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It takes a village to answer a question

On Saturday, January 12, I attended the “Best Practices in Cooperative Reference: Reference and Social Networking” session presented by QuestionPoint, with panel speakers Stephen Francoeur (Baruch College), Beth Evans (Brooklyn College) and David Lankes (Syracuse University). While the panel seemed targeted at academic librarians, I actually found a great deal that would be of interest to public librarians.

Stephen presented first, and gave a really nice comprehensive overview defining social networking, the difference between social networking (connecting and building relationships with other people) and social media (the sharing of objects with other people in a social way). Some of the social networking use examples he presented were very practical and successfully functional, such as using a meebo me chat box on the “Ask a question” page of the library site, or creating a Facebook Page for a library. Also of note is that librarians are starting to post home-grown profile pages on their library web sites, giving students a better sense of who the librarian is and what kinds of specializations they cover, as well as profiles that advertise a librarian’s availability on Facebook.

However, there was also something oddly disturbing that Stephen pointed out. He cited two librarians who have tried to perform “outreach” on Facebook by searching for students with their school affiliations and sending out mass messages to these people using Facebook’s built in messaging system. Their messages were perceived as spam (which is, essentially, true), and their accounts were shut down. However, instead of finding different ways to outreach do outreach on Facebook, they continued to work to beat the system. Not only is this behavior deplorable — purposely trying to get around Facebook’s rules for sending messages (the Inbox, Messages and Pokes help section states that if someone is not your friend, you can only message them individually, after negative experiences with past open messaging policies) to spam users, even if it’s for a benevolent cause — it’s very anti-culture for Facebook, and really kinda makes librarians look bad. One of many interesting reports on how Facebook users interact with messages is available through the HP site.

Beth Evans reported that she had great success using MySpace with students at Brooklyn College. The library has 4,000 friends on my MySpace, and they’ve been able to successfully market services and events through the online service. The library encourages everyone to “friend” them on Facebook, which I believe to be a double-edged sword. Beth noted that the reason that students say they don’t expect to see libraries in social networking spaces in OCLC report Sharing, Privacy and Trust in Our Networked World, she believes that it might be because “it may not occur to them that we have something to offer,” which I think might be an interesting discussion to have, especially with public librarians.

David Lankes tied all of the presentations together while offering food for thought at the same time. His presentation about his work on participatory reference at Syracuse was truly scintillating stuff, and is definitely worth a listen. His statement, to paraphrase a little, that knowledge is created through conversation, and libraries, being in the knowledge business, are in the conversation business, seems very natural and innovative at the same time. Reference transactions should be conversations with the patron as well as any other human or digital resources at your disposal, instead of isolated Q & A sessions, which seems a bit obvious to me (doesn’t everyone bring all of their people and resources into the process?), but it may be that not everyone does reference this way. What’s truly innovative is the Scapes vaporware (conceptual software that only exists as concept) application that he’s developing to track this very collaborative reference process. That, and while ownership of space online is OK, we’ve been “too busy chasing Amazon and Google that we’re not really figuring out whether or not we’re in the same space” competitively. As librarians, you shouldn’t “define your mission by cool features, do it by core principles,” thinking carefully about how and why people use these online spaces. We need to stop chasing all of the innovators and making second-hand copies of everything, and really create something innovative to meet our patrons needs.

So yes, social software (an umbrella for social networking + social media) can create a collaborative environment in which reference questions can be answered. However, librarians need to take care in applying these applications, and, even better, should begin to really spearhead new ways and technologies in the area.

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