#Libraries and Social Media Pt 1: Identity
By Jesse A Lambertson
In Hal Niedzviecki’s book, The Peep Diaries: How We’re Learning to Love Watching Ourselves and Our Neighbors, Niedzviecki analyzes the current mode of SOCIAL media and use of assorted web 2.0 technologies as not simply directed toward gathering information and learning – the rhetoric constantly used to justify one’s use of these applications – but are used instead to create a form of identity. He asserts his point on the notion every SOCIAL user and web 2-0 content producer believes their lives are as important as everyone else involved in the media. He suggests the response to that feeling is not only to build “connections” to others for learning and sharing about oneself in order to feel on equal ground, but rather the use of SOCIAL and web 2.0 technologies creates the existence of one’s self in that universe. What you see in SOCIAL and web 2.0 sharing-applications IS what you get. Interesting premise.
For a time, let’s suggest his point is spot-on. If that is the case, how might we turn this paradigm toward the now ubiquitous use by libraries of SOCIAL technologies ranging from branded blog platforms, Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter to WordPress (to name a few)? I don’t know if we can make a final argument about SOCIAL technologies and its use by libraries of all kinds – academic, digital, public, research and special. My goal is not to draw attention to any library on any one point or example, just to strike attention to the idea being ruminated upon in this post. I don’t want to step on any toes of course. I just think this is a topic of study that has not gotten enough attention yet across library types.
My disclaimer: My views do not represent those of my employer’s, they are my own. Also, there are so many variations on SOCIAL media use, please fill in my blanks and accidental omissions with your own observations and don’t be afraid to show them to me here in the reply field or on my favourite of the SOCIAL platforms, Twitter.
Academic libraries are not all research libraries. Nor are they necessarily special libraries such as archives, image collections, map collections, medical libraries and law libraries. But what I see in my observations is that all of these libraries tend toward the same SOCIAL media and web 2.0 use. Some academic libraries use their SOCIAL profiles to directly state in yet another medium what they think they want to look like to their users; some use these applications to produce a quick information dissemination mode as students carry their mobile devices with them and can learn about events or alerts; some seem to want to create an “easy” web 2.0 alternative to walking in the library at all; some use web 2.0 technologies to promote content in OTHER web 2.0 platforms (such as Twitter to blog, or Blog to website); some run a live feed of their SOCIAL media on their normal websites; some use these technologies to draw attention to regional factors that may affect library use or resources; some link to other libraries’ resources, say within a library consortium, that they feel would be relevant to certain “followers” of their SOCIAL media feeds; many use web 2.0 technology as a form of sensational news (in lieu of having a “broadcast station” always on; some use these technologies as a reflection of the Learning Commons model they’ve adopted in the library brick and mortar spaces; and some use these assorted technologies in an advocacy capacity.
Academic libraries have realized, without stating so directly, their use and dissemination of information and trivia via web 2.0 tools straddles a contradiction of sorts. The first is that much information spread must be overseen by someone who has been entrusted by the institution to spread said info. We call this “vetting.” In this we find institutions determined to control what they “look like” to the outside world – this is their attempt to control their identity in SOCIAL media and web 2.0 platforms (in addition to the trusty website and library specific tools that have been there for years already). The other side of the contradiction straddling is the notion of dialog friendliness, trying to promote something that looks like connection and conversation in these consumer products used by not simply high level researchers and graduate students with narrow abstract goals in their use of the these libraries. I don’t have an answer for this contradiction. But it seems to be a slight unbridgeable gap between the affectation of “everyday” conversation marketed with use of web 2.0 technologies and the maintained image of the image engaged in that conversation with those technologies.
This contradiction is particularly interesting because academic libraries are increasingly jumping on the “big data” bandwagon by producing data on their own in the form of metrics and use statistics. One of the features not evident to those who may read or follow SOCIAL media produced on behalf of these libraries is that as information professionals look at all the numbers associated with access, use and other features, libraries are wont to also track, not users, but whether use of all of these applications increases traffic, use, connections etc. The truth is that a great deal of the data produced by these technologies is owned by the companies that produce these platforms. The other item worthy of note relative to this contradiction is that even as libraries jump on the SOCIAL/web 2.0 bandwagon, they are also the site where many technologies are used that take much time to learn and that contain links to articles, e-formats and databases unavailable just because an interested party “follows” their Facebook page or Twitter feed. I talk about this notion a little more below as it relates to digital libraries. The point here is that even as these web 2.0 technologies are used in greater numbers, the very quality of the academic library where students and researchers check out subject monographs, read subscribed articles for papers on a diverse array of topics, and find other media just for fun, is steeped in nuanced faceted search levels, intellectually created subject access, tags, owned catalog records, archival items in hazmat controlled vaults and experts (subject librarians) who will in fact aid in quicker and more efficient deeper research pathways. I am not saying these features cannot be combined with web 2.0 applications, but it is not their strength to aid in such goals. So when we say ask where a particular library is using some form of SOCIAL media, we might also consider what that really says about the identity of the institution in question.
Some digital libraries are not libraries per se, but are abstract organizations that act as advocacy units for digital libraries. I am thinking specifically of the Digital Library Federation. But some of these, such as the World Digital Library, is a specific library with connections to other larger organizations. I mention this because how SOCIAL applications are used by these groups is not always used with the strict attention to their own interests, but of those organizations that have funded or invested resources. So sometimes, information dissemination pushed out on SOCIAL applications gets pushed again by other organizations with vested interests of their own. I am not saying this is at all a bad thing. I simply draw attention to it because whatever identity or status one SOCIAL or web 2.0 application may enjoy is slightly changed with this realization. Others use web 2.0 applications to draw attention to new campaigns or digitization efforts.
The odd thing about digital libraries, which makes one think they exist on the open web for easy and free access, is that even though these efforts are taking place, and one would really want to tell interested parties about them, the collections being promoted are not always available in any way other than subscription. I am not using this post to get into issues of publishers, embargoes on copyrighted publications or open access, I have already commented upon these topics and I will continue to learn more over time. Subscription is not inherently a bad thing, But digital libraries are not always accessible on the open web. In fact, it is precisely the definition of the term, “access,” commonly used now with regard to getting information and research resources which sees its clearest use in digital libraries because “access” feels like a technical term (access codes, access granted etc) not necessarily related to simply seeing art, seeing manuscripts or reading books even though the OED defines it as, “To obtain, acquire; to get hold of.” The comedy of this is that even if resources are freely available on the internet, it is actually made possible by a series of access codes through control systems that allow your device (mobile, laptop or desktop) to communicate to the servers at the digital library and retrieve the items you have requested either via database query or URL request.
When digital libraries use web 2.0 applications, much of these harder issues related to information gathering and dissemination are hidden from view by the very fact that MANY web 2.0 applications are themselves being given to users free of monetary charge – this applies to many blogging applications (even WordPress has a free edition of its full code that can be hosted by anyone without using WordPress’s servers used for their more controlled themed platforms), Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr and even Reddit. Thus, in terms of what identity is being indirectly postulated in instances of web 2.0 application use, the question is thrown into a bit of disarray. One of this factors which does fit, however, is the obvious and direct connection between lots of technologies being used to produce digital content (“born digital” we sometimes call it), its storage, preservation, visual representation and then retrieval. These are attributes that affect library identity because of the very technologies being used.
Public libraries may not have long lists of special collections nor widely available digitized objects; but they do have something in their favour regarding the use of SOCIAL media and web 2.0 technologies – they are a tax supported organization run by civil servants (even if they are trained librarians). And as a result, their user base comes from quite diverse subsets of the population – much are tax payers themselves and can use pretty much every item in their collections. And to tack on a little side note, most of these freely available web 2.o technologies are embraced on a mass scale by users from every ethnicity, economic tier and educational achievement – precisely the population that makes use of services and resources at the public library. But let me not make the mistake that web 2.0 technologies, which make use of the web and digital infrastructure are the same in their nature as the identity of public libraries. They are not. The data and metadata produced by many SOCIAL applications on the web and used on the ever increasing number of mobile devices is used for profit, bought and sold, by many different interests out there. It is not clear this data is really collected in order to further democracy or to help people learn or to get jobs – these are some of the reasons public libraries are used. And libraries are operated as a public service by tax paying citizens and sometimes fund by the federal government and philanthropic persons or organizations. So when we remark that public libraries are using freely available web technologies, SOCIAL media platforms and other like applications, we are trying to connect one institution, a non-profit, with another institution, that of the companies with clearly stated monetary reasons for their being – that of increasing profits for their shareholders (and sometimes their employees). The irony of this of course is that many employees of these companies also pay taxes and turn right around and use their local public library.
Public libraries have many different uses for SOCIAL media and applications such as blogs etc. For instance, some libraries have added them as an afterthought because it’s “what’s happening” (this will be the case with some libraries in all categories); some have dedicated staff who produce, program, code and add content as part of their job description; some use these applications to have informal “chats” with followers; some use them as open “help” boxes where library users can send in their concerns with issues such as the catalog being down or a technical glitch in a transition from one interface to another; some use them to promote events that are national in scope but which libraries have gotten involved with (I am thinking about the annual NanoWrimo); some draw out collection spotlights of all the formats they carry (the good thing about this is that every collection item highlighted in a web 2.0 platform can theoretically then be used by every follower who has read about it); and some prefer to use the technologies in a formal way, more like a press release of an event or something. There are all kinds of ways Public Libraries use SOCIAL media and web 2.0 technologies. But this is sort of fascinating because the style can vary much from public library to public library even though public libraries’ mission statements remain fairly consistent.
Collections vary too according to local usage and budget restraints. Public libraries are, after all, a tax funded feature of the local government –city, county or state. Maybe the patron usage of SOCIAL media is what then determines the usage by the library. But what does this say about the identity of public libraries as an institution? This is where the line between users and the library becomes blurry. I will have to exit this section with these questions in mind.
The question was opened about what identity was produced by libraries of all kinds using SOCIAL media and web 2.0 technologies in a culture increasingly dominated by them. There are a lot of factors to take into consideration if the question is worth anything. I am not saying my original premise is even true, just that there may be something to it. I may take up this topic again in the future.
Please don’t hesitate to reply in the field below or “chat” about it on Twitter.
Thank you for reading.
*There are a couple instances of words that have an extra “u” in them. I just like the English spelling and find it easy to type by default.