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Month: July 2009

One Step at a Time: Taking the Library Website from reference source to communication tool

One Step at a Time: Taking the Library Website from reference source to communication tool

Have I mentioned lately how much I love my job? My head has been in a bit of a fog with it the last few months. The only thing on my horizon currently is my current task: rethinking, restructuring, and recreating the library’s website.

When I explain what the project is, it seems like such a small thing, really. We have a website: surely we’re just making it prettier and adding a few extra pages of text, right? This couldn’t be further from the truth.

Our original goal with the project was to create a local hub for our community; we wanted our website to be not only for our community but by our community. We wanted it to have a lot of interaction, where students could contribute in a variety of ways. We wanted it to belong to them as much as to us. This is, of course, a very lofty goal. Few websites manage to do this; why would a library website be one of them? There were a wide variety of things we really wanted to implement so that we could assist students in communicating not only with us but with each other. We took a look around at what happens in the building and decided that the same kind of activity should also be happening on the website; see and be seen, chat with friends, find classmates who are studying at the same time as you are. We could be antagonistic to the fact that we are apparently the facebook of our campus, given all the various problems that come with that (noise in particular) but instead we’re seeing it as a valid use of the space. Our overall goals including helping students to learn better. You can’t learn with people you don’t trust. How do you build trust? You chat, you share, you relate to each other in friendly ways. Are libraries places to meet people, chat with friends, build community? Why shouldn’t they be? We can encourage it, preserve the traditional “library quiet” in the places where it’s expected, and infuse our social and academic spaces with resources and services to help.

Our goals for the website were lofty. A little too lofty for our first iteration, as it turns out. Not just because of time (though that’s a huge factor) and not just because of money (also a huge factor). It’s also got a lot to do with cultural change in an institution, getting various groups of people on the same page, getting resources you don’t necessarily have any history of requesting, and generally changing expectations on every level. Slow change is sometimes the best we can accomplish. I’m not a patient person, but I think what we’re trying to accomplish needs patience. So a few technical hurdles are probably just what was required to slow me down a bit.

So what we’re going to present in a few weeks is different than what our original goals suggested. It’s going to look like 180 degree turn to some, I realize. But the more I got into the project, the more I realized that we’re not yet entirely qualified to start building digital community. We don’t live digitally yet as a library. How can we responsibly foster such a community, encourage interaction, when we’re not doing it ourselves? So in our steps toward creating a community website, the first thing we need to do is focus on us.

This is totally counter-intuitive. I know this is one of the battles I’m going to need to fight: in order to be a part of a community, you need talk as much as you need to listen. The received wisdom on this point is that to be a trusted source, you listen to your audience and give them what they want. I shall now turn that on its ear: to be valuable and trusted, you need to demonstrate who you are and what you do. Not just once, but constantly. It’s not enough to listen; we’re listening, and no one knows who we are. We are faceless. We can be an echo chamber for our patrons, or we can show them who we actually are and what we actually do. We can share our passion with them. We can tell them about all the really interesting things that we encounter on a regular basis. We can talk about the things that slow us down. Talking doesn’t stop us from listening. In order to be part of a community we hope to provide resources for, we need to open up and share.

So the first iteration of our website will be about us sharing. It will be about us telling you what’s going on and what we’re thinking about. This is going to be a challenge on all sides. As I said, we are not a digital culture here. Other than me, no one is used to musing aloud in public. We are currently a closed circle, looking at each other and filling the space between us with papers and words. Now, we will face outward, and you will get to see those words. They will be for you as much as for us.

What this means: regular updates on things like construction in the library. It won’t just be a little sign for you to read on the way in; you can see the plans, the ideas, the fundraising goals. You will know that we are having some of our soft furnishing replaced, that we’re rearranging the fourth floor because the original plan didn’t make as much sense as we thought, and that we have big plans for the structure of the library in the future. There are so many really exciting things going on related to the physical space; there’s no good reason not to share it with our community. We can talk about ideas we have about replacing our loaner laptops with hardy netbooks. (Just ideas, but good ones!) When something explodes in the library world, we can be upfront and clear with our community about how it effects them, and hear about what we’re doing about it ourselves. We can track the progress of all the new initiatives that are starting up in the library, including my own position, Emerging Technologies.

So our first go with our new website is going to be about a change in practice and in metaphor. Our website is not just a big book full of how-tos that you can pull down when you need it, though we’re going to make sure it’s easy to find out how to do everything we know students are going to need to know how to do. The book metaphor is gone. We’re not just trying to serve all known needs. We’re also trying to engage with our community on the issues we are passionate about. We are trying to inform everyone about what’s going on here, what the plans are, how we’re considering an issue or a problem. We will not be faceless. We will not be without our particular interests and specialties. We will not be perfect PR. We will be human beings who happen to love the work that we do.

You can give someone a blank piece of paper and tell them to write. Or you can give them a book full of ideas and comments and ask them to jot down their response. The first one seems easier, but is actually harder. So we’ll start. We’ll start the process of creating an institutional space that changes all the time, that reflects the people in the building, and responds to the community in every way that they talk back. As time goes on, we’ll expand the voices that populate our website. We want to hear more from students and faculty. We want to provide them with tools to communicate with each other.

One step at a time.

Twitter and Libraries

Twitter and Libraries

In preparation for our new library website, I have been working on some social media policies. I’ve never really been much of a policy person before, but I recognize that because I am bringing in some standard social media tools, I’m going to have to define some best practices. I got my first blog in 2001 and had many conversations back then and ever since about what is and is not appropriate content; I’ve had many years to think about it and get comfortable with my own boundaries. As I prepare to give each content creator in our library a blog, I realize that a policy might be the best way to share some of that experience. No need for everyone to stub their toes and scrape their knees via a professional medium.

Blogging policies are actually pretty easy to generate these days. There are tons of them around, since many industries encourage corporate/professional blogging, and most have developed policies for them. Maybe it’s also easier to do because we have, I think, determined the distinction between a personal blog (like this one) and a professional one. It’s not a foreign concept.

The hard part comes when trying to come up with a Twitter policy.

I posted both my draft blogging policy and my draft twitter policy on twitter to get some feedback from people who use these services. Here there are for your information. The Blogging policy starts with the legal and then moves into guidelines; the Twitter one doesn’t have as much legal, I think the general TOS of Twitter covers that.

These two are actually contained in one document on my side; I split them up because at first I wasn’t going to post the Twitter policy. I thought it would be…controversial, not helpful to anyone else, not useful outside our very specific context. I expected it to be widely disliked. I think what people are expecting is something more like this; some friendly guidelines that help a librarian engage with her patrons by treating Twitter as a personal, interactive communication medium. My guidelines are very nearly the opposite of that.

Now: as a librarian who uses Twitter a lot, follows a lot of librarians, and gets into a lot of discussions on Twitter about library issues, I understand where people are going with their personal guidelines. I suppose I think I’m the last person in the world who should tell another librarian how to use Twitter personally. As a person. As themselves. For themselves. For their own development. Reading through those guidelines, I can almost hear the chorus coming from all the non-Twitter, non-social media librarians of the world: “When am I supposed to find the time for that?!” I love using Twitter to share and question and communicate, but I’m not sure it’s the best use of an institution’s time. Which is why my policy runs counter to what I do personally.

So I guess my policy isn’t so much for the people who want to use Twitter the way I do. It’s for people who don’t, who have no interest in social media, but who still need to communicate with their patrons in the widest possible way.

Here are the reasons why I want to use Twitter for our library website and for our digital signage:

  • It’s easier/less intimidating to post to Twitter than to write a professional, thoughtful blog post
  • Because it’s so easy, I’m hoping I can convince the uncertain to make easy updates via Twitter that I can distribute throughout the website in key, relevant places
  • Twitter updates are the perfect size to feed onto our brand new digital signage, which is mounted in front of every elevator and pointing at every angle in our Information Commons
  • I can get many updates a day from library staff to the digital signage without having a login to the digital signage software
  • I can invite many people to update a single Twitter feed without opening the website up to risk by having many people update one node
  • I can get student staff input on a Twitter feed without giving them content creator status on the website
  • Unlike our website, Twitter can be updated from a phone, which means we are more likely to get rapid updates from our campus partners and IT staff
  • My current means of communicating things like “Blackboard is down! It’s not just you! We’re working on it!” is to write it on a white board and roll it out in front of the main doors.

I’m not planning to use Twitter for Twitter’s sake. I am advocating the use of Twitter as a broadcast medium, as unpopular as that might be. I’m not sure Twitter is really at its best when it’s conversational, though I may be in the minority on that. There are so many better conversational media, and we’re using those too. We’ll have mulitple meebo widgets scattered throughout the site; some staff want a personal one. If you want to have a conversation, we will ensure that you can. Twitter actually is a broadcast medium, as far as I can tell.

Maybe this is a redefinition of the term “broadcast”. On Twitter, I broadcast my thoughts, my ideas. When I’m at a conference, I broadcast a lot. My use in that case isn’t dependent on anyone reading my broadcast or responding to it. If someone broadcasts their own response to what I’m saying, I can broadcast a response back. Blogs are a broadcast medium as well, in very much the same way, in spite of all the hype about the conversationality of blogging. Just because it’s a broadcast medium doesn’t mean we’re not paying attention to its context or responding to questions or comments around it. Not using Twitter to @reply to singular users in public doesn’t make it less useful, in my opinion. Or even less personal, less engaging, or less a good use of the medium.

The great thing about Twitter is that I can use it this way and it won’t affect anyone else at all; in fact, I don’t really care how many other Twitter users follow our broadcast Twitter account. I don’t anticipate that our students will; almost none of them (statistically) are on Twitter to start with, or have any interest in using it. I don’t want to exclude them by using Twitter-specific conventions or lingo. My goal is not to draw them into Twitter or increase their use of social media (not with this initiative, at least). Our use of Twitter in this way serves our needs first; we have vital information to distribute to students in our own building and campus, and currently have very limited means of doing so. We’re going to use Twitter to distribute it in a way we’ve never been able to do before. If it happens to serve a Twitter community at the same time, I’m delighted.

In short: I wrote a couple of social media policies for libraries as institutions rather than for librarians as individuals. They may or may not be useful, interesting, or appropriate to your situation. I’m still not sure how I feel about them myself. But I will certainly be tracking how it works this year.

Any feedback or comments on the policies is gratefully accepted, and will probably spawn more navel-gazing and fussing on my part.

Digital Normals

Digital Normals

This may be my favourite bit of research lately. Teens aren’t internet superusers: if anyone is, it looks like it’s adults.

Pull this out the next time someone regales with you more anecdotal evidence that the kids these days are “digital natives” and we cannot understand their ways.

The Death of Newspapers

The Death of Newspapers

My old friend Michael drew my attention to an article by Michael Nieslen about changes in publishing and how the paradigm shifts catch companies by surprise. In short:

Each industry has (or had) a standard organizational architecture. That organizational architecture is close to optimal, in the sense that small changes mostly make things worse, not better. Everyone in the industry uses some close variant of that architecture. Then a new technology emerges and creates the possibility for a radically different organizational architecture, using an entirely different combination of skills and relationships. The only way to get from one organizational architecture to the other is to make drastic, painful changes. The money and power that come from commitment to an existing organizational architecture actually place incumbents at a disadvantage, locking them in. It’s easier and more effective to start over, from scratch.

It’s not that they’re malevolent; they’re just stuck in an institutional structure that is too difficult to change. His first example is newspapers; the New York Times (in decline) versus TechCrunch (in the black).

That got me thinking: what would it take for me to go back to supporting a newspaper? Because, in truth, I love newspapers. I haven’t subscribed to one in about two years now, but I do love newspapers. I just don’t like getting one every day. First: they’re messy. The ink stained my carpet at the point where it met the front door, because the newspaper deliverer would drop it just so. It stained my fingers. They pile up and have to be transported somewhere and be disposed of. They’re net worth isn’t sufficient for all the work I have to do to maintain their presence in my daily life. However: I love sitting outside on the patio of our favourite breakfast place with Jeremy, trading parts of the paper, skimming the stuff that is vaguely interesting, digging down on the stuff that’s very interesting, ignoring the sports section…I suppose we use the newspaper as our internet when we’re not online, or when being online would be too costly, too disruptive, or too awkward. Clearly it’s simply a matter of time before we have devices that will fill this desire handily: a roll of thin plastic, perhaps, tucked under an arm, an easy part of the breakfast scene, online for cheap no matter where we are, showing us only the articles that are at least vaguely interesting if not very interesting to us, with no sports section to ignore; our device would have the upsides of the newspaper (no computers cluttering up the table, getting between the food, the people), but the cleanliness, customizability and immediacy of the internet. The future newspaper is a gadget.

Michael Nieslen says: “My claim is that in ten to twenty years, scientific publishers will be technology companies.” Could that be true of newspapers as well? Is the medium more valuable to us than the content? If newspapers managed to produce the device, instead of the content, or perhaps in conjunction with some content funded by the popularity of the device, could that be their future?

Beth Jefferson makes the case that librarians should carefully watch the decline of the newspaper industry, because our descent is similar and may come soon afterward. We, also, are less about our content than about the medium in which we can present them. Our devices are buildings; while “the library without walls” meme has been going around for a while, the reality is that people still need space, and our spaces are popular as spaces to work, think, be and be seen. At the very least. When we move into things like ubiquitous interfaces, maybe our space becomes the medium, the device.

A recent report on libraries and mobile technologies suggested that we wait on developing mobile tech versions of our collections and services, a conclusion with which some disagreed. While I’m all for being cutting edge (bleeding edge, even), I agree with the report. We have no idea where this mobile thing is going. If we had gone all mobile three years ago (when we easily could have gone to town with it), and then the iphone would have appeared, with its alternate internet of apps. Mobile devices don’t tend to do the web well; rather than get better at it, we’re creating a new web for them, designed with their location-awareness, mobility, and lack of keyboards in mind. What if our big future isn’t in making our content web/mobile friendly, but in building ourselves into the e-newspaper or the e-book, letting you do “more like this” searches, hooking up bibliographies, keyword searches within (digital, mobile) text? Maybe the future of libraries is an app inside an app? What about blackberries and other smartphones? Are they going to get in on this app revolution? Are we going to have competing app universes to contend with? The data plan revolution (at least in Canada) is clearly coming, but when? And what will it bring with it? What restrictions will we be under?

I see the legacy of “waiting” that newspapers have demonstrated has not served them particularly well. But on the flip side, jumping in without getting the full lay of the land doesn’t have a good track record either. Maybe we’re all about to come technology companies, in some way or other.