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Free Government Information (FGI) is a place for initiating dialogue and building consensus among the various players (libraries, government agencies, non-profit organizations, researchers, journalists, etc.) who have a stake in the preservation of and perpetual free access to government information. FGI promotes free government information through collaboration, education, advocacy and research.

Social Psychology for Librarians

I’ve been reading a textbook called Social Psychology by Thomas Gilovich, et al and looking at its companion website. I wanted to share some ideas from the book that I think will be of real use to librarians and other government information professionals trying to persuade people to take action to ensure access, preservation and privacy with respect to government information. It may also be of use to people trying to raise awareness and usage of government information, library websites and libraries.

So often activists put out calls to action that either seemingly fall on deaf ears or make people aware of issues without taking action. Why is this? It could be because of the way people tend to change their attitudes. In chapter 7 of Social Psychology, we are told that people are open to persuasion on two levels — a central route and a peripheral route. The central route of persuasion is what is most familiar to us — “People attend carefully to the message, and they consider relevant evidence and underlying logic in detail.” Speaking for myself here, this is the way I tend to try and convince others. I attempt to lay out the evidence to convince people of my point of view or to understand why I think something is under threat. I use statistics when I can and logical-sounding thought experiments when I don’t have statistics.

If you look at campaigns to increase library use or use of library-purchased electronic resources, I think you see a similar pattern — “You should use the library because we have x and y and you’ll save time and money.”

But it turns out that people only use the central route under certain conditions — “when the message is relevant to them, when they have knowledge in the domain, and when the message evokes a sense of personal responsibility.”

What happens when people don’t feel like a message is relevant, when they don’t have a lot of knowledge in a particular area and/or they feel no personal responsibility? They take the peripheral route of persuasion — “people attend to superficial aspects of the message. They use this route when they have little motivation or time or ability to attend to its deeper meaning. In this route, people are persuaded by source characteristics (such as attractiveness and credibility of the communicator) and message characteristics (such as how many arguments there are and whether the conclusions are explicit)”

Looking that two two methods of persuasion in detail, I see immediate problems in the efforts of librarians in general and documents librarians in particular to get people to care and be good stewards of our resources. I’d like to outline these problems specifically for those helping to stimulate the building of local digital collections and invite librarians in other disciplines to see how these different routes might explain disconnects with their audiences.

I believe that I and others in the “digital deposit” movement have been obsessing over crafting ever better “central route” messages without realizing that much of our core audience (other documents librarians and other government information users) are in fact at the peripheral level though no fault of their own. Let’s look at the “central route” factors again:

  1. Relevance to audience;
  2. Audience has knowledge in the domain;
  3. Audience has sense of personal responsibility.

Relevance — This factor could go either way. Docs librarians understand a message of digital deposit is relevant to them because it is about government information or it’s not relevant because the word “digital” makes it an IT concern and not theirs.

Knowledge — While documents librarians have tremendous knowledge of government information products and fine knowledge of how to use Internet-based products, general IT skills and knowledge of local/remote repository options (LOCKSS, dSpace, OAIS, etc) is low. We at FGI have heard from people concerned about the problem, but have no idea what to do and aren’t sure where to look for answers.

Personal Responsibility — My personal sense is that this area is the greatest challenge to any “central route” approach of persuading depository librarians to build the geographically distributed depository system of the future. Although the Government Printing Office (GPO) has zero track record in preserving government information over the long haul and in fact no onsite collection at all until very recently, it now proposes to be the sole preserver of federal government information through its Future Digital System. Since this public commitment seemingly absolves libraries of their traditional preservation responsibilities, a majority of our documents colleagues say “GPO’s got it covered, why do I need a local collection. Their problem, not mine.” And so any message based on library responsibility to preserve materials regardless of format gets tuned out.

Obviously I wouldn’t be blogging about this if I thought the correct course of action in light of the above was to throw in the towel, go home and kick back with some Alaskan Amber and a good salmon dish. So, what do we do if we are librarians either interested in getting our colleagues to build locally-housed, but Internet shared digital document collections or if we’re trying to educate the larger public about the
availability of government information, specialists willing and able to help them (librarians), and the need to protect both?

As I see it, I think it’s using the peripheral route to convince people that government information is relevant to them and they’ve got responsibility for its continued availability. We also need to provide clear direction as to HOW people can use government information AND keep it available for the future. Once we’ve done that and people have relevance, knowledge and responsibility, we can go back to the “central route” arguments to solidify our gains.

But how to use the peripheral route? Let’s look at its characteristics again: “people are persuaded by source characteristics (such as attractiveness and credibility of the communicator) and message characteristics (such as how many arguments there are and whether the conclusions are explicit)” So perhaps we can hire Antonio Banderas and Catherine Zeta-Jones to be spokespersons for government documents. 🙂

Or perhaps we should focus on credibility of the communicator and message characteristics. Perhaps we could lobby ALA or other library organizations to come out in favor of local digital collections, or at least provide an information clearinghouse on the subject. If we as “digital deposit” advocates can get our message out through existing organizations, their credibility might help the cause. In the case of depository libraries advancing their case, they might try to get a prominent citizen or some other respected person to publicly talk about the value of federal depository libraries.

In terms of message characteristics, researchers have found that short messages combined with instructions have helped increase a desired action. For example in 1967, Leventhal, Watts, & Pagano found that people who watched a film about smoking dangers AND were given smoking cessation tips smoked only a third as much as people who where just given tips or who just saw the film.

Part of the short messages should be stories, sort of like the ones we’ve been trying to collect under our Depository Success Stories, stories about libraries being collected by ALA, or even just blogging about how we answered a question on average tariff levels. Lobbyists have been trying to get us to be storytellers for years. Social psychologists have understood the power of persuasion for so long, they even have a name for it — the indentifiable victim effect.

The other part of our message should be about what librarians and other people can actually DO. Here at FGI we’ve tried to answer part of that question at least implicitly by having pages about remixing government information, blogs of government documents librarians, and resources for capturing digital resources and producing video clips promoting resources.

Any ideas about how we put this all together? Get GODORT to hire attractive people to put together a YouTube series called This Old Depository where we give step by step instructions on building your very own globally accessible local digital collection? Let’s all think about it together and start a new season of persuasion.

CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


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