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.