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

Selection from Cites & Insights 8, Number 11: November 2008

Making it Work

Libraries and the Social Web

Set aside blogs and wikis for now. Those are established tools that can work very well for libraries, although it’s not automatic. There are other “social” tools on the web, with libraries involved to various degrees. I’m catching up on some posts in these areas that I thought worth noting and commenting on—starting as long as 18 months ago.

Reference services and Twitter

Stephen Francoeur posted this on May 2, 2007 at Digital reference (

As a way of keeping in touch with friends, especially when you are out and about (such as at a conference, barhopping, clubgoing, etc.), the Twitter service is pretty nifty. But is there a way libraries might want to use this service to connect to users?

He notes that the Nebraska Library Commission is feeding its reference questions to a Twitter account (—and that’s a little strange, since you get a stream of questions but no answers. (As of this writing, the account has 125 followers and has had 1,207 tweets since it began in March 2007.)

Before discussing how Twitter might be used for reference services, I'd like to first note that our users might hesitate before adding the library as a Twitter friend if they intend to receive most of their Twitter messages via text messaging. As noted on the Twitter help pages, the Twitter service itself is free, but receiving the messages on your phone may incur charges depending on the plan you have with your carrier…

Let's leave the issue behind of whether or not users would really want to add their local library as a Twitter friend; assume for the moment that they do. Is there a way that we could use Twitter to provide “reference” in some way? Perhaps…

1. User submits question to library…

2. Library answers the question and asks permission to add it (stripped of all personally identifiable information) to a publicly searchable knowledgebase…

3. With permission from the user, the question and answer are added to the knowledgebase, which in turn sends out its RSS feed, which itself is sent to rss2twitter to be passed along to the library's Twitter account.

The Twitter account for the library would then be advertised on the library's home page. Library users who also happen to be on Twitter could add the library as a friend in Twitter so they can receive the stream of question/answer pairs…

Francoeur also suggests a second Twitter-only model—and privacy issues that could be involved. He was asking for reactions. The most useful comment was one from a librarian who keeps Twitter up at the reference desk and has gotten help from other librarians using it—but, in May 2007, she hadn’t seen patrons using or asking about Twitter yet. I haven’t seen a followup. Francoeur has a personal Twitter account.

Does this make sense? Accepting reference questions via Twitter isn’t much different than accepting them via SMS or email (except that you can ask a much more detailed question via email). Responding via Twitter assumes pretty short answers and does, as Francoeur suggests, raise privacy issues. (One commenter, who liked the idea, didn’t think there were privacy issues—”If patrons are willing to provide public questions in a Yahoo format, then they are not concerned about privacy.”)

I haven’t heard much more on this topic. A Google search for “twitter reference” (no quotes) in September 2008 yields the 2007 post as the first result. Looking at other results, I find a list of libraries with Twitter accounts—but those accounts are, with the exception already noted, used for library announcements and the like. (AskUsNow! in Maryland also has a Twitter feed with reference questions but not answers—a feed that appears to be open and might raise some mild issues, since it includes the usernames of people asking questions.)

do library users care about our new initiatives?

Jessamyn West asked that question on July 18, 2007 at ( She refers to a post that same day at Tinfoil + raccoon (rochellejustrochelle. discussing the Wisconsin library survey I noted in the August 2008 Cites & Insights. As Rochelle Hartman noted:

What is very interesting to me is that most users are not very interested in technology initiatives. You know, the stuff that many of us spend a great deal of time and energy using and promoting. The perceived value of these initiatives, however, is somewhat higher than actual interest.

Some of West’s take (she raises other pertinent issues):

One of the most interesting parts of the survey results is on page 16 entitled “New Initiatives” where they ask about how interested patrons are about using some new technology initiatives. To me they are asking all the wrong questions (mostly about content, less about context). They ask a lot of questions about downloadable content, which makes sense since the library probably has to shell out money for these things and wants to figure out if they’re worth it. However, they also ask about 24/7 librarian access and IMing a librarian and also find that people tend towards the “slightly disinterested” side…

Lastly, I’d like to point to the Internet question which was sort of glossed over. Of all the people surveyed 26% had no Internet at home and 23% only had dial-up. That’s nearly half the respondents having a level of connectivity at home where a downloadable audiobook is worth basically nothing to them, and likely a group that doesn’t spend a lot of time online. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t still stress technology initiatives, but that’s a pretty sobering takeaway when you’re trying to provide more and more services online…

As I’ve said before, I think that before we can fully immerse ourselves in a 2.0 initiative as librarians, we have to make sure we’re counting the right things. If you only collect internal statistics on reference interactions that happen in-person or on the phone, it’s no wonder that IM reference seems like a “flavor of the month” thing for the library to do. And, after the fact, if you can’t show that people are really using the new techie things that you do provide it’s harder to stress that those things that should be part of what your library is and does. Many of these things are countable—website stats, flickr photostream views, IM interactions—the question is: are we counting them?

I’ll admit I found the first comment startling: A public librarian saying “The generation has been born that will not use books” and asserting that public libraries should emulate supposed “universities…that have no books, only data bases.” As for West’s comments in general, it’s fair to say you need to count the right things—but that doesn’t counter an apparent disinterest in new services.

Casey Bisson asked “Is it that they don’t care? Or just don’t want it from us?” on July 31, 2007 at MaisonBisson ( Excerpts:

First, we’ve got to recognize some of the challenges of user perception that we face:

Ø  We’ve done so poorly leveraging current technology that our users can’t imagine us offering novel services online.

Ø  So far, the new services we’ve offered—downloadable audiobooks and full text—have been presented so poorly, and our general web presence has been so weak that people just can’t imagine using traditional libraries online.

Ø  Many of our library services are mediated… The web, on the other hand, is about freedom and self service. Our patrons may have trouble imagining a library delivering the things they value online.

So what can we do?

Ø  Let’s make sure our in-library services are outstanding…

Ø  Let’s start small and make our library websites and catalogs as welcoming and easy to use as we want our physical services to be.

Ø  Then, perhaps, we can add a reference blog to help answer questions before they get asked. Perhaps we can offer some copy/paste code to allow users to embed books from our catalogs in their blogs or MySpace pages… Whatever we do, we’ve gotta make our basic online services great first, then we’ll have the experience and knowledge (and user receptivity) to push new services online. And we’ll grow and evolve our services from there.

I can’t argue with Bisson’s assertion that physical services should be outstanding as a first step. I’m less certain about “mediated services,” since I think most of what most patrons use libraries for is materials and on-site database use (mostly materials), and with self-circ stations it’s hard to call either of those mediated. Most of all, though, I’d agree that starting small and making sure you do it right is a good idea.

Jennifer Macauley also commented on West’s post in “The technology our users want” on July 24, 2007 at Life as I know it (

Without doubt, trying to actually determine what our patrons want is quite a challenge. Trying to figure out if they care about technology initiatives, let alone 2.0 initiatives, is probably even more complicated.

I’ve mentioned in the past that in my experience, patrons [at her college] (the majority of whom are 18-22 year olds) are not clamoring for 2.0 technologies--they are not pushing for the library to be on the “cutting edge.”…

Students primarily come into the library to use the computers--and to study… Sure, they use library resources in addition to their use of productivity software, etc. However, students actually use more non-library-related technology in the library than library-related technology… Currently, decent and knowledgeable technical support on all technologies that are available within the library seems to be much more important than adding dynamic content to our catalog or implementing virtual reference.

My impression is that the majority of students could care less about Library 2.0 initiatives. Our experience mirrors that of Jeff Scott in that when asked about improving library services, the most common request is to extend the hours that the library is open. Extended hours, social spaces, cafes seem to be the things that draw today’s students--not virtual reference, RSS feeds, blogs, wikis or interactive OPACs. Overall, this leads me to conclude that students aren’t overly concerned about technology in the library. This makes it difficult for me to try and figure out how to plan for future technology initiatives…

One comment offered an interesting perspective: “I find myself thinking that it is not an issue whether our patrons want, or are clamoring for, the new technology so much as it is a matter of how we can use it to, hopefully fairly transparently, assist them in the ‘ordinary’ or more traditional library tasks, such as searching and retrieving both on-site and virtual materials.”

Questions raised by the Wisconsin survey continue to resonate. It’s certainly not universally reasonable to say, “They’re not going to come, so we won’t build it.” But the Wisconsin survey supplies another, very different, instance of what’s been clear in a number of cases: “Building it” is not enough and may or may not be the best use of available resources.

These are, to some extent, tougher questions than those involved in “web 2.0” services. Providing downloadable audiobooks costs real money, where blogs and IM reference (or Twitter reference) mostly just take staff time. But the questions need consideration in all cases—not to maintain a “culture of no” but to use resources in ways that best serve your own community.

Culture and social networking sites

Chad Haefele posted this on January 17, 2008 at Hidden peanuts (www.hidden­ Excerpts:

Some of the most interesting conversations I had at Midwinter were about the need for libraries to understand the culture of a social networking website before trying to market services through it…

At my previous job, I experimented with creating a basic Facebook application that could search the catalog and a few other information silos. It worked great. Just one problem: nobody used it. Not one person installed the application who wasn’t staff or a student worker.

I didn’t take the culture of Facebook into account when creating that app. Why do people go to the site? Not to do scholarly research, that’s for sure. Or even if they did--why clutter up your profile with yet another application when it adds no value at all? Clicking to a similar search page on the library’s website was a far more convenient process than navigating through Facebook’s interface.

So let’s turn it around - instead of lamenting what students don’t like on Facebook, focus on what they do like. One simple response is that they love widgets… They also love updating status messages, telling the world a little about where they are or what they’re doing. So, why not combine these? Create an application which lets users pick a spot on the library floor plan and display that on their profile. “When I’m studying at the library you can find me here!” Students learn a little bit about the library’s layout while finding their spot, and the presence of the widget reminds their friends that the library exists.

Of course, I’d want to put a lot more thought into a project like this before going ahead with it. With social networking site endeavors, there is a fine line to walk. Some things are worth doing regardless of potential impact, just because they’re so simple. For example: Set up a Facebook Page for your library with a Meebo IM widget… Even if only one single person ever takes advantage of the service, it is probably still a worthwhile use of time. But I ultimately threw away a lot of time on my Facebook catalog search widget, an end product which has had absolutely zero impact.

We can’t just wade into the middle of a social networking site and proclaim we know what is best for it…

Different libraries can have very different user populations walking through their front doors, and libraries put a lot of effort into understanding those populations’ needs. Why should the online world be any different?

Something in me wants to push back at setting up something that may only get one user because it’s so simple to do—but I think the rest of the post is more important. Social networks and sites do have cultures, and it’s not difficult to violate the norms of those cultures.

Kate Sheehan thought about these issues in a slightly earlier post at Loose cannon librarian (, “are librarians culturally self-aware?” Brief excerpts:

A big part of the 2.0 push is opening up the library, creating a two-way flow of communication and making the library about its users and communities, not its staff. But changing the cultural markers around libraries is a bigger project, especially when a lot of what we do offer is, well, workish.

It’s easy to become enamored of social networking sites and Web 2.0 toys to the point where they seem like a panacea for everything that’s wrong with your library or your job. Slap a wiki on it and call me in the morning. The most successful uses of the newest tech tools have recognized that they’re just that: tools. Midwinter has me revising that to add they’re tools with their own cultures. Librarians are frequently hyper-aware of the internal culture of their own organizations, but are we less vigilant about our cultural significance outside of the library…and are we as mindful as we should be of the culture of the online communities we’re trying to leverage to promote library services?

In comments, Michelle Boule provided a succinct summary of the change I’m seeing in librarian attitudes toward the whole 2.0 thing:

…We have to have a service we want to provide and then choose the best tool. Before implementing the tool, we should understand how it works, the culture behind it, and how to maintain a level of control to keep it useful (reduce spam, etc.). I see so many libraries jumping into new tools, like MySpace, Wikis, or blogs, without considering any of these things and then when it fails, they think it was the technology not their lack of planning.

In a sense, it really is the technology that’s gone wrong—because it’s perceived as a more general solution than it really is. There are other things to consider before implementing some social-web tools, such as library commitment to make it work and whether there’s a real need or something concocted to make a tool look like a solution, but on the whole Boule’s right.

Meredith Farkas, no more a Luddite than Boule but also a long-time voice for thinking things through, added (in part):

…While I’m a big booster for social software, I don’t think these technologies are useful in every library, and I think we need to consider our very unique population (and sub-populations) when we consider any of these tools. I’m a big fan of libraries having student workers or teens staff their MySpace and Facebook presence, but honestly, I think patron level of comfort with librarians in social networking software differ library-by-library.

I think we can frequently develop tunnel vision when working in libraries, and that’s why it’s so critical to talk to our patrons, to get out of the library, and to visit other libraries to remember what it’s like to be a patron. We hear these stories about libraries implementing blogs and wikis and all this cool stuff, and we start to think that it’s the blogs and wikis that are cool, not how they are used and what need they are fulfilling. It’s not the tool that matters; it’s what we do with it and how it meets patron needs.

I’m glad these questions are being asked. We need to be critical of our role in the “2.0 world. We want to do right by our patrons, not force ourselves on them, invade their spaces, or create tools they don’t want to use. And sometimes it’s difficult to know if what we’re doing is helping, hurting or is just plain getting ignored.

Part of the need is advance consideration—not huge planning efforts but a reasonable attempt to be sure there’s a real need or desire and the tool reasonably addresses that need. Part is followthrough—a commitment to use the tool effectively. (A Facebook profile that’s never updated or is obviously being updated only as a PR outlet is probably no better for a library than a blog that has four posts a year.) Then there’s continuing assessment. What happens when what you’re doing is “hurting or is just plain getting ignored”?

Is Facebook this generation’s Rolling Stones?

In some ways, this post—by Melissa Mallon at ACRLog ( on January 23, 2008—may be a bridge between two related sets of posts: The group just discussed and another group, right around the same time, referring to a University of Michigan study.

Mallon considers the extent to which teens are “growing up virtually” and continues:

Since libraries started creating Facebook and MySpace pages, I have felt rather conflicted about the whole idea. I understand the theory of wanting to connect with students where they are (because, obviously, Facebook is where they spend most of their time), but I’ve always wondered if it can be truly effective. I’ll be honest: I’m 25, I use Facebook to stay connected with friends, and if I were still in college, I wouldn’t be “friending” my professors and librarians. Hearing the interviews on Frontline only confirmed my suspicions that teens and young adults don’t want authorities online…

…I am surprised at times to feel a disconnect with the students I’m teaching, when many of them are less than a decade younger than I am. When I think about it, though, I doubt many of the students would want to hang out with me in real life; why would they want to hang out with me virtually? Thus, I’ve come to this conclusion: instead of “joining” students in their virtual space, I think we should try to focus on catering to their virtual learning styles. Whether this means offering more online workshops, or virtual reference services, or blogs and podcasts, I’m not sure. I’m just not convinced that implanting our libraries into Facebook and MySpace is making quite the splash we think it’s making. But, hey, I’m just a new librarian!

In comments, Joan Petit argues for librarians being on Facebook to better understand users—but “I agree that librarians shouldn’t be out there friending patrons.”

But many librarians have set up place pages for their libraries, so students can become “fans” of the library. I’ve just set up a page like this at my library, and we already have a few dozen fans. That’s a great way for students to get our hours, contact information, etc, and it helps them feel more connected to the physical library, even when they’re online at home.

Finally, there is also a role to play for librarians in helping our students understand privacy implications of social networks. Despite their technological sophistication, many otherwise bright students aren’t doing enough to protect themselves online. I’ve shown students how to ramp up their privacy settings, which I know how to do because I follow these technologies myself.

Kelly A., a 24-year-old, says “even as a librarian I have zero interest in friending my director or any of the other faculty/staff from my university who have Facebook. Facebook is for friends–-for social networking. Students don’t want us there trying to be cool.” She did create a library MySpace page “about a year ago” and put up notices near the computers—and got one friend.

There is a lot to be gained from understanding how students are using these tools so we can better understand and cater to their learning styles and preferences. But that’s very different from jumping into their turf and trying to get accepted.

Offering a different perspective, char booth noted survey results at Ohio University indicating student enthusiasm for library search/help applications in Facebook—which, to some extent, supports the argument for “catering to their virtual learning styles.”

Social networking for libraries a bust?

That’s Sarah Houghton-Jan’s title for a January 14, 2008 LibrarianInBlack ( post based on a University of Michigan student survey. This continues a theme already stated—but in a different light.

One question found that by and large the respondents use social networking sites, but the majority (76%) would not respond to a library presence on Facebook or MySpace, either because existing methods of contact were sufficient or because these tools are social networks and not places for library invaders… I would be very interested to see more surveys of this type, across organizations and locations, to see if this trend holds up...It's possible that we were wrong to believe that a social networking tool would attract all of its users to our services.

Some comments focused on the 24% (or 17%) who would, or might, contact a librarian on a social networking site. Houghton-Jan agreed that such presence may be desirable (unless the “unwanted authority figure” issue comes into play), but noted that 17% is much lower than the kinds of predictions that have been made. “While 17% is nothing to sneeze at, it is certainly below expectations…which tells me that the expectations were impossible and ridiculous to begin with.” Anne-Marie looked for

some conversations about why librarians might want to use these sites even if people don't want to talk to us this way. So some initial hypotheses were challenged - new hypotheses = new thinking.

Angel Rivera commented in “So, social networking and libraries may not be such a big deal,” a January 18, 2008 post at The gypsy librarian (

The finding from the University of Michigan survey…should not come as a surprise. This is not a new finding; it simply validates what a few brave librarians who don't go “ga ga” over every 2.0 shiny gadget already knew…

The people who won't give up will say that there is still about a fourth of users who would respond… The point is that 17% is not exactly great return on the investment (or ROI for those who like to use business jargon). I am not saying we neglect the 17%, but the evidence shows this is not a groundswelling wave of users needing or demanding our presence in places like Facebook…

…This is only one survey. There are anecdotal accounts in the library sector of the blogosphere claiming some degree of success. Some of those places should conduct surveys of their own and get some actual evidence. Would that new evidence replicate the Michigan finding? I would like to know, but I'll say that, at the moment, the evidence is telling us that social networking is not the hot frontier for libraries it has been made out to be. It's nice, but it's not such a big deal.

Finally for this cluster, Simon Chamberlain offered “Social networking a bust?” at Simon Chamberlain’s library weblog ( on January 18, 2008. He thinks the 17% figure is promising, and continues (in part):

However, it does indicate that we may have set our sights too high in terms of the benefits of using these sites, and that ‘going where our users are’ may not be sufficient to get users using our services, if our users don’t want us in that particular space. I also wonder if the 17% might mostly be students who would use the library anyway, whether they used the print collection or databases, websites, whatever.

…Social networks are mainly used as a means for users to develop and display their identity… Users aren’t necessarily using these sites to solve problems or find information, they are using them for social purposes. It makes sense, therefore, that many users might not find library applications interesting or relevant.

And, of course, libraries are most emphatically not cool, which may just make some users reluctant to become our friends, or fans.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t be there. The cost of maintaining a social networking profile would seem to be fairly low, and if it results in even a small benefit, it’s probably worthwhile. My current thinking is that it might be most useful as a way for librarians (not libraries) to build relationships with students (and faculty?) in their subject areas. Most of the postgraduate class, and a number of undergraduates, know me by name or face. By “friending” them, I would give them an easy and unobtrusive way to keep updated with what was going on in the library (new databases, etc) - or even just to let them know that I was going to lunch (and save them a fruitless walk from the computer labs to the reference desk, looking for me).

Of course, that’s me speaking as a reference/liaison librarian, and I should probably remember that there’s more to an academic library than just what I do. But from my perspective, at the moment, that approach seems most useful…

The lesson here is not “stay away from Facebook.” I take away at least two possibilities:

·         Don’t expect miracles—particularly not if the library itself attempts a Facebook presence.

·         At least in academia, it’s possible that librarians building relationships with their own circle of users is more promising than libraries attempting to befriend the community.

Ten social networking tips for libraries

Does it make sense for your library to have a Facebook or MySpace profile? Maybe, maybe not. On one hand, “the adults should stay away” as a Facebook issue is a little old hat (as it is for MySpace): Almost certainly most users of both services these days are adults. On the other, trying too hard to make friends can either be spam or just plain annoying.

If you’re going to do it, do it right. To that end, this July 28, 2008 post by Sarah Houghton-Jan is a fine set of reminders. She offers ten paragraph; I’ll just list the topic phrases:

·         Do your research.

·         Keep your information current.

·         Use a photo of a real live person.

·         Feel free to have an alias.

·         It’s not all about your friends.

·         Suss it up (make sure you’re notified as much as possible).

·         Have fun!

·         Know no fear.

·         Deleting accounts is okay.

If those sound intriguing, go read the whole post. And do read the comments—including one pointing out that maybe a failed attempt should be “left dark” rather than deleted, so a spammer can’t take your deleted name. I’ve seen former liblogs turn into adlink pages; it’s probably better if, in the event that your library Facebook page turns out to be more trouble than it’s worth, people aren’t led to believe that your library is now marketing “size enhancement” products.

Not without the Web

If this episode seems negative, it isn’t intended that way—but maybe that’s why much of this material sat around so long before I used it. (My personal Facebook profile? I’m still thinking about it…)

So, as a fine example of the virtues of the web, I point you to this July 28, 2008 post by Meredith Farkas at Information wants to be free ( She offers 800 words on what she probably wouldn’t have done without the web and what it’s meant to her. It’s a fine story, augmented by a number of comments on what the web has done for others. Well worth reading.

Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large, Volume 8, Number 11, Whole Issue 108, ISSN 1534-0937, a journal of libraries, policy, technology and media, is written and produced by Walt Crawford, Director and Managing Editor of the PALINET Leadership Network.

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