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Barriers to Effective Communication

Some traditional barriers, most importantly geography, i.e., the distance between librarians or between them and their users, have become significantly less important. In spite of these advances many barriers to easy, effective communications remain. Two sections of our survey focused on barriers to communication with other librarians and with users.

Email and all electronic communications require infrastructure that is often very expensive, inadequate or missing altogether. Computer literacy is often underdeveloped and hard to improve because of inconvenient access to computers and to the internet. This is a problem not just in underdeveloped countries; there are still university libraries in North America where not every librarian has a computer on her desk. Given the variety of levels of infrastructure and funding available to librarians, it is remarkable that email is so overwhelmingly favoured in all countries as a method of communication with other librarians.

Other effects of the new technologies can be seen in the regretful comments on our survey responses, such as ``Astronomers just don't use the library much''. In the question about barriers to communications with their users, the most frequently cited barrier (almost 28% of the responses) is that astronomers know a lot about electronic journals, searching etc., or think they do, and don't consult the librarian or come into the library as often as they used to. Those in developing countries elected this barrier 35% of the time while those in developed countries chose it 27% of the time. This is not a significant difference given the presumably wide variation in access to electronic journals etc. Outreach and focus are more important than ever in these times of end-user searching and desktop access to the literature.

There are other barriers which are not directly related to technology.

Scientists are used to communicating their research in English but librarians do not have that custom. Language therefore can be a significant barrier, not so much to communicating at all, but to the kind of fluent, comfortable, frequent communications that enable fruitful personal networking.

The size, type and culture of one's organization, its atmosphere, its wealth or lack thereof, the physical arrangement of the offices, can all facilitate or prevent effective communications, especially, but not exclusively, with library users. A librarian in a small observatory might have more contact with individual researchers than one in a larger library in a physically vast institute. A librarian who works in a university library which serves multiple disciplines and thousands of faculty and students is going to be more removed from the needs of individual astronomers than one who works in a specialized astronomy library in a similar university, especially if the former librarian works in a department such as collection development and has no direct contact with library users. The generalist librarian may have less contact with specialist librarians too. These things cannot be changed by individuals, but compensation, through special efforts to talk to researchers directly, can and must be made.

The stereotype of librarians is something to be eschewed but certainly there are some tendencies in the personalities of librarians who enjoy working in small, isolated observatory libraries. These self-reliant, introspective types may have a difficult time reaching out to astronomers and other librarians. Shyness, reticence and timidity are characteristics which may apply to many women and to some ethnic cultures. In our survey several people mentioned as a barrier their ``reserve'' or other similar aspects of their personality. The low status of women and/or librarians in some cultures may inhibit the free interchange of ideas. Although only 7.6% of the responses to the question of barriers indicated that ``low status'' was a problem, 23%, or the second most frequent response (along with their own workload), was the time and workload constraints of their users. It may be true that astronomers are too busy, but it may also be true that librarians simply assume that astronomers don't consider communicating with librarians important or of high priority.

Some countries discourage or censor foreign communications; there is not much fellow librarians can do to counteract this policy, except communicate with colleagues from these countries in the way that is most appropriate to them.

The advent of new electronic media comes at a time when staffing and financial constraints are even tighter than before. The workload of the average librarian has increased as she/he takes on the navigation of these new electronic waters in addition to the traditional media. Time to communicate with others is therefore squeezed. ``My workload'' was the second most frequent response to the question of barriers (along with the workload of their users).

The same financial and time constraints can prevent attendance at meetings, especially remote ones. Further, the inability to purchase some expensive new tools decreases the interest that some librarians have in communicating with others who do have them; interests-in-common are diminished.

There is also the issue of awareness of barriers. Some librarians responded that there were ``no barriers'' yet they had not attended any LISA conferences. Why not - surely those librarians had something to learn or gain by attending! Perhaps time and money constraints are so much a part of a librarian's environment that they are taken for granted. Not knowing what you are missing is surely an insidious barrier.

If only we could talk to all the librarians who did not respond to the survey we would have a much better grasp on the real barriers.

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Next: Useful Resources Up: Contents table Previous: Communication with Publishers
ESO Garching Librarian