Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large
ISSN 1534-0937
Libraries · Policy · Technology · Media

Selection from Cites & Insights 12, Number 1: January-February 2012


Making it Work

It’s Academic (or Not)

Don’t expect to see much about academic libraries in Cites & Insights in the future.

That’s not to say that the comments of academic librarians and other academics won’t feature into future essays (to the extent that there is a future for C&I), and it’s not to say that I won’t be writing about issues that concern academic libraries. Most library issues concern academic libraries to some extent.

But I’ve been thinking about what makes sense for C&I’s future. Given the lack of sponsorship, stuff only makes sense if it’s clearly having an effect in the field, if it’s at least getting mentioned elsewhere, if it’s fun or interesting to write about or if it’s an area where I really believe I add value and can hope for some of the other desirable outcomes.

Thinking about what makes sense could also be described as paring down, chipping away at the 1,730 items I currently have tagged in Diigo and those I’ll tag in the future. I’m more likely to retain areas where somebody in the wavelet of email I received regretting the hiatus and possible shutdown of C&I indicated that they liked the areas. (So if you’re hoping to have seen the last of Offtopic Perspectives or My Back Pages and my grumbling about stereo equipment prices—no such luck.)

Here’s how I see the situation with academic libraries—or, rather, my unpaid efforts in writing about academic libraries:

Ø  Having an effect: Not so much. I’m not convinced that I’ve swayed any academic librarian’s opinion or even informed their opinion on any topic specific to academic libraries in some time.

Ø  Getting mentioned elsewhere: That one’s easy. As with other areas, C&I seems to have become largely irrelevant to the field—and in this case, I believe it’s with some justification.

Ø  Fun or interesting: In the past, I was vitally interested—but I had to be a little circumspect given my place of employment. (Was I going to call ARL members a bunch of cowardly idiots even if I believed that to be true [which I don’t], given who paid my salary?) Now, I have no real need to be circumspect, but I also have less personal interest. Whatever I may believe about the desirable role of larger academic libraries in preserving the records of humanity, for example, I’m not going back to college, I don’t currently use any academic libraries (although I have secondary access to the collections of many of them through Link+), and I don’t really feel as though I’m in touch with what’s going on, beyond what I glean from the Library Society of the World and other folks on FriendFeed and occasionally Facebook, Twitter, blogs and Google+.

Ø  Add value: This follows from the previous comment. I’m out of touch, and I’m convinced that it doesn’t make sense for me to try to get back in touch. Here I’m talking specifically about topics related to academic libraries as such.

That all adds up to not adding up, at least for me to be a useful or effective commentator.

So the next time I sweep through Diigo—specifically through 28 tags beginning “miw-”—I’m probably going to delete items that appear to be primarily about academic libraries. I’ll start by deleting the entire “miw-taiga” category (which only had one item; I’d pretty much given up on writing about Taiga already).

What I Believe

This is not to say that I don’t have beliefs and opinions about academic libraries, just that I don’t think I’m accomplishing much by writing about them here. Some of my beliefs:

Ø  “The academic library” is as silly a general phrase as “the public library” or, worst of all, “the library.” There are more than 3,000 academic libraries in the U.S. and a goodly number elsewhere, and they’re almost as heterogeneous as public libraries are. (I was going to say “at least as heterogeneous” but I doubt that there are any academic libraries run entirely by volunteers, I’m pretty sure there are no academic institutions with libraries that have only 13 people in the entire academic community, and I doubt that there are any academic libraries that get by on $3 per member of the community. I could be wrong on all counts.) I suspect some community college libraries have more in common with public libraries than they do with ARL libraries. I know the libraries in small liberal arts colleges are very different from the libraries and library systems in large universities. For that matter, I’m acutely aware that even “ARL libraries” groups together a bunch of wildly dissimilar entities. The “Big 25” are different from the not-quite-so-big 89 (or whatever), and so on. Even the UC Berkeley and UC San Diego libraries aren’t really identical institutions, let alone Harvard and Guelph—or, for that matter, Harvard and UIUC, the #1 and #2 libraries by collection size from the latest ARL stats you can get without paying big bucks. (I won’t offer my thoughts about ARL suddenly charging $750/year for outsiders like me to get access to the annual statistics or $170 for a print version; let’s just say I’m impressed with ARL’s new attitude toward openness and let it go at that.)

Ø  Academic librarians should stop using “the library” or “libraries” when they really mean academic libraries—and, better yet, should stop overgeneralizing about academic libraries. When someone says, “Circulation is declining in libraries” I want to scream, starting with “THAT’S NOT SO for most public libraries, and it’s not even true for all academic libraries.” I’m guessing the chance of library school faculty and other academic library writers (who dominate the professional literature) stopping the habit of overgeneralizing is about as good as the chance of my winning a Macarthur Fellowship or the Nobel Prize for Economics.

Ø  More to the point, academic librarians should stop thinking of public libraries as inferior cousins or assuming that what affects academic libraries now will affect public libraries in the same way later. It’s not true, it’s not useful, it doesn’t even make sense.

Ø  Academic librarians who don’t use public libraries should not assume that they know how public libraries are used, either in general (which is nonsense anyway) or in particular. Which, turned around, is one reason I should probably stop writing about academic libraries: I don’t have any first-hand experience. (Note that I’ve never written much about special libraries for much the same reason.)

Ø  There are any number of first-rate thinkers and doers among academic librarians with their feet on the ground and their heads clear. I believe there are enough of them (people like Jenica Rogers, just to name one) to have great expectations for the future of (most) academic libraries. It might or might not be a set of futures I’d find most desirable, but that’s of no importance. And it is a set of futures, not one monolithic future. The future of the library at the Notre Dame de Namur University (where my wife was library director back when it was the College of Notre Dame) is not the future of the Columbia University Libraries. I suspect I’d find some of the futures appalling, others exciting and invigorating, still others simply puzzling.

Ø  Unfortunately, there are also a fair number of speakers and writers who see monolithic futures, who argue for one set of solutions for all [academic] libraries (although they rarely use that limiter), who seem intent on getting rid of books, reference desks, professional librarians and, in some cases, much of anything that couldn’t be done better and a lot cheaper by one licensing person in the bursar’s office and a student employee group run by the student association. That’s a caricature—but, well, you look at Taiga’s output and some other things and wonder. I’ve given up trying to fight it: I lack the weapons and the audience, and I don’t know enough to provide convincing counterarguments. Again, however, fortunately…see the previous bullet.

Ø  It is no more likely that, in the foreseeable future, all or most of today’s academic libraries will vanish or be converted into Commons than it is that all or most of today’s public libraries will vanish or be turned into bookless makerspaces.

I could go on, but I just said I was going to stop writing about academic libraries, didn’t I? If you’re laughing at all the things I got wrong in that set of bullet points, you should be happy: I don’t plan to make those points again. What’s the, er, point?

Academic Libraries on Facebook

Michalis Gerolimos wrote “Academic Libraries on Facebook: An Analysis of Users' Comments” in the November/December 2011 D-Lib Magazine. Quoting the abstract:

This paper examines users' comments on the Facebook pages of 20 American academic libraries and subdivides them into 22 categories. A total of 3,513 posts were examined and analyzed in various ways, including how many of the posts included user comments and how many had none; how many comments were included in each post; and what the percentage of user participation was on the library walls, in terms of "likes" and comments. The most significant findings are that approximately 91% of the posts do not include any comments, over 82% of user participation is expressed via the "like" functionality and most comments on academic libraries' Facebook pages are not uploaded by prospective users (i.e., college and university faculty and students) but rather by library personnel, employees affiliated with the same institution as the library, and alumni.

Unlike Gerolimos (at the Alexander Technological Educational Institute of Thessaloniki, Greece), I don’t have a PhD in Library and Information Science or, indeed, any higher degree—but I have been doing some research on library use of Facebook and Twitter, although I’ve been looking at public libraries, not academic libraries.

Up until that last sentence, the abstract seems to describe an interesting anecdotal research project, looking at less than 1% of American academic libraries. But the “significance” shadows the overall tone of the piece, as it’s entirely composed of negative aspects: most posts don’t yield comments, most user participation isn’t comments, most comments aren’t from “prospective users” as narrowly defined by Gerolimos.

The real problems arise when you get to the conclusions.

The study supports the conclusion that Facebook may never be a very effective marketing tool based on the fact that the 20 Facebook pages have, on average, a very small number of followers (mean number is less than 600 followers) and a librarian that quantifies the popularity of the medium (Facebook) to the number of followers for the library's pages presented in Fig. 1, he is certain to conclude that putting much effort into using Facebook as an outreach/marketing tool is probably not worthwhile.

Lest there be any question as to the mindset of the author, consider the final paragraphs of the discussion:

Developing a Facebook page as a new tool to reach out to a library's current or perspective users, but finding it is supported primarily by its own staff, cannot be considered a complete failure, but it would be no more effective than a library repeatedly circulating a collection of books that appeal more to library personnel than users. If becoming "friends" with the library and user comments are two measurements of the success of the outreach and/or marketing efforts, then we can safely say that, based on this research, Facebook is thus far not an effective outreach/marketing tool for libraries.

Finally, this research clearly shows that although users are willing to share personal data on social networking sites, even when they know that there are important security issues to consider, regarding the possible exploitation of their personal data by the social networking for-profit companies, they do not, at this point in time, share information on library Facebook pages. Maybe they read the posts but have nothing to share, maybe they do not want to upload information about themselves inside a digital space that is directly related to their academic affairs, or maybe they simply find it an unattractive environment. If we consider how easily students "like" a page, add a group, post personal information, or simply interact with Facebook pages, then we must face the fact that library pages are amongst the least attractive to students. This does not come as a surprise to those who have not been taken in by the "social web" hype.

The most outrageous statement here is at the end of the first paragraph, where the author seems to generalize from 20 U.S. academic libraries to all libraries of all types: “we can safely say that, based on this research, Facebook is thus far not an effective outreach/marketing tool for libraries.” Nonsense. I don’t believe you can even safely say that it’s not an effective tool for that tiny group, 20 out of more than 3,000 U.S. academic libraries. (That group is not only tiny, it is not in any way representative: It’s composed entirely of libraries at major research universities.) But the last sentence is also telling: “those who have not been taken in by the ‘social web’ hype.” I count myself among those—but I also count myself among those aware enough to see that social networks are and can be effective tools to reach some library users in some libraries.

If this study shows anything, other than the typical tendency of LIS faculty (which the author is) to substitute “libraries” for “academic libraries” and assume that a small study population can be extrapolated to the larger world, it shows that success or failure depend heavily on how you define your terms.

The Middle

There are two intertwined pieces to this article, in my opinion. There’s what I’ll call “The Middle,” a qualitative/quantitative measurement of a relatively modest number of posts on a tiny number of academic library Facebook pages. Once you add those two caveats it’s an interesting small study.

Given that, I won’t comment on sections 4 (Research methodology), 5.1 (User’s comments on the wall), any of the Tables in the Appendix or those portions of the discussion that deal strictly with the analysis of user comments. I’ll summarize: Most posts on most Facebook walls don’t get a lot of comments, and commenters tend to be a small portion of those actually liking/following a page. I suspect those statements are true for most public library Facebook pages as well—and, indeed, for most Facebook pages of any sort. To which the natural but unscholarly response is: So what?

Now, let’s look at some of the things I do find odd, quite apart from the sheer nonsense of attempting to generalize from 20 randomly chosen “top academic institution” libraries to the universe of academic libraries or libraries as a whole. Frankly, if the article had concluded that within this handful of libraries X and Y was true, I wouldn’t bother to comment.

Definitions and Language

I think there are two problems here: Definitions and language. That is:

Ø  The conclusion that [20 academic] library Facebook pages aren’t working is based on a narrow definition of “working.” Among other things, the author determines that alumni and staff aren’t really potential library users; this might surprise the libraries. He also seems to define working strictly in terms of the amount of conversation going on.

Ø  At several points in the article, the author uses slanted language that makes clear his disdain for social networks. Since I do this sort of thing all the time, I can reasonably be accused of being hypocritical in calling it out here—except that this article is framed and published as a scholarly research article, not an opinion piece. I believe higher standards for neutrality of approach should apply.

Now let’s look at specific items I have problems with. I’m going to ignore most of the hyperbole and nonsense in the interests of space—beginning with the very first sentence in the introduction: “Facebook has been a dominant presence in our lives in the past several years…” For anyone for whom that’s literally true—that Facebook is the most important thing in their life—that’s simply sad. It’s certainly not true as a general statement. But if I fisk this article at that level of detail, my commentary will be several times as long as the article itself. So let’s hone in on the real problems.

Research findings (section 5)

Figure 1 in the article shows the number of Likes for each of 20 academic library Facebook pages—a number that ranges from low (under 200 for three libraries) through reasonable (anywhere from 260 to 901 for most libraries) to fairly high (between 1,700 and 2,200 for two libraries). But here’s the commentary:

Figure 1 also provides evidence that library pages on Facebook are not among the most popular or at least the most known pages on Facebook, especially when we consider that the libraries in the sample are among the most popular and well known academic libraries in the world; and a small number of followers/"likers" may impact the success of using Facebook as a marketing/promotional/outreach tool.

Library Facebook pages are not among the most popular pages on Facebook. That is absolutely, positive, 100% factual. It’s also completely irrelevant. The UC Berkeley library is not Aston Kutcher; why on earth would anybody expect it to have even a tiny fraction of Kutcher’s likes? (I wonder what “popular” even means when it comes to academic libraries; I wasn’t aware that MIT’s library system was in a popularity contest with UC Berkeley or Rice.)

A more relevant issue might be that the number of likes is a relatively small percentage of the campus student population. In fact, it’s a surprisingly high 19% for Yale (well over 25% as of January 2012) and 11% for Princeton, and more than 7% for Rice and MIT. What I see from the chart is that hundreds, and in some cases thousands, of people—most, presumably, students—have explicitly said that they’re interested in receiving messages from their campus library. That’s success to me, especially if the numbers are growing rather than shrinking.

Looking at the chart emphasizes another issue with the study: The libraries are all at major research universities, a very small subset of America’s institutions of higher education. That’s not surprising: They were chosen from a USNews ranking. In practice, marketing and outreach will mean something very different for, say, UC Berkeley than it does for, say, a liberal arts college with a thousand students. (It’s also likely to be very different for the Rice with 5,600 students than it is for Berkeley with more than 30,000.)

5.2 Facebook as an outreach and marketing tool

Outreach and marketing implies communication; it does not necessarily imply conversation. But this section is mostly about conversation, not marketing—and it’s laden with questionable language. For example:

Another aspect of Facebook use that needs to be mentioned is that in some cases librarians create posts that could be characterized as unnecessary, or even unprofessional.

Unnecessary? Unprofessional? To my mind, one benefit of a Facebook page for a major research university library is humanizing the library for some (relatively small) portion of the student body. The examples given are a question about books people loved as kids and a picture of a librarian walking to work. I fail to see what’s wrong with either example.

There’s a legitimate and perhaps important point to this section: Most explicit attempts to get feedback from students through Facebook don’t work very well, for these 20 libraries.

6. Conclusions

“This study recorded the lack of a steady flow of feedback (especially comments) on any of the 20 academic library Facebook pages examined.” Yes, it did. So what? Marketing and outreach don’t require feedback; they require that people read the message.

The study supports the conclusion that Facebook may never be a very effective marketing tool based on the fact that the 20 Facebook pages have, on average, a very small number of followers (mean number is less than 600 followers) and a librarian that quantifies the popularity of the medium (Facebook) to the number of followers for the library's pages presented in Fig. 1, he is certain to conclude that putting much effort into using Facebook as an outreach/marketing tool is probably not worthwhile.

The study does no such thing. It supports a conclusion that, for some of these 20 libraries, a relatively low percentage of students will follow (like) the library’s Facebook page and very few will actively respond. Period. If reaching most students and getting them to respond is the reason for having a Facebook page, then major academic libraries shouldn’t have Facebook pages; I find it hard to believe that any librarian within those 20 institutions was so naïve as to have that expectation. (In case it’s not clear, I do not believe every academic library should have a Facebook page: I think that’s just as silly as asserting that Facebook pages for academic libraries are always a waste of time.)

7. Discussion

There’s a tiny admission here that this study can’t be generalized:

We cannot assume that efforts to use Facebook as an effective tool to promote library services and "invite" more users into the library's digital (and physical) space have had the same outcome everywhere.

But that’s not really what the author wants to say:

[W]e must also recognize that students everywhere have certain habits, activities, and social preferences in common when it comes to the tools they choose to benefit their academic work — and based on this this study, most appear to reject connecting with their libraries on Facebook.

So the author is asserting broader significance—and also seems to assert that success for an academic library (or any library?) Facebook page can only mean having a majority of patrons “connecting” with the library.

If you set the bar for success that high, most library Facebook pages (academic or otherwise) will fail—as will every other outreach or marketing effort taken by most libraries. As will, for that matter, pretty much any marketing done by any institution for any reason. Does McDonald’s “connect” with a majority of its potential customers through Facebook? Not a chance. (The percentage of McDonald’s customers who like its Facebook page is a whole lot lower than the percentage of Yale’s community that like that university’s library page.)

Since I’ve already discussed the final two paragraphs, I won’t spend more time on them—except to wonder why it would even be desirable for students to “post personal information” on library Facebook pages. I will repeat one sentence: “Maybe they read the posts but have nothing to share, maybe they do not want to upload information about themselves inside a digital space that is directly related to their academic affairs, or maybe they simply find it an unattractive environment.” Maybe—probably—neither the library nor the students regard a library Facebook page as intended for sharing personal information. Maybe they do read posts and have nothing to share: What exactly is wrong with that?

Looking at the Facebook pages

The appendix to this study includes links to the 20 Facebook pages, so I thought I’d take a quick personal look at each one in mid-January 2012. All of them are still up: Apparently nobody took this article to heart enough to turn off their Facebook page. All of them are adding new likes—in some cases, at a fairly rapid clip. A couple of them appear to be somewhat moribund.

I didn’t see anything I’d consider inappropriate or unprofessional, but quite a few posts I’d consider humanizing—a good thing, in my opinion.

My snap judgment: eight of these pages are succeeding (in my estimation); four appear to be failing; and eight are somewhere in the middle. I find it impossible to draw the universally negative conclusions of the author.


I was heavily skeptical of the term Library 2.0 as being either meaningful or the basis for a movement. I feel the same way about Web 2.0 and, to be honest, about “social media,” which I regard as a nonsense term. But in each case, to be skeptical of an overarching pseudoconcept is different than dismissing all the tools and examples: “Social media” may be an empty term, but social networks are and can be effective tools—not for everybody, but for some. And just because it’s called a social network, success doesn’t necessarily require conversation.

I was ready to believe that academic library Facebook pages were silly, at least for very large academic libraries. I think the connection between students and larger academic libraries is more tenuous than the connection between community members and good public libraries—although in both cases it’s unreasonable to expect more than a fraction of the relevant community to be involved. There’s a reason my book is about public library use of social networks.

This article simply doesn’t make the case its author claims, at least in my opinion. The article demonstrates that most posts on a handful of Facebook walls don’t get comments. That’s not even very interesting, much less very meaningful.

And even if every single one of the 20 large research library Facebook pages could be demonstrated to be an utter failure (which the article doesn’t do, and which I believe to be false for at least some of them), that would say nothing about the possible role of Facebook for the other 3,000+ academic libraries…and less about Facebook’s usefulness for libraries in general.

After originally deciding not to bother with this detailed rant, then writing the first draft, I looked online to see who else had commented. About all I found was a laudatory discussion from a pseudonymous source I regard as primarily troublemaker. So I’m leaving this in. I do believe it’s the last time I’ll be commenting in detail on an article that only relates to academic libraries—at least in the near future.

Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large, Volume 12, Number 1, Whole # 145, ISSN 1534-0937, a journal of libraries, policy, technology and media, is written and produced irregularly by Walt Crawford.

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