Profile of an Echo Chamber Escapologist

B&W Picture or Lauren

In the build-up to the two Echo Chamber presentations Laura Woods and I will be doing later this month, I've asked Lauren Smith (aka @Walkyouhome) to write the first ever guest post on thewikimanblog. She is the arch echo-chamber escapologist, is making a genuine difference ON HER OWN (and in collaboration with others), and at least part of her activities were catalysed by seeing a previous Echo Chamber presentation in Leeds! That's very important, for me, because it reaffirms the point that although library advocacy itself has to take part outside the echo chamber, the debate about how this can be achieved can still take place within it and be productive. NB: If you've just stumbled on this post and are wondering what the echo chamber problem is, this Slidedeck gives a brief overview. So, without further ado, here's Lauren. :)

Ned and Laura gave a fab presentation about escaping the echo chamber at the CILIP Yorkshire & Humberside Members’ Day in Leeds back in July. It came at just the right time for me, because I’d suddenly found myself helping to run a local campaign in Doncaster to prevent the destruction of their public library service. As well as the event in general giving me the opportunity to plug the campaign (aherm: Save Doncaster Libraries), the Echo Chamber presentation really helped to consolidate all the issues and ideas surrounding it, which heretofore had been pretty massive and intangible. Armed with a bit of inspiration and a feeling that I had no excuse not to Do Something, I went and Did Some Things and Learnt Some Stuff…

From the experience I’ve had in the last few months, here are some Top Tips for Echo-Chamber-Bustin’:

1.    Ask for stuff. The worst thing that can happen is they’ll say no. Inspired by Ian Clark’s success with Comment is Free, I sent an email to the Guardian asking if I could write about the situation in Doncaster with some nationwide context. They said yes! My article was Editor’s Pick of the Day! Hurrah. This really helped to get the word out there about what’s going on with public library cuts. Similarly, I really wanted to go to the Public Library Authority Conference but couldn’t afford it, so sent an email to one of the sponsors. They said yes, I got to go and have a nosy and talk to people about what I’m up to. Jammy. It’s not a full-on break from the echo chamber, because most of the people I spoke to were librarians, but CILIP kindly allowed me to distribute Voices for the Library flyers, which I hope some of the sponsors, councillors and other non-librarian folk picked up.

2.    Make yourself available. Make it clear that you’re happy for people to get in touch about things, and what you’d like to talk about. Since the Voices for the Library campaign launched, a few journalists and news sites have been in touch asking for our thoughts on public library-related topics like closures, spending cuts, ebooks and modernisation. My phone number’s on the website, as are different email addresses for different things (media@ for media enquiries, stories@ for submissions from the public/library staff, contact@ for other…). People do use them, and (so far!) only for legitimate reasons. Obviously only give as much personal information as you feel comfortable/safe with, but like I say, it’s been fine for me so far. I think having my phone number up there makes a difference, because journalists are busy and if they want a sound bite quickly I imagine they’d rather call. It doesn’t take a lot of time – the other day I got a phone call from a North London journalist, asking me about Lewisham libraries and why libraries are important in communities. I popped out of the office, rambled for a couple of minutes and hopefully gave her something useful. The more you do, the better at it you get, I guess!

3.    Make the most of as many opportunities as you can. My Guardian piece was, semi-coincidentally, published at a key time for libraries – the KPMG horror had just been published, and then the DCMS report popped up. This meant that when the media wanted spokespeople, they’d got my name – and wanted to speak to me. In the space of a week or so I’d given interviews for BBC Radio 5 Live and local radio.

The Save Doncaster Libraries campaign had also organised a Read-In (think of it as a peaceful, booky protest with some singing and dancing) towards the end of August. The BBC picked up on this and David Sillito came and filmed the whole thing, which was great. My face made it onto BBC Breakfast News and BBC News 24, talking about what libraries are for and how important they are. Although most of what I said didn’t make the final cut, it hopefully gave David some food for thought, and it was a brilliant opportunity for a librarian to get out there and at least try to set the record straight.

I’ve been fortunate in that a lot of the opportunities have come to me, and it’d be daft to say no. It takes a bit of schedule-shuffling and a lot of time, but you’re doing it ‘cos it’s important and you love it, right?

4.    Keep remembering that It’s Important and You Love It! Sometimes it’s actually really useful to sink into the echo chamber for a little bit, if you need a bit of a reminder about the reasons you’re doing whatever it is you’re doing outside of the echo chamber. I tend to have a good scroll through my list of LIS-folk on Twitter (not exhaustive – for that I’d recommend Phil Bradley’s!) and things like libraryland on Tumblr, for the odd inspirational quote and pretty pictures of awesome libraries and whatnot.

5.    Be as confident as you can. I’m not that experienced and I’m not the greatest writer or public speaker, but I’ve found it very helpful to pretend you’re confident until you realise that for the most part, people are really supportive and agree with you that libraries and librarians are great, so they’re not looking to pick holes in what you’re saying. Realising that really helps build your confidence, and lets you get on with advocating without being self-conscious.

6.    Get some feedback. The first talk I did about cuts to library services was to a room of community forum members, and I pitched it slightly wrong. I went on a bit too long about the social value of libraries, which was interesting, but what they really wanted to know about was what they could do to help. I only know this because a very kind gentleman sensitively gave me some great feedback. He knew it was my first attempt, gave me some tips from his own experience and suggested I film myself talking some time (no way!) - The things he said really helped, and I’m very grateful. I’m not brilliant at asking for feedback, but it’s probably a good thing to do. I know my ability to take criticism has developed hugely over the last year, and a lot of that is because of (constructive) feedback about my writing, speaking and presentation skills.

7.    Ask for help. Nobody could possibly know all there is to know about libraries, publicity, advocacy, marketing etc., but if I ask Twitter, someone else usually knows or can point me in the right direction! Use your networks – places like the LIS New Professionals Network and Twitter are great. A wonderful character trait of all the librarians and info pros I know is that they’re generous with their time, skills and knowledge and will help where they can.

8.    Related to this, get together. I’m now working with info pros and librarians from across the country to run the Voices for the Library campaign. There are lots of benefits to this, including the obvious ten heads are better than one. More ideas + more skills + more people to advocate = more impact! We’re focusing on public libraries, but they’re not the only sector under threat. A group of school librarians have set up Heart of the School, for example. If it looks like your sector’s next, maybe you should find out if there’s already an advocacy group or campaign going. If not – could you set one up?