Seeking The Killer Connector For A Social Academic Library Site

Editors Note: I recently had the great pleasure of delivering a talk at the McKeldin Library at the University of Maryland. Afterwards Gavin Brown, Manager, Digital Technology Interface Services at the University of Maryland Libraries, and I chatted about ways in which academic libraries could do more to make their web sites social. Brown had some interesting insights, and we exchanged some ideas and resources in subsequent messages. I wondered if ACRLog readers have thought about these issues as well, considering how to invite more social interaction with the students and faculty. I asked Brown to share his thoughts in this guest post. ACRLog greatly appreciates this contribution from Gavin Brown.

Steve Jobs once famously said of new technology, “You’ve got to have a killer app to succeed.” App is short for application, but he wasn’t referring to a software program, he was referring to the laser printer, which was what he felt would help the Macintosh computer succeed by making high quality printing available at a low price.

I work at an ARL library and we are currently investigating the possibility of “going social,” that is to say, adding social tools to our web presence to see if that makes it more appealing to the wifired-iphone-mobile-kindle-geolocated-always-connected-engage-me-or-I’m-gone generation.

Social tools aren’t exactly new to me – I’ve been on Facebook and MySpace, as well as some Musician-oriented sites (I am a composer) for a couple of years, but I haven’t tried to implement them in a traditional organization.

I’ve read Seth Godin and I think he’s on to something. He gave an example of how social websites can succeed by connecting communities to each other –, which sells T-shirts. The company has no designers. All the shirts are designed by customers. Other customers come on to the site, buy the T-shirts, do reviews of them, make comments. Customers engage with each other to create the “experience that is”

I recently discussed with my assistant, a library school student, and we tried to think of how the model of connecting communities might apply to our website. But what communities? Subject Specialists with Faculty? Students with Librarians? All our answers seemed boring and pointless. Why would these groups of people care to engage each other through our web site? We couldn’t answer the question.

Then my assistant made the point that what is important to identify is not the communities, but the “thing” which connects them. In the threadless model, the connector is T-shirts.People like talking to each
other about the designs. It was interesting to them. So we began looking at social sites of all sorts of different types to see if we could find the connector and determine what was interesting about it. And we found it over and over. On, people around the world offer their couches to people who travel around the world, saving hotel costs. The site features a world map with pins in it wherever a couch may be found. Travelers and Couchsters discuss the travel and the aspects of the city the couch is in. On, people discuss and rate movies. On, which is about knitting, the customers trade knitting patterns. On, people select life goals like “buy an electric car,” or “get rid of unnecessary possessions” and connect and talk to each other about them. The point we took away from this investigation was: find something that is interesting to people and they will connect to each other using it, the “Killer Connector.”

In an academic research library setting, what could this be? We first thought of books, but that felt very”1.0,” so we put that aside, at least for the moment. The ideas we came up with were – major, class, professor, location in the building, research topics. In the case of the major – would students in the same major want to connect and communicate with each other about their major? Would faculty use it to connect to students? Would a subject librarian who advises on the major be able to share research ideas or otherwise advise students through the major? Would librarian faculty liaisons connect with faculty through the major? We had similar discussions about the other ideas. One idea we dismissed was clubs – we figured the clubs would already have made use of Ning or Facebook or some other social tool and we didn’t want to compete with that. Our idea had to give our users something they couldn’t already get elsewhere and were unlikely to build on their own, a sort of “procial” network – a professional network for discussing and enhancing the academic experience, but with social aspects.

Our discussions about seeking the “Killer Connector” continue. Soon we’ll be talking to the students and seeing what they think.

Other articles we ran across in our travels which we are also considering: (strategies for maximizing visibility and usability of social tools on your site) (how to build your social experience so that people will want to use it)

Special thanks to Jacqueline Carrell for her contributions to this article.

13 thoughts on “Seeking The Killer Connector For A Social Academic Library Site”

  1. Ideas for a social connector with library websites:

    1) The standard is Amazon. I would love to see a way that patrons could opt-in to share star ratings, local reviews, and other info of books (or other items) checked out of the library.

    2) There should be a way to associate materials with courses.

    3) I’d love if “selecting” librarians would keep a brief online, public journal talking about the recent purchases that they are most excited about. I’m very interested in what the social science librarian buys, and would like a way to have a dialogue with her.

    4) Anonymized data around circulation – which books are being requested and checked out most – what is hot..

    Great post Steven…

  2. It would be great if we have an opportunity to connect to books authors (I understand it’s hard to implement and the idea can be applied for very few books).
    The most simple way is to organize forum around different fields (books, subjects ect.). On the basis of members activity and interest you may conclude whether it has sense to develop web 2.0 features.

  3. It will be interesting to see a forum for doing research — developing ideas, topics, related works, experts on the topic, etc. Hey, bring in the academic clubs as well, they have a critical mass, and they need to be connected with the libraries’ resources as well.

  4. What about expanding the connector from not just book authors, but journal authors, news columnists, selected bloggers: in other words: people. “People” are our original, and really only true source of knowledge: here, specifically people who have something valuable and insightful to say about specified issues and topics. Just like Steven could be the “connector” for people who want to talk about academic librarianship etc.

  5. @Joshua – Amazon allows you to grab their user reviews, editorial reviews, and mash them into your site @All – thanks for the connector ideas

  6. I’d sound a note of caution on this. At my library we have recently gone live with the open source VuFind OPAC, which allows users to do exactly the sort of Amazon-like ‘reviewing’ and ‘tagging’ that some above have suggested (as well as pulling in reviews from Amazon itself, amongst other places). We thought this would be a major pull for our students, academics, and researchers. VuFind has proved to be very popular because of its clean interface and intuitive searching but the social aspects produced… almost nothing. Nearly two years after we first started experimenting with the system we’ve still only had *four* people add comments / reviews (and I’m pretty sure two of those were from library staff). The lesson seems to be: our users don’t want the library to be their social hub in that way. There are other forums where they can connect with each other over shared learning interests – but they’re not interested in having the library mediate.

  7. The “free” Amazon reviews that can be imported into VuFind are customer reviews, not the kind that you have to license from Syndetic Solutions (not Choice, not LJ, not PW). I frankly find them generally worse than useless. However, I am very tempted to get a package that includes the Syndetics review sources and LibraryThing for Libraries reviews and tagging – other libraries have integrated LT for Libraries into their OPAC successfully. It’s not free, but LT reviews are more thoughtful than “customer” reviews, that are often framed more as product reviews than analysis and the tags add value without actually expecting YOUR users to do all the work. I don’t know about your students and faculty, but when they’re using the catalog, they’re too busy to add content.

    For more on LT in academic libraries see

  8. @Michael F – the trick will be to be compelling. If we can’t offer something which will draw people in right away, we won’t have any better success than you had.

  9. Not sure if this is what you’re talking about, but at my library we set up an online discussion forum using our portal’s blog software on which anyone could post and start a conversation about what they like and don’t like about the library.

    I can’t give you a link because it’s behind our portal and you have to log in, but it’s based on a similar project at Western Washington University that they ran in 2008:

    One student spoke for many, I imagine, when he said “I’ve long felt that UP should have some kind of suggestion box or board where people could voice concerns to their administration…. I think this board, which is just a click away, is a really great idea and a step forward for building feelings of community and school pride on campus.”

    We are still having trouble with the comments — this is the first time our IT people have used the portal blog software so extensively and it has a few bugs — but students are connecting with each other through posts.

  10. I agree with Joshua Kim– I think selecting specific, well writing librarians to keep blogs about things going on in the library would be a very effective way to accomplish things. They could write about trends in what materials are being used most, new purchases, and even social things like study groups and other “fun” type events that are happening in and around the library’s facilities.

  11. I was thinking the other day about addressing the issue of finding a research topic for students who are just starting their research. Actually, i had a research idea of my own that I don’t have the time to pursue. And I wondered if other community members out there have research ideas that could inspire students. So I imagined a website that would be centered around a public library population that asked users to describe the research they’d like to see done. They would classify the question by LC classification, perhaps – I’m always imagining a collapse-and-expand LC classification browse that would make choosing an LC class easy. The academic side of this app would allow students to browse the suggested topics organized by LC classification, and somehow they would “sign-up” for one. Would it put the student in touch with the community requester? How would we keep this distinct from a research mill?

    Well just throwing my idea out there for reactions from other librarians whose thinking tends toward the pie-in-the-sky.

  12. I think it’s incredible the effect that the internet is having on everything, even libraries. It’s not so much the effects of the internet in a holistic sense, but rather the “social” aspect of it that gets my attention. There’s just no escaping this. I think the author captured it well he referred to it as the wifired-iphone-mobile-kindle-geolocated-always-connected-engage-me-or-I’m-gone generation”

    This social thing is the way of the future I believe. Just look at Facebook. Facebook, now famously, actually out performed Google during one week in March of this year 2010! That’s a first. People just love the real time flavor of social networking and social media. I think it’s a great idea for libraries to hook up with the modern era of information.

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