By Meredith Farkas | March 14, 2009
Yesterday, I gave a talk for the ACRL Virtual Conference entitled Can’t Get There From Here: Achieving Organization 2.0. If you’re registered for the Virtual Conference or the regular ACRL Conference, you can access the archive of the talk, and if not, my slides and links to what I discussed are provided on my presentation wiki. It was a really fun talk to give because there was such a great turnout and attendees asked some really awesome questions. I talked about some of the reasons why a Web 2.0 technology or service might not be working at your library and how we can better position our organizations to effectively implement user-centered technologies and services.
In the beginning of my talk, I showed screenshots of library blogs that haven’t been posted to, MySpace pages that haven’t been logged into, and podcasts that haven’t had new episodes in years. And I talked about some of the reasons why these 2.0 projects may have failed:
The first reason is that frequently social software implementations are not tied to institutional goals. Research has shown that libraries have been much more successful in marketing information literacy instruction when it’s tied to University goals/General Education requirements/etc. It’s the same with 2.0 technologies. Whatever we’re doing should be tied to the library’s strategic goals and planning. If it’s not tied to the library’s goals, then how will it be seen as a priority?
Similarly, 2.0 technologies should be planned for in a strategic way, which I think has not happened at a lot of libraries. Some libraries jumped on the blogging bandwagon because they thought (or were told) that every library must have a blog. Other libraries started wikis because staff were really excited about the idea of having a wiki. Neither are good reasons to implement a technology. We first need to understand the needs of our population (be it patrons or staff) and then implement whatever technology and/or service will best meet those needs. We need to have clear goals in mind from the outset so that we can later assess if it’s successful or not. These technologies may be fun, but they’re simply tools. We don’t walk around with hammers looking for nails to smash in.
In some cases, social software is treated as one staff member’s “pet project.” The use of 2.0 technologies in the library is often one person’s initiative at their library. They will make a passionate case for a blog, wiki, or whatever and will end up handling every aspect of its implementation. When that person leaves their job or gets too busy with other job responsibilities, guess what ends up being abandoned? I heard a horror story from a library that entrusted one staff member with running their MySpace profile and when she left under not-so-friendly circumstances, she refused to give anyone at the library the login information for their profile. This is just as foolish as a library only having one person who can access the back-end of their server or ILS. What if that person gets hit by a bus?!?!? Cross-training is a critical component of building an effective organization, and the same should be the case with any 2.0 technologies a library implements. Making it one person’s sole responsibility is a great way to doom a project.
I think one of the biggest reasons for problems with 2.0 technologies is also one of the major reasons why so many libraries are using them — they’re just so easy to get started with. It takes five minutes to start a blog, a wiki, a del.icio.us account or a MySpace page. And yet, keeping 2.0 technologies going takes significantly more time and effort. Blogs need to be posted to, MySpace pages need to be updated, and wikis need content. And something that people are very excited about maintaining in the first month or two of its existence might lose its allure over time. If there isn’t a plan for how you will maintain the tech from the get-go — be it scheduling posting and moderation, updating the software, etc. — it’s very possible that it will be abandoned when staff become less enthusiastic about it or they just get busy with other things. Libraries need to plan for the implementation and continued maintenance of 2.0 tech in the same way they plan for the technologies they pay a small fortune for. Even 2.0 tech costs money in terms of staff time, so it’s important to take it just as seriously as costly tech.
Finally, I think a lot of library staff end up abandoning 2.0 projects because they simply aren’t given time to work on them. We all have lots of duties that are non-negotiable in our job — reference shifts, instruction, web updates, committee appointments, etc. — and blogs, wikis and podcasts are often seen as something “extra.” If you create a weekly podcast and are totally bogged down one week with library instruction, it’s pretty obvious what won’t get done. While administrators may initially say that implementing 2.0 tech is important to keep up with other libraries and our patrons, they may not give you any additional time to work on these things. I’ve heard that complaint from a number of people at talks I’ve given. If you already have a full workload, your Director tells you that it’s critically important that the library have a blog, but doesn’t free up any time for you to work on it, he or she is sending a really mixed message about its import.
Two attendees actually asked when they should abandon a 2.0 project that just doesn’t have the ROI they were hoping for. Here are some of my thoughts on that:
I think before you abandon a project, you should try to figure out why your 2.0 technology isn’t having the impact you’d hoped for. That way, even if you do need to abandon the project, at least you’ve learned valuable lessons about your population from the failure. We can learn a lot from trying things and failing that can help us better meet our patrons’ needs in the future.
If it’s something your patrons aren’t visiting/using, think about why that might be. Are they not aware it exists? Then try doing more marketing. Is it just not meeting their needs in its current form? See if there’s a way you can make it more useful to them. Maybe your podcast is too long or your blog posts are boring. You should survey your patrons or at least talk to some of them and figure out how you can better meet their needs. Are there barriers to use that your patrons find unacceptable? See if you can bring those down. Our distance learners didn’t use our IM reference service when we first launched it 3 years ago, because most of them didn’t use IM normally (their average age is significantly older than that of our undergrad population) and weren’t exactly going to download a client and create an account just to chat with us. When we started using MeeboMe, everything changed, because the students just had to type words into a box and click enter to chat with us. So look for possible barriers to use. Are you making it too difficult for patrons to comment on your blog or add content to your wiki? Bring those walls down.
If it’s something that’s failing because staff aren’t contributing to it, you need to try to understand what’s behind their resistance. Make sure you’ve done all you can to secure buy-in. Are staff comfortable with the technology? Are they not being given time to add content? Did you offer trainings on it? Are there any technology barriers that you can bring down — make it easier to post, make the wiki/blog/etc. the homepage on their computer, even post things for people to get them started, etc.? But honestly, if most staff members don’t recognize that there’s a need for a library wiki or library blog or whatever in the first place, or the project isn’t strongly supported by administration, it’s not going to be a good fit for your library. That doesn’t mean that it might not be a good fit in the future, but it’s not a good fit now. I’d been wanting to create subject guides using a wiki at our library for a really long time, but waited until my colleagues recognized a need for it (and our Head of Public Services saw a need for it) to actually develop one. And I made sure to offer trainings so that people could practice editing the wiki in a safe space with a knowledgeable facilitator there. Had I introduced the idea earlier or not offered trainings, it would likely have ended in failure.
These are just some thoughts off the top of my pregnancy-addled head. What tips would you give to people who have implemented 2.0 technologies in their library and just aren’t seeing much return on investment from them? What can libraries do to get off on the right foot with 2.0 technologies?