Is the reading room an echo chamber?

I attended the CILIP Yorkshire and Humberside branch & CDG members day at Leeds Met last week.  It was a great day overall, but one of the highlights – and one of the main reasons I’d wanted to attend – was Laura and Ned’s presentation on Escaping the Echo Chamber.

I’d really recommend watching the presentation – it’s a great example of a well-done Prezi, and although it obviously can’t capture everything from the presentation, it stands alone very well.

The basic premise is this:  librarians talk a lot about the state of libraries and information management and literacy and society and all sorts of other highly interesting and exciting stuff. But they only talk about it to other librarians.  They (we!) only talk about it in library blogs read by other librarians.  And I think it really is only other librarians – I can’t do my usual device here of saying ‘librarians/info profs’, because I’m not sure if librarians even talk to other information professionals about these issues.  Well, I’m here to make a tiny start – I’m going to break out of the librarian echo chamber and extend the conversation to archivists. And record-managers.  And knowledge-managers.  And anyone else who reads this blog!

The problem is: how do we get this information, these discussions to people outside our immediate professional neighbourhood?  This seems to be especially urgent now, with funding under threat – to demonstrate the value of what we do to people outside our professions.  Ideally, to our users and stakeholders – or to create new users and stakeholders by fuelling their understanding of what we do and what we stand for.

I don’t think this problem is unique to the information professions.  All professions suffer from a skewed public perception of their work.  The trouble is, for most professions this perception is formed from the exciting side of their job:  police catch criminals; doctors cure sick people; firefighters rush heroically into burning buildings.  For information professionals, it’s formed from the most boring and routine part of their job: stamping books, putting documents into boxes, making lists.  Why? Police, doctors and firefighters all do paperwork too, they all have the boring and mundane side to their jobs.  Yet no-one (and I really hope that this is still true by the time this post is published, with how the Big Society is shaping up) is suggesting that volunteers can police our streets, remove our appendices, or extinguish our blazes.

Is this because the routine work for most other professions is done in back rooms, behind closed doors?  For information professionals it’s often the exact opposite – we do our most interesting and exciting work away from the public view.  What people often see us doing are those rote jobs that could be (and increasingly are) done by machines.

So how can we address this? How do we get people to understand the value of what we really do?  It’s far from an easy task. Too often we rely on the same sources that have perpetuated the ‘boring’ stereotypes to bring them down – I’m sure that  ‘Who do you think you are?‘ has helped to change the public perception of archives and archivists.  But we can’t rely on the media deciding to use our professions as a prop for their next hit.  So how can we get out there ourselves?

Please do comment!  There’s a lively debate going on about this over on Twitter – check out #echolib to see what’s been said so far.