Communication across communities: Why isn't this working?

One of the lessons we've learned in working on the Data Refuge project is that librarians aren't the only people who have, for years, been discussing how to solve the problems associated with so much of our most important governmental information only available digitally and online. Data professionals within government agencies, other government workers, people in the open data community, archivists, and researchers across disciplines have all been grappling with these challenges within their own communities. In hearing all these voices we realized we need all of these perspectives to come together to solve this problem - thus the Libraries+ Network was ignited.

Many of these groups have at some point acknowledged that they needed voices and expertise from other communities, however we have all either failed to talk to each other at all, or failed to create long-term productive collaborations.

Why is communicating across communities so difficult? This question looms large in so many aspects of my professional life. It seems functional communication and collaboration is yet another problem none of us have so far solved. Working with Data Refuge and Libraries+ has really brought the issue into focus for me and, as is the theme of Libraries+, I can see the problem with much better clarity, although I may not have the solution.

Cylinders of excellence

Cylinders of excellence

I've thought through a number of metaphors to explain the problem, bear with me while I go through them. 

The idea of silos is somewhat apt, except it's more like we're in towers (ivory or otherwise); we can kind of see each other, depending on where our windows are, and we all see some of the landscape. We can holler to each other about what we see, but when we hear the hollering we only get some of the message, and it's a bit garbled from traveling so far. We need walkie talkies. We need binoculars.

We've also used the idea of having our hands on different parts of the elephant quite a bit. This metaphor also works pretty well, except elephants aren't so big that we wouldn't be able to say "Hey, this feels leathery" or "This feels hard and smooth" or "This is definitely a tail" to each other. Eventually someone would describe the trunk and we'd all be on the same page. The problem isn't so much that we can't hear or aren't listening, it's that we're actually speaking different languages to each other.  The "cold round thing" you're describing might be totally different from how I would describe a tusk and I'll keep imagining a snowball, or plate.  Jargon is a huge obstacle most of us are aware of, but never seem to try to reconcile. Our translations are not as good as we think they are, if we attempt them at all. Most of the time it feels like we just get bogged down in the differences of our semantics and not the similarities in our meaning. 

We have to be able to really listen to each other, and avoid filtering what we hear through our preconceived ideas about the problem.


These metaphors run through my brain and quickly morph together into one of my favorite children's stories, Two Monsters, by David McKee. This story is about, believe it or not, two monsters who live on opposite sides of a mountain. They talk to each other through a hole in the mountain and are friends until one of them comments about the beautiful sunset they can see. 

Scene from Two Monsters, by David McKee, (c) 1985.

Scene from Two Monsters, by David McKee, (c) 1985.


The monsters proceed to get in a huge argument and (spoilers!) throw rocks at each other over the mountain until they wear it down, the mountain is no more, and they can see what the other was trying to describe.

We need to get rid of our mountains. We have to be able to really listen to each other, and avoid filtering what we hear through our preconceived ideas about the problem. We have to be open to being wrong and open to being right with an asterisk. We have to stop being defensive when someone has a different way of doing things. We have to stop feeling like calling on other communities to support our weak spots means we are weak. We have to work together for real -- because that is how we're strongest.

I'm really excited for our May Meeting next week where so many voices will come together to describe their piece of the elephant. We're all going to need to get outside of our boxes and take a peek into others. But that's starting to be too many metaphors, isn't it?