I’ve been listening and quietly taking in all of the talk about social networking software and the library’s place (if any) in that software. I’ve raised a few questions on e-mail lists about whether or not we are invading our patrons’ space by building presence in MySpace and Facebook (perhaps) and whether it is at all ok to ban the use of MySpace because it is not an “academic site” and “people are using it a lot” (ummmm… no). I’ve devoted a whole chapter in my book to social networking software and plan to speak about it at the Vermont Library Conference next week. But I didn’t realize until Friday, after discussing the subject with Casey Bisson, that I’d never actually discussed my thoughts on social networking software with other librarians. I guess I’m at the point where I’m forgetting what I’ve written for my book vs. for my blog. (Frankly, I’m lucky my brain still functions at all.)

I think I tend to ride the fence between unrelenting enthusiasm for technology and healthy cynicism. Anyone who knows me knows how excited I am by social software. I wish playing with social software and thinking about how to use it in libraries could be my full-time job. But at the same time, I’m really pragmatic about technology implementation in libraries. I hate the idea of implementing new things at libraries because they’re “cool” and not to serve a specific purpose. So I often question why librarians are doing the things they do with social software. So this is the orientation I am bringing to the discussion of MySpace and Facebook and where libraries should be in all this.

Are Facebook and MySpace bad?

I guess I can answer that question by asking this, did these same problems exist before MySpace and Facebook ever came on the scene? Before social networking sites existed we had teens exposing themselves with Web cams, we had teens posting inappropriate pictures of themselves and writing inappropriate things. We had perverts going after young people in chat rooms. And before MySpace and Facebook, teens used the Web a lot. They used it to IM with their friends, to visit online communities they were involved in, to blog, to game, etc. Before MySpace and Facebook, however, there was no one site that was so huge and pervasive and captured the attention of so many teens. It’s hard to point a finger at the Web and say it’s bad for kids and they shouldn’t use it; it’s easy to point a finger at a specific site or a few sites and blame them for everything that’s wrong with young people today.

But it’s seeing librarians — in public and academic libraries — targetting Facebook and MySpace that really concerns me. It’s one thing to have certain rules of conduct and computer usage that apply universally and that don’t target any specific group. The idea of banning a single site because patrons (mostly teenage patrons) use it a lot on the computers (and perhaps get loud) is wrong. If you think MySpace users are loud, have a rule about noise that applies to everyone. If people are using MySpace when others need to work on papers for class, have a rule regarding the time people can spend on the computer or what tasks take precedence (if you really want to police that — I sure don’t). But we have no right to ban a Web site based on the subjective value judgments we place on it.

Whether we like it or not, our patrons between the ages of 16 and 25 overwhelmingly use MySpace and Facebook, and are not going to stop using them no matter what policies we put in place. As librarians who should know our users, we should at least be aware of what they’re doing online and see what roles the library can play in our patrons’ online social worlds.

Library as educator

Since before we even had a graphical Web, libraries played an important role in educating patrons about the Internet. Just because most of our users are much more capable of surfing the Web now than they were 10 years ago doesn’t mean that our work is done. More techno-savvy doesn’t necessarily mean they have more common sense when it comes to putting personal information up online. We can play a valuable role in educating young people about online privacy and the possible negative effects of putting too much of yourself online. In public libraries and school libraries, we can educate parents about the role they should play in monitoring what their kids are doing online. Parents should know exactly what is on their child’s MySpace or Facebook profile and who their child is communicating with online. If you want to prevent all the problems of MySpace and Facebook, the key is educating the parents and making them get involved in their childrens’ online lives.

Paul Pival wondered in a recent post if young people have a lesser expectation of privacy in the online environment. I don’t know if that’s true. I think they have far less of an awareness of privacy issues. For example, look at this issue that came up when Alan Levine posted a screenshot and link to a publicly available LiveJournal blog. These profiles and blogs are freely available on the Web where anyone (parents, teachers, administrators, potential employers, etc.) can see them. In the case of Facebook, profiles are slightly more private but can still be seen by anyone with an e-mail address from that school. And I’ve seen students who live on “dry campuses” writing about getting drunk the night before. And I’ve seen them complaining about teachers and posting half-naked pictures of themselves. So if they have no expectation of privacy online, why in the world would they be posting these things? And I wonder if they really believe that parents, teachers, administrators, potential employers, etc. won’t find them there. I wonder if they have a false sense of security. And if all that is true, how would they feel about librarians building presence in MySpace and Facebook or even posting comments on their profiles.

I’m sure every school is different in this sense. Perhaps in one community the library would be a welcome and useful addition to their patrons’ online social network, where in another the patrons would think the library was invading their privacy. I think before we do anything, we should really get to know our patrons and what their attitudes are with regards to social networking software and privacy. We can’t pretend that what works at one library will work at all of them.

Building Presence in MySpace and Facebook

A lot of libraries have started building presence in MySpace and Facebook by creating profiles. And I honestly think this is a really good idea though unfortunately most libraries are doing it really badly. When you decide to put up a library profile on MySpace or Facebook, what is your goal? If it’s to look cool or to make students more aware of the library, don’t bother. A profile that offers nothing but a picture of the library, a blog post or two and a cutesy thing about how we won’t shush you just looks cheesy. I think there is a big difference between “being where our patrons are” and “being USEFUL to our patrons where they are.” I think some of the libraries in MySpace and Facebook have put a profile up, but they have not tried to make it useful to their patrons at all. Just putting up a profile does not make the library seem cool, nor does it make the library more visible.

I have seen two ways that libraries have used MySpace and Facebook effectively. The first is to get feedback from students. The second is to create a library portal within MySpace and/or Facebook (or whatever social networking software inevitably will come next).

Profile as a Two-Way Communications Mechanism

I do like the idea of having a library blog in MySpace, but a lot of libraries are using blogs just like they use them outside of MySpace — as one-way communication vehicles. When I was doing research last year looking for library blogs that build online community, I couldn’t find many. Most library blogs either leave comments off or they write posts that don’t really merit comment (they don’t inspire people to offer feedback). Why is the Ann Arbor District Library Web site so cool? Because they encourage feedback and allow their patrons to have a voice on their Web site (and thus, in the future of the library). Most libraries with profiles don’t capitalize on the Comments area in MySpace or the Wall in Facebook. By asking questions of patrons in a space they feel safe enough to express themselves in, libraries could get valuable feedback from their patrons.

I know of one library who has successfully done this, and unfortunately you’re not going to be able to see their site unless you’re a member of Facebook and add them as a friend. The Crossett Library at Bennington College has asked patrons in Facebook what books and videos they’d like the library to order for them. And patrons really are requesting things there. And even better, the library is letting them know when the materials are ordered. Rock on! Ok, yes, most libraries have an acquisitions request form, but I don’t think most students really think that’s for them. I know I would never have requested anything at my library in college because I didn’t think they’d want to hear from some dumb undergrad. But in this case, the library is coming into the students’ space and is saying “we want our collections to reflect what you need and want. We care about your opinion.” This way we are giving students a safe place to speak their mind. I would love to see a library using Facebook and MySpace to get other sorts of feedback from students about services, library hours, collections, etc. By coming into their space to ask their opinion, we’re telling them that they really do have a voice in the future of the library.

Profile as a Library Portal

Portals are definitely back in libraries. Many library Web sites have portals for faculty, portals for students, and portals for distance learners. While many of the links are likely the same, each portal has personalized content for that specific population. At Norwich, our distance learners never have to visit our library Web site; they can get to everything they could possibly need from our portal for them in WebCT. If it’s a great idea to “go where the patrons are” in terms of their courseware, why not provide the same sort of portal services in MySpace and Facebook? Many students probably spend more time on those sites than they do in their online courseware. And I’m always amazed by how many students at my school are completely incapable of finding the library Web site. No, it’s not on the front page of the University’s Web site, but it’s not that difficult to find! However, I bet they’d have a heck of a lot more luck finding our library’s profile in MySpace or Facebook (if we had one).

Some libraries have made their Facebook or MySpace site an extension of the library Web site with links to the catalog, chat reference pages, research guides, calendar of events, etc. The Brooklyn College Library profile has links to all sorts of areas on their library Web site including research tools, instructions for off-campus library access, and their Ask-a Librarian page. They also used MySpace’s calendar feature to display the library’s calendar of events. Finally, under books and movies, where regular folks write down what books and movies they like, the library profile has links to the catalog. The Morrisville College Library goes one step further and actually has a search box in their MySpace profile in which students can actually search the catalog (nice job, Bill!). The Hennepin County Public Library’s profile links to lists of new CDs, books and movies for teens and booklists that provide a valuable readers’ advisory service. The Denver Public Library’s eVolver profile is visually consistent with their regular Web site which brings home the idea of the profile as an extension of the Web site.

I strongly believe that the more links you provide to valuable library services the better. I’m an even bigger believer in providing these links on Web pages your patrons are most likely to visit. And if that happens to be MySpace or Facebook, then that’s where we should be. You can use the library profile as a portal or an extension of the library Website, providing services to patrons at the point of need. Because more than likely, your patrons will be surfing these sites while working on their latest research paper.

In conclusion, I do not think that there is anything inherently “cool” or useful about having a profile on these sites. Just like any social software tool, it’s what you do with it that matters. And many libraries aren’t really doing anything with their profiles. Sorry this is so long! This is what you get when I’m forced to staff the reference desk at night in a nearly empty library during exam week when no one comes to the reference desk in THREE HOURS. 😉 Your reward for reading through this long post is a treasure trove of links to blog posts and other useful resources about the place of libraries in social networking software. I think these posts will offer you some really good food for thought. I would love to hear your thoughts on the role of libraries in MySpace and Facebook and appropriateness of the library building presence in these sites. My opinion of the place of libraries in social networking sites is constantly evolving, so I’m totally open to comments and criticisms.

Useful Resources on Libraries and Social Networking Software

Libraries with good profiles
Brooklyn College Library
Bennington College on Facebook (won’t be able to see unless you have an account and are added as a friend)
Denver Public Library eVolver
Hennepin County Public Library
UT Austin
Morrisville College Library
Birmingham Public Library

Outreach where our patrons are and market research
Brian Matthews, Intuitive Revelations: The Ubiquitous Reference Model
Walking Paper, How about some fun?
Walking Paper, Library MySpace account action
Walking Paper, Whose Space?
Baby Boomer Librarian, The Library, FaceBook, and My Space, Update on MySpace Experiment and Update on Facebook Experiment
Pattern Recognition, Facebook + Library = Good
Hapax Legomemnon, Librarians & Facebook
Library Garden, MySpace and Social Networking Sites
Library Garden, MySpace and teens in a public library
Rhodarian, Libraries and MySpace
Stephen’s Lighthouse, Is MySpace Scary….?
Library Voice, Using Social Software to Understand Patrons

Invading our students’ space and do they want us there?
Distant Librarian: Thoughts on privacy and libraries and social networks
See Also, Social software presentation
ACRLog, Are We Welcome At The Party

Web4Lib Discussion, January 2006
LIBREF-L Discussion, April (Week 3Week 4Week 5) and May (Week 1), 2005
Librarian in Black, Please tell me why MySpace is bad for libraries (check out the comments on this one!)

Social networking software (or specific services) are just a flash in the pan???
Distant Librarian, Flash in the pan?
Library Marketing – Thinking Outside the Book, Future or fad? Online social networks in the spotlight.

Questioning the value and alternative approaches
AltRef, Perhaps my last comments ever on Facebook
Maison Bisson, What Does Facebook Matter To Libraries?
Library Marketing – Thinking Outside the Book, Long overdue post about library marketing in online communities
David Free, MySpace Day!

Blocking social networking sites
David’s Random Stuff, MySpace Is Our Space
Apropos of Nothing, MySpace Banned. And the point is?
Librarian in Black, MySpace Discussion
LibraryLaw Blog, What can and should libraries do about MySpace.com?

Useful research and commentary on social networking software
Danah Boyd, “Identity Production in a Networked Culture: Why Youth Heart MySpace”
Danah Boyd, Friendster lost steam. Is MySpace just a fad?
Fred Stutzman, Summarizing Facebook Research (this is an absolute treasure trove of research on students’ use of Facebook)