Public Libraries Versus the Echo Chamber

By Don McKay

The provocatively titled book Bowling Alone uses declining participation in bowling leagues to illustrate the erosion of in-person social intercourse in America. The author blames this development on technologies like television and the internet that make it easy to spend our leisure time alone. Since the book’s publication in 2000, social media and our ability to curate what we read, watch and listen to when and where we want have accelerated expectations for individualized experience. We are increasingly aware of the consequences, good and bad.

One consequence that may be personally satisfying, but socially harmful, is the “echo chamber,” that popular metaphor for a closed system that amplifies or reinforces a certain, often narrow, point of view. The term may be new, but echo chambers are not—they seem part of that tribal mentality inseparable from the human condition. What is new is the social influence exerted by echo chambers that are nourished by the internet. Echo chambers are designed to exclude and polarization naturally follows.

Public libraries are an antidote to echo chambers. They are inclusive institutions—they literally welcome everyone. They have a democratizing influence by providing access to resources we may be otherwise excluded from by lack of income or social status, resources that help us better ourselves and our communities. By design, public libraries have resources for all but the most extreme interests and points of view.

Unlike the exclusivity favored by echo chambers, public libraries embrace individualized experience to foster inclusivity. This has not always been obvious. Post-war libraries were designed as homogenous environments that differentiated between children, teens and adults only in the types of collections found on the shelves. Just as post-war educational models gave way to new models intended for the digital age, so did public libraries’ services and environments evolve to meet new societal needs.

Today’s public libraries feature differentiated environments that support individualized experiences for children, teens, adults and the elderly, for school students and the home-schooled, for businesses and the unemployed, for book clubs and artists, for readers and makers. In light of the loss of in-person social intercourse cited by Bowling Alone, public library environments offer a significant, if unanticipated, benefit—they are physical places, settings for in-person social interaction.

Public libraries seem to have intuitively recognized the advantage of being a public place, but they have struggled to explain it. ‘Community center’ is one popular characterization that public libraries have used to rebrand themselves, but this, while true, fails to distinguish libraries from park district and other facilities that claim a similar role. The recent characterization of public libraries role in our ‘social infrastructure’ comes closer to the mark, adapting the widely understood concept of physical infrastructure to a less tangible, but equally important type of infrastructure.

The more we embed ourselves in virtual social worlds, the more we may appreciate the value of real places. As algorithms increasingly guide us to everything from music to dates that fit safely within our comfort zones, real places like public libraries will become more important for in-person social intercourse, often unpredictable, that is necessary for a healthy and civil democracy.

It’s In The Details

By Shannon Kazmierczak

We have all read articles about eye catching displays and fun ways to market our collections in the public library. These are as important of a part of the library as just having the materials themselves.

We know they work, too!  We have had our Staff Picks display up and found that our patrons really do value our opinions. We also have a Fresh Finds display, which is a book shelf that showcases our recently returned items which is a popular pick. We have award winners in our Youth Services and YA section, and of course seasonal displays of books in Adult Services and DVDs/records/cds in our AV section.

If we can’t come up with original ideas there are so many resources out there to use, like Pinterest boards devoted to displays where we all steal–I mean, borrow–ideas from one another. We want to entice our patrons to come into the library and give them passive suggestions about what to read, because shockingly, there are people out there who don’t want to talk to us…?

The library where I work does a pretty good job on keeping these displays fluid and interesting and doable. They are not over the top, but just eye-catching enough and easy-ish to put up and take down.

We do have one area in our library, though, where we don’t hold back – we refer to it as: the ceiling.

When our library was renovated and added onto more than a decade ago, the architect thought it would be a great idea to have the first floor lobby open up to an atrium that the second floor overlooks. They might not have thought about noise levels, air flow, etc, but it does make for a dramatic entrance and large space that draws up the eye. Which used to be nothing.

Then a few of my very creative, crafty and hard working coworkers saw opportunity! They saw the possibility of adding something to fill the void, and they were able to make some really magical things happen.

We have had real umbrellas with sparkling drops of rain fall down in the spring; we have had giant candy canes and treats (pictured) floating amongst life size scales of gingerbread men during the holidays; we have had large word bubbles highlight comic book “zaps” and “pows” during our annual Fan Fest; and our summer reading program always is thematically in sync.

What the ceiling displays have done, other than welcoming patrons, is created a sense of consistency with an element of surprise. Patrons come in each season, wondering: what’s next?  And, “how on earth were you able to get those all the way up there?” The best sounds to hear when up on the 2nd floor are when the littlest patrons come in to “ooh” and “ahh” and yell “pumpkins” while pointing to the ceiling.

Creating a welcoming environment through these non-book displays became even more valuable knowing that there were several people cross-departmentally who made it happen.  The designer had to make sure the size and scale was correct, the maintenance person needed to make sure the air lift was working on the designated day, and the originator of the concept had to make sure that all of these little pieces were going to fit together! 

I’m not going to sit there and say my co-workers are better than yours. . .but this community is pretty lucky.