Friday, August 21, 2009

Article Note: On the utility of social networking sites for libraries, and some additional thoughts

Citation for the article:

Steiner, Heidi, "Reference Utility of Social Networking Sites: Options and Functionality." Library Hi Tech News Number 5/6 (2009): 4-6.

Read via Emerald.

This started out as one of the usual article notes I write for the blog, but it kept getting longer and longer as I kept thinking about the topic. So, I have decided to turn it into a series of posts. This is the first part, which mostly looks at the article, with two other parts in the next few days with my observations and comments.

I have been using social networking sites (SNS) for a while now. I have had a thought or two on the topic like this post. I have pondered use of SNS, even if I am not as vocal as some of the librarian celebrity bloggers. I have used them both for personal and professional use. The article I am discussing in this note deals with the use of SNS for reference use.

My three readers know that I rarely discuss my workplace, except when I can draw a general reflection or lesson, or when something goes really well, and I want to highlight it. This other article via MarketWatch I recently read provides some of the reasons for my approach; I may not agree with all of the article, but I know the reality of our profession. I also know that it is a very tight marketplace. Whether we like it or not, we do some amount of self-censoring for the sake of professional appearance. Reflecting on that is a separate topic. I am leading to a point, so bear with me a bit. As of this writing, we have one open reference librarian position. We are currently in the process of phone interviews. One of the questions we are asking the potential candidates is the following:

"What software/Web 2.0 technologies are you familiar with? How would you use them in this position?"

The question is pretty good; maybe it could be slightly better phrased. For now, I want to look at the question itself in the context of Steiner's article.

Steiner basically looks at four SNS applications--Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, and Ning-- and looks at their potential for reference work at a library. I would like for some of the candidates as well as library school students in general to read the Steiner article. While Steiner's article is pretty basic in its overview, I think it can spark some substantial conversations. The article could also make good reading for libraries that are considering a jump into Facebook or Twitter. Innovative libraries are continually looking for ways to make Web 2.0 work for them. With so many services available, and many more emerging, the challenge is knowing what to choose and asking does it work for your particular situation. Steiner puts the question very well:

"As the number of social networks grow, it becomes harder for libraries to determine which services are appropriate for their users and doable given the library's mission and goals" (4).

The last part of that statement is crucial. What can you do given your specific and unique mission and goals. A lot of libraries rush to create SNS profiles or pages, often due to the cool image concern, without thoughtful regard to mission and goals. If you add a lack of commitment to this equation, you end up with a dead site once the initial interest is lost. The resulting debris leaves an impression that is worse than not setting up that profile in the first place. The point is to experiment but do so judiciously.

Steiner looks at the advantages and disadvantages of each service, and she does compare between services. In her conclusion, she some good points. First, the key to successful use of SNS is promotion. Second, you have to make your SNS use known on your library website. Third, use signage at the desk to let users know about your SNS presence. And finally, updating is important (6). I would add the following: once you choose an SNS application, you are making a commitment. I am not saying it is permanent, but you are making the commitment of time and personnel. The library use of the applications should be treated seriously. I am not saying you can't have some fun with it or be playful. What I am saying, and this goes specially to administrators, is that use of SNS is not an afterthought, just something your geeky librarian does on the side, or simply slacking or goofing off. By the way, those are statements I have personally heard at one time or another. Use of the SNS should be part of the library's strategic plans for service and outreach and treated accordingly. After all, you are using those tools to better reach and serve your patrons. So you should put in the time, effort, and a positive constructive attitude when it comes to implementation.

This is now getting a bit long, and I still have more to say. I also want to add some personal notes on specific SNS use and lessons learned. I will do that in my next two posts. So my three readers, and everyone else out there, is invited to come back later in the week.


Heidi said...

Nice to know someone read it!

Absolutely agree that using a SNS needs to be a commitment by the implementing library. And adding to that, it needs to be so by all reference staff, not just the person(s) doing the initiating...because what happens what that "mastermind" leaves? Using a SNS, especially for reference, needs to be a team effort to be elicit potential success.

Angel, librarian and educator said...

Hello Heidi. I am always thrilled when an article author actually stops by. Thank you. And yes, you add another good point in that it needs staff buy-in as well. The "mastermind" leaving idea was one that occurred to me as I was typing, and it has been something I have pondered in out when reading about things like succession planning and institutional memory (not just the mastermind, but what happens when the very experienced person retires, taking their knowledge with them too). We are in the process of implementing a reference desk blog (it is kept private), and we are in the process of bringing the staff on board. We'll see. Best, and keep on blogging.