By Courtney McAllister
The library conferences I’ve attended have all been very methodically organized, with well-curated content. There are tracks to guide your attendance decisions, and detailed session descriptions to consult. But you never really know which presentation, concept, or kernel of information will end up sticking in your head. There’s an endearing level of serendipity involved in the experience. During ER&L a few weeks ago, Siva Vaidhyanathan delivered the opening keynote, The Heckler’s Veto. I enjoyed the keynote at the time, but have been surprised by how frequently it has popped into my mind since the conference ended.
In Siva’s talk, he examines the interplay between ideology, information, and engagement through an ecological lens. By tracing these interconnected aspects, we can see how the ebb and flow of speaking and listening has been distorted. Algorithmic amplification has made spaces like Facebook prone to extremes. When clicks and likes are used as a surrogate metric for value or relevance, there can be increased polarization, which makes it harder for us to carve out space (be it physical or digital) and deliberate or discuss things in a meaningful way. We’re exposed to so many words and so much noise, but how much of it reflects or stimulates actual contemplation?
I had never stopped to consider how important deliberation is to maintaining the health and wellbeing of individuals and societies. I’m embarrassed to admit my obliviousness, especially considering I work in a law library. (I suppose everyone has these blind spots…) As Siva’s talk examines, our collective attention has placed a great deal of emphasis on speech – getting words out into the open. But listening and processing is equally important.
In thinking about deliberation, I’m reminded of Oldenburg’s The Great Good Place, which explores the concept of “third places,” spaces that are not our residences or places of employment, where people gather to forge social bonds, enjoy some leisure time, and/or learn. These third places combat alienation and provide community members with a sense of belonging and purpose. In a physical sense, libraries have helped fulfill this role, supporting both community engagement and solitary introspection.
Over the years, I’ve increasingly relied on libraries to fill my need for a place for deep thought or sustained concentration. When you have a cat as needy and vocal as mine, getting out of the house is the best way to get stuff done. Cafes and coffee shops can be nice, too, and their cozy, relaxed ambiance definitely meets the needs of a third place. At the library, I could carve out a little niche of space, and no one would bother me (as long as I didn’t disturb anyone else or do anything hideously obnoxious like spit sunflower seeds all over the floor). The seats were comfy, admission was free, and the atmosphere helped me focus and think. As a result, libraries have become my refuge of choice.
When I decided to go back to school for an MLIS, my GRE scores had expired, and I needed to take another standardized test in order to apply. I did my most productive studying at the local public library and ended up with a solid score. After my father passed away, I would head to the library to write and work my way through the knots of grief and loss. And my experience is not unique. The Pew Research Center’s 2016 report on public library usage trends found that the number of people visiting the physical library has been fairly stable and that many visitors were utilizing the space to study, work, and make use of the library’s free wi-fi.
To some extent, libraries and other third places preserve opportunities to deliberate in a physical space with (hopefully) minimal barriers to access or engagement. But Siva’s research illustrates how our digital communities are becoming more and more dominant and setting the tone for our individual and social lives. How do we bring the deliberative qualities of a physical third place to a digital domain?
In light of our recent expansion of Hot Topics, this question hits home on several levels. Any space, be it physical or digital, is shaped and defined by its community. There’s a feedback loop of mutual and simultaneous definition: the community’s sense of identity is influenced by the tone of the virtual space, but interactive spaces can’t have a purpose or tone without participants. Excessive restrictions stifle thought and expression, yet it’s also important to clarify expectations and boundaries so people feel welcome. To try and strike a balance between organic community-building and a defined yet flexible sense of purpose, we’ve crafted the following community guidelines for contributors.
Hot Topics is intended to facilitate productive dialogue and discussion about emerging trends and developments that impact a wide range of information industry stakeholders. Our different points of view can foster mutual growth when they are expressed in a respectful and professional manner. Differences of opinion are opportunities for engaged discussion, but there are certain ground rules that will help ensure Hot Topics serves as a forum for lively discussion, innovative problem solving, and peer-to-peer learning:
- Please focus on constructive responses. Specific questions or requests for clarification are encouraged, as are open-ended comments. Personal insults, threats, or other intimidating language are neither professional nor appropriate
- Hot Topics is designed for non-commercial discussions. This is not the appropriate venue for sales pitches and promotions, though general comments about products, offerings, and business practices may be incorporated into larger trend analyses.
- Please keep an open mind and be patient with others. Exploring an issue from another’s point of view can be transformative, but sometimes new insights will collide with our pre-existing expectations or perceptions. It can take time to fully consider an unfamiliar thought or concept, but our collective commitment to information sharing can enrich both the process and end result.
Hopefully, these statements will help set the tone for our digital third place, a little online sanctuary where people feel comfortable deliberating, expressing their thoughts, and learning from one another.
Questions for discussion:
- What are the most important qualities for a deliberative space?
- Do you frequent a digital or physical third place? What kinds of spaces inspire your best contemplation or productivity?
- If you were at ER&L, what were your favorite takeaways?
Courtney McAllister is the Electronic Resources Librarian at Yale University’s Lillian Goldman Law Library in New Haven, Connecticut. Her scholarship focuses on organizational cultures, scholarly communication, assessment, and emerging technologies. Her MLIS is from the University of South Carolina: Columbia. She holds an MA in International Performance Research from the University of Warwick and a BA in English from the University of Mary Washington. She has contributed chapters to Technical Services: Adapting to a Changing Environment (Purdue UP) and Creativity for Library Career Advancement: Perspectives, Techniques and Eureka Moments (with Christine Elliott, McFarland). She is the author of an upcoming LITA Guide on applying change management practices to library systems and technologies. Courtney is Associate Editor of The Serials Librarian (Taylor & Francis).