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On the brink: librarianship in an age of possibility – Instalment 3


Putting the librarian in social network

Embracing online social networks enables librarians and information professionals to extend their personal and professional relationships into a different environment and make it possible to forge new bonds with colleagues across the country, or even across the world.

Although some stereotype librarianship as an inherently lonely profession, each of us actually lives and works in a web of relationships that informs and influences our actions and our prospects.

Whether professional, personal, or some combination of the two, our relationships with others form the networks that keep us connected to both the profession and the outside world.

It's depressing, therefore, to read and hear some librarians disparaging the value of online social networks, which let us extend these relationships into a different environment and make it possible to forge new bonds with colleagues across the country – or across the world.

Far from disparaging social networking, we need to embrace it, as many librarians have already done. This stuff isn't in the early adopter stage anymore: it's deeply interwoven into how we build relationships in the 21st century.

The most common arguments against online social networking include:

  • I don't have time/It's a waste of time.
  • It's just for kids/It's unprofessional.
  • It's just not for me/It has nothing to do with my job.

Let's talk a bit about each.

I don't have time/It's a waste of time

I sympathize – really, I do! Time is in pretty short supply around here as well. But know this: all of us have time; it's just a question of finding it. Do you spend time watching TV? Reading? Checking e-mail? Creating a library programme that no one attends? Filing reports that no one reads?

Social networking, although it can be a time suck, doesn't have to take up a lot of your time. You can be an effective participant in social networks without devoting your life to tracking every little interaction; your participation can ebb and flow just as your participation in real-life commitments does.

A variation on “I don't have time”, “it's a waste of time” posits that social networking has no inherent value and that our time could better be spent on other activities.

Social networking's value, though, is best perceived once you become a user of one or more social networks and see for yourself how they work – you may wonder at that point how you ever got along without them! I've personally used social networks to:

  • Get quick answers to problems.
  • Solicit input for presentations and articles.
  • Build a network of colleagues who provide support and resources, even though I work from home.
  • Build up an online presence that gets my "friends" and readers interested in my other work.
  • Get to know people that I later met in person, building an instant network of conference colleagues.

Online social networks can be invaluable in building relationships outside of your own institution, especially in an era of belt-tightening and slashed travel budgets. Social networking broadens your world view, gives you an opportunity to brainstorm, and gives you a community to turn to for everything from career leads to advice on programming.

In a meta-example of the benefits of social networking, I used FriendFeed while writing this article to ask others how social networking has benefited them. Some of the many responses I received include:

"The opportunity to correspond with others in the field who I likely would never have met in person. I appreciate conferences for the chance to hear what others are doing and experience their different ways of thinking, to expand beyond my own workplace and talking to the same people day after day. Social networking lets me do a little of that all year long."
Rachel Walden, Librarian, Eskind Biomedical Library, Vanderbilt University Medical Center, Nashville, TN

"Social networking has given me almost my entire professional network. Any time I need to know how to do something, or find an expert, or get opinions on an idea, I have dozens of smart people online to ask."
Jason Puckett (jasonpuckett.net), Instruction Librarian for User Education Technologies, Georgia State University, Atlanta, GA

"Having a larger network that goes beyond my immediate library and colleagues, a place for support, to ask ideas, to learn new things, and just to get to know people and geek out over the fact that people that are the superstars of the library world are interested in what I have to say."
Andrew Shuping, Interlibrary Loan/Circulation Services Librarian, Jack Tarver Library, Mercer University, Macon, GA

"It's a chance to join a larger conversation and have a voice, even in a small library."
Tasha Saecker, Director, Menasha Public Library, WI

Especially for those of us in smaller libraries, the connections provided by online social networks can prove invaluable. They give you the chance to connect with librarians outside of your own little world, whether that be local libraries or medical libraries or law libraries. They serve as ongoing professional development opportunities, letting you learn with and from others at any time.

It's just for kids/It's unprofessional

Do kids and teens hang out on social networks? Yes they do. Do library professionals hang out on social networks? By golly, a lot of them do. The fact that kids use a technology doesn't make it a technology "for kids".

Repeat after me: "the medium is not the message". As librarians, we need to separate form from content and realize this: the fact that people use certain technologies for non-professional purposes does not make the technologies themselves non-professional – any more than a teen skateboarding in our parking lot makes it unsuitable for cars, or children playing tag in the stacks make it a playground.

As the examples in the preceding section show, social networks have tremendous value in creating connections and providing that sense of professional belonging that can be hard to capture in some institutions. There's nothing "unprofessional" about using technological tools to get more connected to the profession. There's nothing "unprofessional" about maximizing scarce resources: our time, our money, by connecting with others online.

It's just not for me/It has nothing to do with my job

Maybe some social networks are not for you – feel free to ignore anyone who says you must be on [insert social network flavour of the day here]. I have trouble, for instance, getting into MySpace (www.myspace.com); I checked it out, visit other people's occasionally, and moved on.

I still haven't created a twitter (www.twitter.com) account. But, I do choose to spend my social networking time on Facebook (www.facebook.com) and FriendFeed (www.friendfeed.com), connecting there primarily with other librarians.

This works for me, and provides the right balance between online and in-person professional activity, while another combination of sites or allocation of your time may work better for you.

There are enough social networks out there, that there's likely one for everyone. Like to keep your contacts professional-only? Check out LinkedIn (www.linkedin.com). Need to connect with teens in your community? MySpace may be the way to go. Connecting with college students? Get yourself on Facebook.

You may think social networking is not for you because it fails to apply to your job. Answer me this, though: does your library have patrons? It does? Then, guess what?

This is part of your job.

Part of our job involves learning about the technologies our patrons use. Part of our job involves using technologies to meet patrons where they are. Part of our job involves using technology to bring information to our patrons proactively. Part of our job involves not shutting ourselves out of the broader culture, so that we understand the environment in which our users operate.

We need to break out of the mindset that librarianship can be an ivory-tower profession, untouched by developments – technological or otherwise – in the outside world. We need to find ways to incorporate these developments into our professional lives and library offerings, while remaining true to our principles.

That is your job, and that is why we need to involve ourselves in the larger world, through social networking or otherwise.


Rachel Singer Gordon is webmaster, LISjobs.com, and blogs at The Liminal Librarian (www.lisjobs.com/blog/).