Magazine article Computers in Libraries

Reference Diagnostics for a Virtual World

Magazine article Computers in Libraries

Reference Diagnostics for a Virtual World

Article excerpt

Change has been the one constant of the Web 2,0 era. New interactive technologies and whole new ideas of community are emerging on the web - these are the kinds of innovations that we have come to expect. The pace is fast, and we are constantly tempted to jump headlong into new technology applications and to create services that take advantage of these innovative spaces. There is a strong positive aspect in enthusiasm; librarians weren't always the brave pioneers we've now become, at least not to the extent that we are nowadays. But there's also a potential downside to moving quickly with new services: If we jump in too fast, we may not have a sense of what's truly possible. Our challenge is to balance that "beta-testing blastoff' urge - an urge that is reinforced by the technological society at large - with a healthy dose of strategic planning.

My view is that our entry into new technological environments must always be strategic, whether that entry is fast or more measured. Furthermore, good strategic planning traverses organizational boundaries, and what is learned in one place may apply in another. With that in mind, I'm going to take an analytical look at some recent virtual zones that either already provide a niche for reference services or soon will. There are some basic "diagnostic" questions we can apply to help us assess new technologies; here are a few of mine.

Social Networking

We've seen some very successful leaps into new social networking zones, evoking some blank stares from hard-core techies who are surprised to see librarians in their midst. Some of these have been big hits: Facebook, Linkedln, and Second Life all come to mind. Among lesser-known social interactive sites, however, vibrant zones can take root and flourish without necessarily receiving all the fanfare that Facebook has generated. For example, I discovered an extensive online group of local community college students on Bebo (www.bebo.com), and the library was there too. There are many places to look for community; Wikipedia's list of sites is a good place to start (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ List_of_social_networking_websites). So here's the first diagnostic question: "Am I following my community?" Digital librarians who are interested in building an online community should follow known users into their applications of choice. If this step is observed, you are much more likely to spend your time effectively.

Sometimes when the community starts moving, it can be a good idea to jump quickly after it. What are some potential upsides to a fast leap? First, being proactive is good. Showing your user community that you can take the initiative can lead to new opportunities. This strategy isn't new, either. Long ago when intranets were hot, it was not by accident that Sun Microsystems' librarians ended up running the corporate intranet - they were quick to see the community-building and outreach potential of intranets. The same benefits can be reaped from a leap into social software. Second, a fast move might increase the chance of gaining the attention of your users. If you can gain their attention, you can perform outreach activities that may lead them to library resources they have not yet discovered. That's always a plus.

But there are downsides too. Many social networking sites are designed to be used just for fun; bibliographic instruction may not be on the minds of the community members. More than a few Facebook activists have gotten out ahead of the group only to see a drop-off in attention. Next, you may find yourself reworking what you've created and launching a second try. The thing we should all try to avoid is investing time but receiving a small return on that investment. The absence of a good set of goals and strategies may squander the early attention you receive, and your actions may end up irrelevant. This kind of public flameout can be sidestepped with care.

What to do? To help make that determination, here's a second diagnostic question to apply: "Does this new technology serve my community, and will I make a better contribution by a fast rollout or a measured approach? …

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