ALA Midwinter turned out to be the ultimate hallway conference for me. I am not on any committees, councils, roundtables or other official cliques, so Midwinter meant discussion groups and a lot of informal chatting, standing around and swilling wine.
At Sunday night’s blogger salon, I got the chance to chat with Andrea Mercado, whom I haven’t seen since library school. Andrea walks the line between superlibrarian and social media maven and continues to be as interesting and insightful as she was in library school.
Andrea mentioned (I’m paraphrasing here, so if you happen on this, Andrea, feel free to correct me) that she sees a disconnect between librarians and the culture of online communities and social networking sites. Without taking the time to understand the culture of an online community, we just alienate people instead of joining up with them.
Other conversations during Midwinter touched on the real utility of libraries creating a presence on MySpace or Facebook. This is a tough question for me, as my library’s MySpace page attracts more libraries and authors than local teenagers. Sarah (now also on YALSA!) convinced me that the answer to this is not to manage our MySpace page ourselves, but to turn it over to the teens. Makes sense to me, and it takes care of some of the issues raised in the study making the rounds that indicates users of social networking sites are not keen on librarians sticking their noses in.
From the analysis at the userslib blog:
14% said no because they felt it was inappropriate [for a librarian to contact them via a social networking site] or that Facebook/MySpace is a social tool, not a research tool. Though this latter category does not represent a majority, these responses were the most emphatic.
So, is the answer to take the librarian out of the library web presence? Before I left for Midwinter, someone commented to me that the current trend of creating library websites with CMS software is problematic, because librarians don’t know how to communicate online and letting us create our own content means overly wordy and boring websites (an assertion that isn’t entirely off-base, but avoiding CMS is tossing the baby out with the bathwater). Are librarians missing the boat when it comes to online culture? The question has an air of Schrödinger’s Cat. Just by joining a community as a librarian, are we disruptive to the culture of that community? If the library has a cultural connotation of “work,” will librarians ever be welcomed with open arms into a social setting online?
I know, I know, we’re all online hipsters now and we know all the cool memes and hang out online all the time. It’s not like we get kicked out of cocktail parties either (did someone tell me that the bartenders in Philly said librarians were one of the wilder groups they’d seen?), but I’m not asking about librarians as individuals. A big part of the 2.0 push is opening up the library, creating a two-way flow of communication and making the library about its users and communities, not its staff. But changing the cultural markers around libraries is a bigger project, especially when a lot of what we do offer is, well, workish.
It’s easy to become enamored of social networking sites and Web 2.0 toys to the point where they seem like a panacea for everything that’s wrong with your library or your job. Slap a wiki on it and call me in the morning. The most successful uses of the newest tech tools have recognized that they’re just that: tools. Midwinter has me revising that to add they’re tools with their own cultures. Librarians are frequently hyper-aware of the internal culture of their own organizations, but are we less vigilant about our cultural significance outside of the library (I’m not talking about the buns-and-glasses stereotype, but rather the larger cultural markers around the Library) and are we as mindful as we should be of the culture of the online communities we’re trying to leverage to promote library services?