Friday, 16 July 2010

Listening to global voices

Food for thought in one of the TED lectures. In this one, Ethan Zuckerman talks about the need to open up your online world and read the news in languages you don't even know.

He argues that "the web connects the globe, but most of us end up hearing mainly from people just like ourselves." Which is uncomfortably like the problem with some public libraries — "for people like us, by people like us," with everybody else fringed off and assigned their special label to be treated differently. We know that this doesn't have to be so, and there's a lot going on in our libraries to try and knock that sort of attitude on the head. Which is just as well as public libraries are excellently positioned to help foster Zuckerman's "xenophilia" and have excellent reasons for making an active effort to do it.

  • Public libraries are — or should be — important serendipity engines within the community. The key purpose of the library is to give the user the keys to the world. This can't be effected if the library only delivers what the specifics that customer asks for. As Arkwright says: "What they come in for is up to themselves. What they go out with is up to us."
  • The survival of any public sector service is dependent on not just being important to "people like us." The more "people not like us" that a service engages with, satisfies and delights the better for its chances of survival. Which is why, for all the breast-beating over the years, the prospects for the public library service are better than those for the municipal blacksmith, the lamp-lighter and the knocker-upper.
  • Local economic recovery is dependent on entrepreneurship and inward investment. These days the key markets, and the money, are in Asia.
    • We need to maximise the chances of serendipitous discovery of opportunities for local entrepreneurs.
    • We need to maximise the chances of serendipitous discovery of local opportunities for overseas entrepreneurs.

How to do it?

  • We need to make sure that we don't make all our user interface too relevant. At first that sounds counter-productive, we don't want to be wasting our customers' time after all. All I'm saying is that there always needs to be a small but visible proportion of almost randomised, but certainly unexpected, content or activity that can act as a bridge between the user's daily information/cultural commuting route and roads less-travelled. The whole customer experience needs to enable the same scope for serendipitous discovery as a browse of the library bookshelves.
  • We need to be open to and promote user-generated content that provides useful bridges. And perhaps even be brave enough to let customers themselves define and share "useful."
  • We need to mainstream and actively promote those activities that link us with "people unlike ourselves."
  • We need to make sure the we, our content and our community are available. If we're not there we won't be found. Back in the nineties a friend's library service scored quite a few Brownie points because a Japanese company used the library's online community information database to investigate the local social infrastructure, which led to them setting up a factory there.

We should be doing that anyway. It's worth testing whether or not we actually do.

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