chance they would be there when I got there – over an hour and half away by public transport. I had to come back the next day – miles – to finally get the parcel. Not that I am still cheesed off about it or anything.

  • Very nice post Jo. I like the idea of asking friends and family what I do. Although I think certainly my mum and stepdad who have worked in education have a clearer idea than other family members, I doubt they would be aware of the breadth and depth of the role. Might just send an email today and see what they all come back with (I’ll let you know the results if you like!).

    It is sometimes difficult to get to a local public library and my use of them for borrowing fiction has dwindled a fair bit over the years, finding it easy enough to pick up cheap paperbacks or borrow books from friends (I would definitely be interested in Lovefilm for books!). I have however used Birmingham Central Library as a place to study, particularly when completing my Masters dissertation, and I really valued it. I don’t think the use of the public library as a space to work and study can be underestimated.

    • Thanks Helen, took me a while to construct my thoughts! Would definitely be interested to hear about your findings of what your friends and family think you do. Family I asked hadn’t been to University which I imagine will make a difference, but to be honest when I finished my undergrad course I didn’t have a clue what a University librarian did (although that was at Bangor just before they made the librarian cuts!).

      Interesting to hear about your use of the library as a place to study. It’s something I’ve personally never really done, tending to prefer to study from home, but I can see how it might be good to get away from distractions when you need to focus. Maybe I ought to start doing some of my dissertation work in a library as a user.

  • Great post!! Thanks for pointing to Emma’s post as well – what a great idea. I am going to try it, I think. It should be interesting and I’ll be sure to report back on my blog as well ๐Ÿ™‚ I really love your blog!

    • Thanks Erin, glad you liked the post ๐Ÿ™‚

      Looking forward to hearing back from your family and friends about what they think you do.

  • I’m really glad you’re doing this Birmingham event, Jo.

    Strangely enough, several weeks ago, I spent some time mulling over a sort of similar idea for a fundraiser for the CDG international project. My idea was to ask various local non library people (e.g. poet, international development worker,somebody from media literacy org) to come and talk on the topic of ‘Are Libraries Still Relevant?’ and to aim to promote the event to the wider public. I decided to put the idea on a back burner for the time being as I wasn’t sure it’d work/how to go about it. Would love to hear how the Birmingham event goes and how you found the organisation and promotion of it.

  • Elaine

    Great post. I’m really interested in the concpet of the echo chamber and completely agree that we all need to be doing a bit more to promote the work of libraries and librarians – especially as we are working in a profession that relies upon it’s services users. As libraries (in particular public libraries, I suppose) are a valuable, though not vital, service, we need to market that value to users and potential users so that they choose to use the library.

    I do wonder though if there is an ‘echo chamber’ within other professions. And although it is evident that libraries are under threat, whether there are other professions that are facing equal threats but we are understandably more aware in whatever is happening in our own profession as we have a vested interest. It’s a difficult economic climate for most professions at the moment. However, we shouldn’t be making an extra effort to promote our services to users and potential users simply as a reaction to the this, we should be doing it already

    • Great point Elaine, and this is something that was echoed in the Advocacy for Libraries webinar (see my latest post – http://joeyanne.co.uk/advocacy-for-libraries/) – the fact that advocacy and promotion shouldn’t be in response to things like library closure threats or funding cuts, it should be something that is ongoing all the time and focus on the positive rather than the negative.

  • Tina Reynolds

    This is a really interesting post. I have now realised that I tend not explain what I do but just say lots of things…should really make more effort to let people know what I do…

    • Glad you found it interesting ๐Ÿ™‚ You ought to ask people close to you what they think you do – let me know what they say if you do!