Does anyone really want to talk to a librarian?

This might sound like a desperate plea from my dwindling social life, but it’s actually part of a wider professional question: does social software belong in libraries?

I have a Facebook profile. I’ve had it for about 12 months now. It’s a novel idea for me—I didn’t get involved in any of the preceding ventures like Friendster or MySpace—but a friend of mine travelling overseas recommended it … and of course I bowed neatly to peer pressure.

2007 was a big year for Facebook, which began modestly at Harvard University as a means for freshmen to keep track of people they met in classes or dorms. In September 2007, Facebook recorded the third highest hit ranking on the Web, increasing not only in membership but also in user engagement and stealing some of the market share from arch rival MySpace. Facebook actually eclipsed MySpace in the UK, and the startup made steady progress to increase its presence in the rest of Europe in the second half of the year. In the United States, Stanford University began to offer Facebook development classes.

One of my fellow 23 Things bloggers found Facebook a great tool for keeping in touch with old work colleagues and getting to know new ones. I started at Swinburne in November 2006, and while only two of my old colleagues were on Facebook, I agree that it was good to share a little of my personality with my new colleagues to see how well we clicked (if you’ll pardon the pun). However, parading your personal life in front of work colleagues, particularly older and/or supervisory ones, is always going to be fraught with danger. Like Jane suggests, I try to be cautious about how openly I communicate on Facebook for fear of how my silly offhand remarks might be (mis)interpreted.

I don’t think it’s a bad idea for any of us to regard our online presence as though Big Brother (the Orwellian version, not Gretel Killeen … creepy) might be watching us. Dana, who declares that she has had more experience with social software than I, notes that Facebook has the most flexible privacy settings of any on the market. Yet there is no guarantee that this will continue to be the case; the Beacon debacle, which attempted to use profile data to generate targeted ads, confirmed this fear. Tom and Dana both delved sensibly into the topic of privacy early on in the 23 Things program, because they recognised the potential for inexperienced users to divulge too much information about themselves when creating online content. But I’d like to take a different tack.

A recent study from the United States indicated that almost 50 percent of the University of Michigan students surveyed would not want to contact a librarian via Facebook or MySpace for help with research. 14 percent believed it was ‘inappropriate’. One respondent even commented that ‘it’d be weird to contact a librarian that way‘. (That gave me a chuckle; it’s not everyone, after all, who would choose to ‘poke’ a librarian—only about 80,000 ‘poke’ at all).

Libraries have always been reluctant to openly market themselves; perhaps part of the students’ resistance is that, as Doug suggests, libraries appearing in Facebook and MySpace look like advertising. It’s certainly true that library services need to be proactive rather than reactive; the literature talks extensively of our collections moving from a ‘just in case’ to a ‘just in time’ model. But the truth is that these new collections, while not taking up space on the shelves, still require planning. Our staff and students might now have instant access to articles from a vast range of journals across a variety of disciplines, but this is no happy accident. Careful managing, budgeting and negotiation goes into providing such a magnificent suite of online serials.

Similarly, involving libraries in the social software phenomenon will also require careful consideration. We can’t just go out lobbying for users to join our spaces; they’ll feel harassed and resentful, like I do when someone tries to sell me something I don’t want to buy. We need our users to come to us willingly. Libraries have enough trouble appealing to the younger generation, without being accused of attempting to spy on their online lives.

Early last year, I attended a seminar with danah boyd, a leading researcher in the use of social software. Many of the attendees were secondary school teachers wondering, after seeing students post potentially compromising material online, how much it was safe or indeed appropriate to engage with their online activities. danah boyd cautiously recommended that concerned teachers build a simple Facebook or MySpace profile, then sit back and wait for students to add them as friends. She emphasised that teachers should definitely not attempt to ‘friend’ students themselves.

In an earlier post, I discussed my belief that mandatory installation of internet filters has the potential to irrevocably damage the bond of trust between parent and child. I acknowledge that parents and teachers have a vital role to play in the nurture of children’s values so I can see why they might be concerned about the ease of access to harmful content on the Web. However, teachers expect to maintain some level of privacy from their students outside school hours (I’ve been told that once you become a parent, there is no such thing as privacy, so I’ve left parents out of this debate), and I don’t think it’s unreasonable for students to expect the same courtesy. Students have no right to burst into teachers’ private residences uninvited, so surely teachers have no right to invade students’ online spaces outside school hours and attempt to moderate their behaviour?

It is questionable that librarians are obligated to play any role in the moral development of children. I think our role is chiefly to assist in the pursuit of knowledge (regardless of the perceived morality or immorality of that knowledge) and help break down barriers in access to information. We’re straying into dangerous territory if we try to assume any other kind of moral responsibility.

This puts us in a perilous position in online social environments. We look ridiculous if we try to make friends with students on their own terms, but we’re not interested in attacking their right to say and do what they like in their own online spaces. Librarians may want to use Facebook at a social level, but I don’t see why we should feel obligated to use it at a professional level too. By the same token, if I’m asked to struggle with the terrible interfaces of MySpace for the benefit of my users, I’ll do it, but I have no desire to risk having my intellectual property appropriated by posting my innermost thoughts online in a personal context. Librarians in an online social environment flounder somewhere between the devil and the deep blue sea, and I think we’d be better just to swim away.

Alternatively I suppose we could start to desperately flog the profession as: Become a librarian and get paid to play on Facebook!

(‘No Facebook – Blessington St, St Kilda’, from avlxyz’s Flickr photos and reproduced under a Creative Commons License)

Other links:

  • 13 predictions for Facebook in 2008: read these at the end of the year and see how accurate they were, or whether in fact Facebook made it through the year at all
  • Facebook Easter eggs?  Facebook developers hide little bits of entertainment in their code
  • Building a social networking environment at the library: If you insist on getting involved, you should probably read this
  • Facebook and rapport: Some suggestions on how to involve libraries in social networking without compromising professionalism
  • 360Gadget: a Facebook application that allows you to subscribe to RSS feeds, access your POP mail account, search the web and watch YouTube, all from inside Facebook (assuming you want to spend even more time there)

5 Responses to Does anyone really want to talk to a librarian?

  1. janew13 says:

    Well Libodessy, I really enjoy your off beat status updates in FaceBook. I keep mine more down to earth and would not dream of being as personal as “The Angels Have The Phone Box’s” status updates. Real friends can drill down on my FaceBook page and check my mood if they really want to know how I am. I guess there is always a trade off, if we are attempting to use our FaceBook pages for the purpose of networking with work colleagues as well as for personal use.

  2. Kim says:

    I don’t think students really want to engage with librarians in Facebook unless there is a real benefit for them in having a “relationship” with a librarian.

    Many libraries have developed applications so students can search their websites and ask librarians things too. I can’t see it taking off myself.

    I like the status updates but I am not a fan of twitter. As mentioned in posts on my blog I tend to favour song lyrics. I have a digital identity that is out there. I don’t believe there is anyone on my friends list that I would not mind seeing my status for the day. They are pretty meaningless. I believe that like personal space, individuals have their own digital space as well. It’s about finding your own voice and digital identity.

    I have tweaked Fbk privacy settings and I am constantly reflecting on my use of Fbk and its appropriateness at work and in my personal life. We have to be aware of what we are putting out there!

    But Fbk has critical mass and therefore for Gen Xers like me it is the networking site of choice. I will keep using while it is a useful communication tool. I am sure something else will come along to replace it. Maybe having a coffee….

  3. […] sites to provide desirable content to our users, allowing them to pick and choose what suits them. If they desire it, we can even visit them in the online spaces they choose to inhabit. Best of all, we can use blogs […]

  4. libodyssey says:

    Kim, the beauty of Facebook’s privacy settings is the fact that you can be as ‘out there’ as you want to certain people or groups, but not to everyone. One of my friends assures me that the limited profile feature was invented for work colleagues and bosses, so they wouldn’t feel he had snubbed them but they also wouldn’t be able to tell when he was online at work!
    If one believes what one reads in the media (and I should know better), Facebook’s meteoric rise has plateaued and is even on the downturn. One of the reasons might be that it’s been revealed as very difficult to erase a Facebook profile once it has been created. I was amused to see some students on campus the other day handing out brochures on how to permanently delete Facebook profiles. Strange — I would have thought the beginning of semester was the perfect time to be getting to know new people. I guess maybe it is falling from grace.
    I wonder what’s next.

  5. […] 2.0 proponents believe that we should meet our users in whatever spaces they choose to inhabit. As you know, I only partially agree with that notion at the best of […]

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