Monday, October 05, 2009

Article Note: On student preferences of librarian use of social software

Citation for the article:

Epperson, Annie and Jennifer L. Leffler, "Social Software Programs: Student Preferences of Librarian Use." New Library World 110.7/8 (2009): 466-372.

Read via Emerald.

I don't think that this article reveals anything terribly new. A lot of what is presented in this article is stuff that I have discussed on this blog and that others better than me have mentioned as well. We are talking about the idea that while academic librarians rush to embrace every nook and cranny of online social software most students either do not care about what the librarians do in that regard or do not like librarians doing it. I have pondered the topic in and out on this blog in places like here, here, and over here just to give some examples. What the Epperson and Leffler article does is validate some of the things I have been saying or restating things that have been said. The conclusion has been presented in other venues: students just do not want or have interest in using social software programs for library help (371). This is something that I find to be in sharp contrast with much of what the celebrity librarian blogger literature advocates. I am not saying that there are not success stories here and there of librarians who can make social software work for library service. I am saying that the hype is not justified given the low return on investment and overall audience interest. I say that on the basis of my own experiences as well as on what I have taken the time to read out there.

The literature review opens with the all too common statement: "the library literature suggests that librarians should be available to students via Instant Messaging, create accounts in Facebook and MySpace, and build avatars to populate Second Life" (366). I think librarians should do some exploring, but it should not be at the expense of other services in their libraries. They should not be doing it without thought because it is the cool and hip thing to do. The article's study sought to see if college students actually used the programs mentioned; the answer is they do, except for Second Life. And then to see is the students would like to interact with librarians in those programs; the answer was pretty much no, or the students were mostly indifferent. Part of this is because the programs mentioned are social programs, and the students want to keep them social. The article authors speculate why Second Life may not have widespread appeal to students; not a single respondent to their study mentioned using the virtual reality world. They speculate that it could be due to their small dataset, a cultural reflection, so on (370). I will suggest that it may be that they simply do not care about it or find it that appealing. Contrary to what some celebrity bloggers proclaim, Second Life is not ubiquitous and widely available. It is a heavy download. It requires a very good computer that can handle the program, and it can be time intensive. Libraries and librarians may be writing their theses on Second Life, and universities may be rushing to build virtual campuses and libraries, but most students pretty much could not care less. And while Second Life may be touting their horn that they are ahead of the pack (from PC World), in reality the numbers they are showing are questionable at best. This is one reason why I tend to take anything my brethren in the profession say about Second Life with a grain of salt. Overall, what the article authors find from looking at the literature is that college students use social software more than the general population, and that said students are not likely to use it for library services (367). The first part of that statement I can easily confirm from experience. At any given time here in our computer lab, students are visiting Facebook or MySpace. This is not surprising. Students' tuition and fees does include access to relatively well maintained computers with unfiltered Internet access, so checking on your Facebook or other social site is just natural. And yet we librarians persevere. I personally think there is some value in us learning how to use social networking, and I think to an extent, if you use it well, it can add a human element in our steps to reaching patrons. But it is not the panacea that the literature makes it out to be. As the authors write, "what works for some libraries will not work for others" (368). Again, it is something I have said before after learning it along the way.

The article's results come from a survey where the authors received 65 responses, with 60 viable responses. This does seem like a small sample, which the authors do admit is small, giving the usual statement about not being able to generalize results (370). As mentioned, the study found that no one uses Second Life. Well, no one in the sample, that is. The study concluded that the majority of respondents "would not care if a librarian participated in social software programs" (369). However, there is a little bit of positive news for librarians: "more participants would seek library help in IM as compared to Facebook and MySpace users" (370). However, as the authors state, one has to keep in mind that IM is more of a tool than an actual social networking site (as in the sense of online community), so the comparison may or not be fair.

The authors conclude by reminding librarians who want to create a presence on these sites to think about their goals for participation; this is if they are doing it in connection to their work like I do with some of my online activity. "Goals should be identified so that the success of the endeavor can be measured" (371). We probably should consider discussing specific measures for success as well, and we probably need to be flexible in those measures as well. Setting up a Facebook page for the library does not mean that all of a sudden every kid on campus will become a fan. Fan count may not be the best measure for success in this case. Maybe this is where the discussions need to be going next. Look at what we are learning and then reflect.

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