Social Hacking at the Library

I’m always interested to read about ideas that folks outside of librarianship have about libraries. The other day my partner forwarded me a tweet from tech publisher Tim O’Reilly:

Interesting note about an MIT professor who “hacked” (socially) the library as a way of recruiting interesting students

O’Reilly links to Harvard’s Library Innovation Lab blog to a brief post by Matt Phillips that discusses an obituary for an MIT professor. The obituary noted that this faculty member kept many library books in his office long after they were due, because:

the library would send him the students who wanted those books, and he would interview them as potential assistants

Phillips goes on to write:

People connect through works held at the library and the library should encourage these connections.

Many of the thoughts that ran through my head after reading this are expressed in the comments for the blog post. How could the library reveal which patron had checked out those books?! Doesn’t LibraryThing (among other social reading tools) already help readers connect over similar interests? And what about the poor students who didn’t feel like going over to that faculty member’s office — wasn’t he holding those books hostage?

While the specifics of this situation are probably somewhat unique to the institution, I do think that providing opportunities for patrons to connect around library collections is an interesting idea. But the privacy concerns are a big deal. Protecting our patrons’ privacy is a core value of librarianship, and revealing to another patron who has checked out a book flies directly in the face of that.

Perhaps we could provide the opportunity for patrons to opt-in to a service that would allow them to connect with other interested readers, to give our users a choice between keeping their reading history private and sharing it. Though I worry that it can sometimes be easier to see the short term benefits of decreased privacy than the possible longer term detriments. With so many services incrementally moving to public by default (yes, Facebook, I’m looking at you) it’s getting easier to share more and more of our information, and it seems like the more we share the easier it gets.

There are also technical issues. Barbara wrote about academic libraries using LibraryThing a couple of years ago, but it seems like most libraries that have added LibraryThing to their catalogs feature tags and related readings only, not the kinds of social connections that are available on the main LibraryThing site. Would it be possible to layer what is essentially social networking on top of our library catalogs? I’m sure the feasibility of this would vary between catalogs. There are some promising social networking applications out there, including open source options like BuddyPress, a plugin for the WordPress blogging platform, which might be a candidate for a social catalog hack.

I’m sure there are lots of other possibilities for making our catalogs (and databases?) more social and helping our readers connect over their shared interests. If you’re experimenting with these kinds of features in your library, I’d love to hear about your experiences.

Do Open Academic Libraries Need Academic Librarians

I started the day by doing a quick dive into an open course on education futures. Open courses are nothing new. MIT began offering them some time ago, and a number of institutions have followed suit. This one caught my attention because it was being offered by two education gurus in a totally independent setting. I was curious about the curriculum and the platforms they were using to offer the course (a combination of elluminate for live sessions, drupal for the website and discussion board, blogs, etc). It looks pretty interesting, and what’s of greater interest is how easy it is becoming for anyone with access to open technologies to create a course and open it up to the world. Of course, such courses offer no credit, lead to no degrees, and have no accreditation – but that’s not the point. If you want to join a learning community and expose yourself to new ideas, the open course is a perfect way to do it. If people want to create something and share it with others, the tools to do so are now available – and I think we’ll be seeing many more examples of the open movement in unexpected ways.

What about an open academic library? That’s not “open” as in “our library is open from 8 am to 10 pm today”, but rather the library isn’t open, so the users decide to create their own library and open it others who want what the library offers when the library is closed. That sounds sort of messed up, but that’s exactly what is happening at the California State University, Los Angeles, where budget cuts have forced the academic library to close several hours earlier than in the past. According to this Los Angeles Times article, when budget cuts forced the library to begin closing at 8 pm, the students felt left out in the cold. They needed a communal space for quite study, computer access, photocopiers, and those other amenities (e.g., printers) the academic library offers – and they wanted it at least until midnight. So these enterprising students created an open library by bringing their own chairs and tables, jerry-rigging some electrical power, and they were in business – and they set it up right outside the library and appear to be attracting some crowds.

The actions of the students sends a powerful message to the campus administrators. Academic libraries are sacred campus space that provides students with the facilities and amenities they need for learning. On the other hand it does raise the question of what our role is in supporting student success. If the students can create their own open library without academic librarians, what does that say about our added value? Many academic libraries already offer 24-hour study spaces that are either unstaffed or staffed only by student workers or security personnel. Academic librarians need not always be physically present to make an impact on student learning. And you can make the case that while the students are contributing the physical elements of the library, the academic librarians designed the online research environment that the students may use at their open library. There’s clearly more to the library than chairs, tables, and computers. And while the article doesn’t comment on it, there may be CSU, LA librarians available via chat or text message to help students at the open library. Librarians or library school students could volunteer to stop by the open library and offer their services.

The open academic library at CSU, LA is more about, as one student is quoted in the article, “resistance” to an administrative decision to close early. I suspect it isn’t the start of a trend. But there’s no question that the field of higher education is ripe for open initiatives, and with respect to the academic library – at least for its most basic physical study functions (books? media? students could bring their own and share them I suppose) going “open” is a distinct possibility. I think we would certainly want to support an open academic library. If MIT can continue to function as an “admissions” only, tuition-based university at the same time it offers an entirely open campus, then it seems the traditional academic library and its open counterpart could certainly co-exist.

The lure of the local (library association)

Americans are mobile by nature, and American academics are even more so. Simply to change jobs most of us would need to relocate to another city, if not another state. This mobility has been on my mind recently because this year, for the first time, I became significantly involved in my local library organization. It is the first time I have felt moved to become locally involved because it is also the first time I have been in a job and a town where I can picture myself happily remaining long-term, even forever.

I’m “borrowing” this post title from a fascinating book I read a number of years ago by Lucy Lippard, an art critic who wrote about the ways that we construct our identities from our surroundings. She writes:

Our personal relationships to history and place form us, as individuals and groups, and in reciprocal ways we form them. Land, history, and culture meet in a multicentered society that values place but cannot be limited to one view.

Many of us underestimate the reciprocal relationship between ourselves our our places, and relocate often enough that we lack the opportunity or desire to gain a deep knowledge of the place where we live NOW. This applies to everything around us: the landscape, the people and friendships we form, our local history, and the organizations to which we dedicate our time and skill.

Participation in a national organization such as ACRL is extremely valuable — I would be the last person to argue otherwise — but participation in a local library association is arguably even more important. On the local level we gain essential historical knowledge of our place; we develop relationships with the people who keep the libraries of all types in our area running; we learn the ways of the institutional, regional, and state boards that determine our funding. Most importantly, on the local level we can share the skills and knowledge we have gained from our national involvement to empower and improve the libraries in our region. We can collaborate and build our local communities together.

So perhaps my blog post has turned treatise, but I have come to see local participation as a privilege and a duty. I have been fortunate in the opportunities I have been offered within ALA and ACRL, and will continue to enjoy my national participation. Yet we are also physical people living in a physical places, and our identities are being formed around us. “Where are you from?,” asks everyone we meet at our national conferences.

What I say to that question is “Boise State University in Idaho.” But in truth my answer varies by the day, for each day I learn more about what it means to live and work as a librarian in Idaho, a place unique from any other. In our globalized world, living in the local is a whole new way of being, and one that brings unexpected rewards.

Where People Turn When They Need Information

The year 2008 may indeed turn out to be “The Year of Information Overload“, but most Americans may be too busy searching for information to notice. When faced with problems that require information to identify appropriate solutions the internet is the “go to” resource for Americans. According to a new survey, when faced with the need for information for a serious problem (health concerns, career or education decisions, starting a business, seeking government assistance, etc.), 58% of Americans go right to the internet. What does this mean for libraries? Do Americans still seek assistance from professional librarians when they need important information, or has the Internet marginalized us even more than we thought?

The answers to these questions may be found in a new Pew Internet & American Life Project survey study titled “Information Searches That Solve Problems.” This study was released just yesterday, and the report deserves attention from library professionals. According to the summary page “the focus of the survey was how Americans address common problems that might be linked to government.” As any librarian would likely expect the first thing the majority of the survey respondents did was to search the internet. Next, most respondents sought help from a professional, such as a doctor, lawyer or financial expert. Hmm, guess what they say about librarians not being viewed as professional experts may have some truth to it. Actually, libraries (public that is) came in dead last with only 13% of the respondents reporting that they went to a public library for their information.

But here’s an interesting twist on which academic librarians should dwell. The study reports that young adults in tech-loving Generation Y (age 18-30) lead the pack among the 53% of Americans who reported a visit to the library in the past year for any kind of information or visit. Compared to their elders, Gen Y members were the most likely to use libraries for problem-solving information and general patronage for any purpose. Now although the report mostly deals with public library use, I would bet that a good number of respondents in this age category have regular access to an academic library. There’s no indication that the survey asked respondents to identify the type of library used. While we should refrain from jumping to the conclusion that academic librarians can be credited with turning Gen Y into library users, I think this can be seen as an indicator that academic librarians and their faculty colleagues may indeed be having a positive impact on the search behavior of Generation Y.

But before we begin the celebration with some well-deserved back patting, perhaps we need to temper our enthusiasm with this report’s mixed conclusion:

Instead of the internet making libraries less relevant, internet use seems to create an information hunger that libraries help satisfy. But many more people consider going to libraries than actually do. This suggests that libraries should try to untangle the complex web of reasons why different groups of people – even those who might profit most from using the library – don’t in fact use the library, and in some cases, actually shun using it.

I think it would help if the library, especially on our campuses, was a place people wanted to go – a destination – rather than a place they have to go. That’s why more academic librarians are thinking about the library user experience. What can we do to create an environment that will encourage our user community to want to use the library? How do we make 2008 the year of the great library user experience? I intend to explore this Pew report in more detail to learn why people use libraries to search for information – and why they don’t. The complete version of the report is available online.

What Happened To The Personal Web Site

You could make a case that the personal blog has impacted academic librarianship in several noticeable ways. First, changing the dynamic of how new ideas are proposed, and how new resources are shared. Second, shifting how academic librarians communicate ideas and engage in discourse. And third, and perhaps most significantly, influencing thought and establishing new trends in academic librarianship. Arguably, blogs appear to have eclipsed what was once the domain of the published journal article. While I still believe in the viability of the published article as a communication vehicle and as a demonstration of one’s ability to succeed in the venue of traditional disciplinary publishing, for many academic librarians – particularly those new to the profession – that may no longer be the case. And if blogs were ever to replace scholarly journal articles as the gold standard for those on the tenure track, published journal articles would likely languish even more.

But this post isn’t a discussion of the blog’s impact on publishing. It raises the question of the blog’s impact on another professional communication mode that seems to be on the decline – the personal web site. In the pre-blog days if an academic librarian wanted to achieve some of those things for which a blog now serves, a personal web site was the best available option. It could provide a personal profile, access to a CV, a listing of articles and presentations, resources that the site owner wanted to share with colleagues, and specialized resource pages designed to enlighten colleagues, promote new ideas, and create a name for oneself. Perhaps the blog’s ability to accomplish the latter is the primary reason why the personal web site is no longer the first choice – or a choice at all – for many academic librarians who want to establish themselves as thought leaders in the profession and influence their colleagues.

Why am I thinking about personal web sites? One of my summer projects, not yet fully completed, was to move my personal web site to a new domain and to give it a redesign. I’ve been gradually moving the content from my previous employer’s server to a new location – my own domain. As the task nears completion it got me wondering whether the site and its content would still hold the same professional value as when I began a personal web site in 1998 or whether it would just be perceived as an anachronism. In the earlier days of the Internet having one’s own site was all the rage. I don’t believe the current choice is web site versus blog. I think it makes sense to have both. A blog is a superior way to share news and ideas with immediacy. Although it may be in decline, a personal web site can still offer some advantages. It provides a place for more in depth information. A librarian with a web site can establish his or her expertise in a subject discipline with a resource list or provide more detailed information about his or herself.

Given these potential advantages to maintaining a personal web site, I wondered how many academic librarians, both bloggers and non-bloggers, also maintain a personal web site. My methods were wholly unscientific. I merely searched the web by name or looked for a link to a personal web site from a blogger’s site. I examined three categories of of academic librarians:
* my fellow acrlog bloggers
* prominent academic librarians
* academic librarian bloggers

ACRLog Bloggers:

Marc Meola – staff page only
Barbara Fister – yes and yes
Lisa Hinchliffe – staff page only

What I would call a “staff page” – a page in your library web site that identifies you but really isn’t a developed site, doesn’t really count as having a personal web site. To my way of thinking a personal web site is more robust – it at least has more than one page and a diverse range of information and resources. Staff pages are pretty common, and most are pretty thin on content.

Prominent Academic Librarians:

Jim Neal – yes (doesn’t blog)
Julie Todero – yes (doesn’t blog)
Pam Snelson – staff page only (doesn’t blog)
Susan Nutter – staff page only (doesn’t blog)
Betsy Wilson – enhanced staff page (doesn’t blog)
Stanley Wilder – unable to locate page (doesn’t blog)
Larry Hardesty – staff page only (doesn’t blog)
Jim Rettig – does an election site count? (does blog)

Selected Academic Librarian Bloggers:

Library 2.0– An Academic Librarian’s Perspective (Laura Cohen) – no personal web site found
Academic Librarian (Wayne Bivens-Tatum) – staff page only
Ubiquitous Librarian (Brian Matthews) – yes (under construction)
Information Literacy Land of Confusion (Michael Lorenzen) – yes
Information Wants To Be Free (Meredith Farkas) – combination blog/web site
Medium is the Message (Eric Schnell) – yes, somewhat limited
Pattern Recognition (Jason Griffey) – no personal web site found
Wandering Eyre (Michelle Boule) – an expanded blog, not quite a web site
Library Marketing (Jill Stover) – staff page found; no web site
See Also (Steven Lawson) – no personal web site found
Baby Boomer Librarian (Bill Drew) – replaced his personal web site with a wiki

Note to my fellow academic bloggers: the results are based on quick internet searches and blog visits; if the information is not correct or you don’t agree with my assessment – chime in.

I also checked out a number of A-List bloggers to see how many of them maintain a web site in addition to their blog. Turns out that not too many of them do. Seems the trend is to blend some traditional web site content (CV, articles, presentations) into the blog site, usually in the “about” section.

So what can we learn from this? The sample of prominent (legacy) academic librarians I chose suggests that traditional web site content may be a bit more commonplace among that crowd, but certainly blogs are quite limited. While I found more of the blogging academic librarians less likely to have well-developed web sites, I found more web site-like content than I expected. But I think it’s safe to say that for most newcomers to the profession a personal blog will win out over a personal web site. LIS students, especially those about to graduate, should give serious consideration to a personal web site that can function as a portfolio of academic accomplishments and demonstrate web design skills. For the new grad, a web site may be of greater value than a blog.

A web site, in my experience, is more time consuming initially to design and implement, but once established it requires just occasional updating. I think there are some good skills to be learned from this process – FTP, file structures, web site architecture and design, absolute vs. relative linking, bookmark linking, etc. Re-designing my personal web site gave me an opportunity to get more Dreamweaver experience, to figure out how to get a flash file to load on a web page, and to experiment with new design features. Is the personal web site passe? For academic librarians that appears to be the trend. But I don’t doubt that its decline has something to do with the recognition factor and where a librarian gets more bang for the buck. In that department, these days, a blog has the web site beat by a mile.