A Little Bit About Echo Chambers and More

  • Parent Category: Commentary
  • Last Updated: Thursday, 16 January 2014 20:15
  • Written by Phil
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There are many variations and tangents on the topic of Echo Chambers in the internet. We don't have to discuss these in detail on Monday (in fact, you participants are ultimately going to decide what we talk about, anyway), but here is a smattering of reading that you might wish to skim and pick out what you find useful. This is an admittedly idiosyncratic tour of these subjects based on what I'm thinking and also what I just happened upon. And it's not that I'm suggesting you create your own Filter Bubble or anything like that!  ;-)

Echo Chambers:
It turns out to be surprisingly hard to find a concise descripton of the concept. It's mentioned all over the place but I don't see much agreement about exactly how it's defined, even though there's considerable agreement that it is a problem, although this isn't universal.
At least there are some articles and sites that propose what to do the combat the echo chamber. This one is superficial but maybe suggests useful ways to reduce it. This is a decent (but also superficial) intro from Wired. And Navid Hassanpour has famously concluded that losing connectivity can actually help social movements (I think): (here's the NYTimes "Coles Notes" version).

A related concept is "Filter bubbles". The wikipedia entry appears to be a good place to start.

In addition, here are two tangential concepts for librarians (beyond those above):
Serendipity: I like this as a goal for librarians. I think this could even be an alternate subject of our conversation. I recently read Where Good Ideas Come From by Steven Johnson. Among other things, he points out that hypertext is the web's natural state; filters [and echo chambers, I might add] were a second generation add-on to manage the flow that hypertext (and sefl-publishing) unleashed. Further, he contends that Hypertext and ease of publishing are the key to serendipity on the web. As soon as I read that, it ocurred to me that serendipity should, in fact, still be one of librarians' stock-in-trade, Now, I realize that it has been recognized as that for a long time but, as we all know, librarians' have had a habit of designing these concepts into their infrastructure, services, and buildings and then resting on their laurels. I want to know, how can we build this concept into the discourse of our communities? This is somewhat interesting, actually (and, yes, I know it's written by a designer for an advertising company)


Transliteracy : This concept feels a bit "buzzwordy" to me.  It's defined as “the ability to read, write and interact across a range of platforms, tools and media from signing and orality through handwriting, print, TV, radio and film, to digital social networks”. That may be so broad so as to be something everybody already knows about but which the authors just found a good name for. But, nevermind my cynicism, here and here.

Lastly, the following two authors are somewhat on the periphery of our current subject, but definitely part of the big picture: 
Bonnie Nardi,  Sherry Turkle .

And Don't forget
that, whatever we talk about, we are supposed to fit our discussion into the context of the overall theme (here's the link to the discussion guide that I sent before, just in case).


JustAsk virtual reference is a glimmer of what our irrelevance looks like

  • Parent Category: Commentary
  • Last Updated: Thursday, 16 January 2014 20:15
  • Written by Phil
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I was cleaning up some old email the other day (finally!) and I came upon a folder full of the gory details about herding the cats, errr, I mean scheduling the libraries who participated in public library AskAway, the collaborative virtual reference service I ran for a few years. Askaway had its provincial funding cut in 2009 and had to close the service in 2010. I always felt that Askaway was cancelled at a critical time but I couldn't always put my finger on why it seemed that way. Now I think it's because, while we didn't realize at the time, we had built a customer base who were using the service intensely and recommending it to friends but they were not using it because of some allegiance to libraries as a whole.They were sticking (at least for a while) with the service that they used but they were not going to stick with libraries for the sake of using libraries.

And then Askaway was gone and a year-and-a-half later, JustAsk started up. The customer traffic for JustAsk is a fraction of what we experienced with AskAway: during peak months from autumn to spring when schools and colleges were in full-swing, Public Library Askaway averaged over 3700 sessions per month. JustAsk appears to average 840 sessions during the equivalent months. Even taking into account the fact that JustAsk serves only a portion of the province, it still covers the libraries with the highest use of AskAway, and the difference in traffic is far greater than just for that reason. There has been some explanation about this that school-aged kids are not using chat-messaging anymore like they used to. I don't think this is an adequate explanation. It's not that chat messaging has become a "niche" communication vehicle, maybe it's because asking the library questions is a niche activity (!!!) and we haven't wanted to admit that to ourselves until it's too big to ignore. As usual, we've spent our time looking away from the big scary  answers; preferring instead to believe the little answers that don't speak to our looming irrelevance.

A wrinkle in all this is....

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  • Parent Category: Commentary
  • Last Updated: Thursday, 16 January 2014 20:15
  • Written by Phil
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A good post here about some of the deep problems we have in libraries with our unwillingness to engage in... deep, inquiry about why we are doing what we are doing. If you don't watch this blog, you should.

What's the perfect discovery layer?

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  • Last Updated: Thursday, 16 January 2014 20:15
  • Written by Phil
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I've been participating in a discussion about the hypothetical design of the perfect library catalogue discovery layer. I guess I've been thinking a lot in terms of scenarios, these days and when asked if I could design the perfect system, here’s a scenario that helps me think it through:

In the ”old” days, not too long ago, the public library would have dozens of copies of a tax return guide, either like this:, or the one that Revenue Canada gave out for free, as well as samples of the tax return form itself, and those would be the basic knowledge-containers that a citizen might need to do their taxes.

Those documents are largely online now:

This represents a step in the conversion of knowledge from document-centric to network-centric but this conversion hasn’t stopped there.

For $18 you can use this online service to do your taxes:

Within this service is an online guide to filling out the tax return as well as a question-and-answer forum that users participate in to answer each other’s questions. This isn’t just something for the well-off members of a community. $18/year is well within the reach of almost all members of an ordinary community in Canada. For that much money, they get the app that does much of the work for them, an online guidebook, and a knowledge-network to keep themselves informed.

So, let’s ask ourselves, where does the library fit in? If a public library can’t find some way to lead someone seeking information about filling in their tax-return to these services, we’re not really giving our community all the options that are available to them.

The line between the information/knowledge about something and the act of doing it are breaking down. I wrote a proposal for my library many months ago about building a maker lab and I said that the guiding ethos of that lab should be ”turning learning into action”. As I think about these basic first principles of library discovery, I think I’m arriving at the same catchphrase. How can we get a link to that online tax return service, and all the other services and apps and programs in all the subject areas we cover, into our dataset so that when our patrons are discovering (ie: learning) what resources are available for their query, the value we offer them is to turn their learning into action?