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… 😉
A college is a community, too. And, in some ways, more in need of community information since a whole crop of new people show up every year. Could a community wiki work in that environment?
Very true, Joy. I know the University of Calgary has something like that, but it’s not used very much (perhaps because it does not really have a specific structure or suggestion on what should be in the wiki — I know wikis shouldn’t be structured from above, but realistically, people need that structure to feel confident about posting). I guess I’m just stuck on the idea of public libraries doing it because I’d love to see something like that when I move to VT next week. Probably, Adam and I will just end up creating one ourselves. Just imagine moving to a new place and being able to read people’s reviews of all of the different services you’re going to need to set up when you get there (Internet providers, mechanics, dentists, etc.). You’re right that it would be just as useful at a college/university, and it will definitely be on my list of “things I’d like to do at Norwich”.
I think your idea is sound in principle, but I think a manager would say something like “I think a wiki is an excellent option for a community resource: now back up a second and tell me what is the problem you are trying to solve here. Is it our problem (ie. does it relate to the library’s mission and goals)? Who is your target? What resources do you need to put this on? Is this service sustainable in the long term? Would some other group in the community be a better choice for this sort of thing? Is there a partnership opportunity here? Who would the wiki impact (positively or negatively/internally or externally) and how? Would the board (or other governing body) buy into it?
Put all these responses with analysed data into a 30-page report and send it to me for review. You have three months.” 🙂 I think the problem with any public-oriented institution is that you have to justify everything you do and account for every penny & minute of staff time. I shouldn’t have said “problem” because this justification process is actually a good thing.
On the top of my head, I would think this would be a good partnership activity. As in, the library teams with a welcome wagon group or new immigrants group and offers the wiki. In Canada, I think there are sweet little grants for this sort of thing — except you have to fight upteen dozen other communities to do it.
I like Ryan’s idea of partnership.
In a college production, the library could partner with the student newspaper or student government.
In a community production, the college library could partner with the public library and the welcome wagon.
Firstly I am very happy about having found this blog (was searching for screencasting comparison sites) and I really liked this entry.
Here in Norway, we are facing some of the same challenges. Will be very interesting to see how libraries develop here, in the US, and elsewhere.
Your comment about wishing you were working at a public library sounds a lot like some thoughts I’ve had: that there’s an artificial separation of duties to separate academic from public libraries, when I believe academic libraries could gain from using public library, and their activities programing in particular, as their model.
Your focus has rightfully been technology, but I feel that libraries, regardless of what they offer online, are fundamentally in need of being seen as ‘places’ — when a library pushes new technologies, it should take some effort to put a ‘face’ on that technology to always tie what you do online to who you will see when you come into the library. Academically this plays well to into establishing relationships between scholars and librarians, and building support structures for students who will grow into lifetime users. I wish it were done more. Publicly, you’re opening the space up to everyone — not just to an already well-supported online community. Innovation and community building should occur on both streets — actual and virtual — concurrently and collaboratively.
I may just be afraid that people will want to spend all their time online without ever meeting the people behind the services, but by not having that librarian or library ‘face’ — that physcial manifestation of what a patron sees online — don’t you risk routing everything about the library toward a virtual space over supporting personnel, physcial collections, and shared physcial spaces? Joining the two together, however, supports both practes and allows the patron to choose their preferred method of contact, with an understadning that they’re still working with certain individuals who themselves become another access point.
I think you make a good point. There seems to be a mini-paradigm change in the “technology access” world. The early model seemed to be that the website was an access point that is largely separate from the physical spaces — like it’s own branch. At the same time, branch spaces seemed to want to turn the website into a promotional tool for their branch and they largely missed many online service opportunities (IMHO).
To me, this is a loss of focus for the service. I think the new model is that technology should make what libraries do well even better. In the public library setting, there is no doubt that an online catalog is a great way to get books. Place your holds, and they sit on a shelf for you to pick them up. Not exactly a self-dependent service point, nor does it really promote the use of a branch. A great website can also make using a library computer an even more enjoyable experience too. A virtual space can also increase the capacity of certain programs too. Online tutorials can help students reinforce what they learned in classrooms. And so on.
Blast from the past! Before I moved up here to Calgary I spent some time working with the SEFLIN Freenet, which was community-based lynx/web site maintained by a library network (SEFLIN). It was almost *exactly* what you describe, though mediated. Folks would sign up to be content providers and they would have to email their updates to one of the maintainers (me), and we would figure out where in the structure the updates needed to go, and via text editor would manually make the updates, and would manually update the “what’s new” page.
It was pretty darn popular for a while there, but was eventually taken over by the web.
I’m always surprised each time I remember there’s a page for my city on Wikipedia. How would yours be different from the Montpelier page on Wikipedia? Or is it the connection with the library that’s desired?
The community wiki would be more “nuts and bolts” than the wikipedia entry. It would be designed so that someone who came to Vermont would know what the good restaurants are, which hotels are nice, who is a good mechanic for old Subarus, where you can find great cheese/wine/maple syrup, etc. People would just add the things they like in their area (kind of like the ALA Chicago Wiki), so that it would be good for visitors, people just moving to Vermont, and old hands looking for new things to see/do/eat/etc. The Monteplier page in Wikipedia just gives population stats, history, geography, etc. It’s a good overview. The Vermont wiki would give you the “down and dirty” on each town.