By Meredith Farkas | July 30, 2005
I’ve never understood librarians who are afraid of change. Maybe it’s because I’m young, but I doubt it, because I’m probably a bigger fan of routine than the average person. I’m far more open to change inside the library world than outside in my personal life. I’m not a believer in the whole “change is good” mantra or “change for the sake of change”. I just think we should be meeting the needs of our patrons, and we can’t pretend that those needs haven’t changed since 1990. Change is good in the library world because everything is changing around us. The technology available to us is changing. Our patron demographics are changing. And thus, our patrons’ needs are changing. It’s a no-brainer that we should be constantly re-evaluating how we serve our patrons to see if we could be doing something better. Our raison d’être is to meet the needs of our patrons and if we’re not doing that, then maybe we are obsolete.
In the other hand, I do understand people who are afraid of other people. We live in a society where we are taught to look for signs of untrustworthyness in everyone we meet. We are taught to look at every situation as one of potential danger. In a society where spam, identity theft and computer viruses have become almost expected in our everyday wired lives, we are taught to trust no one. Our passwords have to be secure and frequently changed for fear that someone will break into our bank accounts. Our computers must frequently be scanned to see if we’ve been invaded by worms, trojan horses, spyware and viruses. And rightly so, because stuff like that does happen all the time. In such a “locked down” society, it is difficult to imagine giving up any of the control we have over our web presence. And yet, when putting a wiki or a blog that patrons can post to or comment on, that is exactly what one must do.
When I say “give up control”, I don’t mean that you’re making your website vulnerable to hackers who could destroy all of it. Wikis, blogs and forums do not invite hackers onto your server. Vulnerabilities like that are usually the result of bad code or of not updating one’s server software to reflect the state of the art in security. Giving up control with a wiki, blog, or forum means giving up total control over the content on the website. You’re basically saying, “public, we trust you to write appropriate things on our site and not to mess it up too badly.” If you think that people basically can’t be trusted, then you probably won’t be a big fan of giving up any of that control. And that’s the way many people are. Most people are skeptical of wikis because they don’t think that people, left to their own devices, would create good content. With library blogs, they don’t want to turn comments on because they worry they’ll get negative or malicious comments. And there will be people who write stupid, nasty things. And there will be people who spam your wiki or blog. But it’s almost always managable if you install spam software and check your comments daily. By not having any way for people to comment on your blog, you’re basically making it as much a one-way communications vehicle as a static website. By having a blog where the community can offer feedback and suggestions, you are creating an online community. And by opening that door, you may get more useful feedback and suggestions than any survey you’ve done. The good content will almost certainly outweigh the bad and will make any online community (whether wiki, blog, forum, or listserv) worthwhile.
Do we not trust our patrons? Is this why we have plenty of online communities for librarians, but not so many for our service populations?
Maybe I’m a bottom-up person because I’ve never been on top. I’ve never been in charge. But also, I really believe in the power of collaboration. I know that I often don’t think of every side of a problem or every solution. So I like getting feedback or suggestions from a variety of people, because I almost always hear something I hadn’t thought of. That’s what excited me so much about the ALA Chicago 2005 Wiki. People had all of these great ideas that I hadn’t ever thought of and they made the site so much better by adding their 2 cents. If I had just created a Web Guide to Chicago on my own (which was my initial thought), it wouldn’t have been 1/10 as useful as the Wiki was. The collective wisdom of the people who posted was what made it great. And I’d like to think that an online community of our patrons/communities would produce something equally valuable.
So I have this idea that almost makes me wish I was going to be working at a public library. It’s an idea I haven’t seen implemented in any library and I think it would really make people see the library as an online hub for the community. The idea is to create a community wiki. This wiki obviously could become anything, but in my mind, it would be a one-stop-shop for information about the community. There would be a page on restaurants with people writing their opinions of each place (good or bad). There would be a page where people could talk about who their favorite mechanics are. There would be a page for each community group where they could list the times and locations of their meetings for members. The local government could provide timely information on the wiki about school closings and whatnot. It would become whatever the community wanted it to become. And yes, there would probably be spam. And yes, there would be idiots who posted rude comments. But when you have enough people working on the wiki, they will enforce the community norms by removing those things from the wiki. For a while, I stopped having to worry about spam on the ALA Wiki, because it always got fixed by someone else before I even saw it.
If you were someone who thought libraries were going the way of the dinosaurs, what would you think when you saw this community wiki on your library’s website? Can you think of a better way to make your website a “community resource?” If anyone wants to implement this at their library, please email me and I’d be happy to offer advice and any help I can. I just think it would be a great way to make the library more visible in the community, to change the public’s perceptions of what libraries are, and to develop a fantastic resource for the community.
How cool would a Vermont Wiki be? Hmmm…