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are librarians culturally self-aware?

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?


29 comments for “are librarians culturally self-aware?”

  1. What’s up, shout-out?!

    I’ve been thinking a LOT about your question regarding how we can allow adults the same kind of ownership.

    This is a great post and you’re asking a lot of important questions. I’m glad that there are librarians out there who are forcing us to think about these things.

    Posted by sarah | January 16, 2008, 3:15 pm
  2. Great post with some very valid thoughts. Too often, I see libraries starting to use a tool because they think they should. The “slap a wiki on it” mentality that you describe. We have to have a service we want to provide and then choose the best tool. Before implementing the tool, we should understand how it works, the culture behind it, and how to maintain a level of control to keep it useful (reduce spam, etc.). I see so many libraries jumping into new tools, like MySpace, Wikis, or blogs, without considering any of these things and then when it fails, they think it was the technology not their lack of planning.

    Posted by Michelle | January 16, 2008, 3:16 pm
  3. It was so great seeing you at Midwinter!

    And yes, your paraphrase is spot on. I’ve been speaking on this point, and I think it’s really starting to make sense to the librarians I present to. And while you’ve paraphrased it quite astutely, it requires *so much more* discussion within our profession.

    As a matter of fact, I think the only real way is to start bringing in new media folks as well as users of different flavors to help librarians really understand what’s going on. User-centric design and use of social networking isn’t just about *being* in Rome, but also doing as the Romans do, even if it’s different from what we do.

    I was actually just working on a draft of a post about user understanding and professional vs. personal social networking person that meshes with a Boston new media discussion of how “nice” is messing with social media culture when I saw your tweet about this post. 🙂

    Posted by Andrea Mercado | January 16, 2008, 3:20 pm
  4. Too often librarians “doing” 2.0 is too much like one’s uncle in the green plaid jacket doing the Frug at the Xmas party…

    Posted by K.G. Schneider | January 16, 2008, 3:30 pm
  5. Terrific post. You’re asking some really important questions here. While I’m a big booster for social software, I don’t think these technologies are useful in every library, and I think we need to consider our very unique population (and sub-populations) when we consider any of these tools. I’m a big fan of libraries having student workers or teens staff their MySpace and Facebook presence, but honestly, I think patron level of comfort with librarians in social networking software differ library-by-library.

    I think we can frequently develop tunnel vision when working in libraries, and that’s why it’s so critical to TALK to our patrons, to get out of the library, and to visit other libraries to remember what it’s like to be a patron. We hear these stories about libraries implementing blogs and wikis and all this cool stuff, and we start to think that it’s the blogs and wikis that are cool, not how they are used and what need they are fulfilling. It’s not the tool that matters; it’s what we do with it and how it meets patron needs.

    We use a blog and wiki at our library, but they don’t look like blogs and wikis and they’re more about making it easy for us to keep content up-to-date than about collaboration or starting a conversation. Not too sexy, but hugely useful at our library. I don’t think every population necessarily wants to collaborate online or wants to read blogs from their library. Ann Arbor? Yes. They are a very civic-minded and “involved” population. At my library? Probably not (with one major exception: our military history grad students are happily adding content to a resource-sharing wiki I created for them). We can’t even get feedback when we beg for it. And that’s fine. It’s all about providing the best services to the population you have.

    I’m glad these questions are being asked. We need to be critical of our role in the “2.0” world. We want to do right by our patrons, not force ourselves on them, invade their spaces, or create tools they don’t want to use. And sometimes it’s difficult to know if what we’re doing is helping, hurting or is just plain getting ignored.

    Posted by Meredith | January 16, 2008, 4:17 pm
  6. I believe that the technology cheerleading that librarian bloggers sometimes do for technology — the “just do/try it @ your library” mentality, followed by the “we may not be doing it just right, but we’re making progress, honest” line of thinking — makes it worse. Librarians who blog are of a certain level of savvy, but still not always the level of savvy necessary to really get this stuff, and they are essentially sending their readers out into the social software world blind and ignorant, but really, really enthusiastic. It’s a serious problem.

    Librarians really need to start out as *users*, and set aside the library paradigm of thought from the very beginning. Once they’ve interacted with a certain culture for a while, they can see what use it has to an Average User, then perhaps they can think about applications that would work with their users.

    Posted by Andrea Mercado | January 16, 2008, 6:35 pm
  7. […] Mercado and Kate Sheehan have both written insightful posts about the importance of librarians being aware of the culture of […]

    Posted by Understanding the culture of social networking technologies | Information Wants To Be Free | January 16, 2008, 9:33 pm
  8. Wow, this is quite the response!

    Andrea, yes yes yes. We have to be users first, but it’s so hard for us to do that well- my last post is about trying to look at your own library with a newcomer’s eyes. Meredith’s encouragement to talk to our patrons and visit other libraries is wonderful.

    Michelle’s point about failure being blamed on the tool is so right and so frustrating for forward-pushing librarians. Sometimes, we’re going to make mistakes and new ideas aren’t going to work, but we can’t ditch the tool because our initial implementation didn’t work.

    It’s cheesy, but we have to fail toward success. And, stealing Karen’s hilarious imagery, try really hard not to do it like we’re Frugging (can I verb that word?) after too much egg nog!

    Posted by kate | January 16, 2008, 10:04 pm
  9. Sarah, it seems like this question is really different for teens and adults. We remember to stop and think about teen culture because it’s not our own, but tend to think that because we’re adults, we know what to do in that arena.

    With teens, it seems that there’s the additional grown-up factor. We can know the culture inside and out, but never really be of it, since we’re the grown-up. Which doesn’t mean the library can’t engage kids, but it seems that to some extent we’ll always be an outsider, at least with groups of kids. The usual caveats about me talking outside of my day-to-day experience apply here, of course!

    Posted by kate | January 17, 2008, 9:52 am
  10. […] Sheehan makes some interesting observations about the cultural awareness of librarians. She also touches on an unfortunate truth about Library […]

    Posted by blyberg.net » Library 2.0 Debased | January 17, 2008, 1:28 pm
  11. […] Sheehan asks the question, “Are librarians culturally self-aware?” She also gets a few responses from John Blyberg (”Library 2.0 Debased“) and […]

    Posted by carnival of the infosciences #87 | January 21, 2008, 10:43 am
  12. Pump Up The Volume

    Yes librarians need to get out of their world and make sure that they are providing the information and support that their clients need. Technology can be an aid and improve our effectiveness.

    Great Blog.

    Posted by bruce miller | January 21, 2008, 5:55 pm
  13. kate what do you think of curb side library service? imagine a patron calling up asking for a book and then being able to pick it up at the library window. best bruce

    Posted by bruce miller | January 23, 2008, 6:06 pm
  14. […] project didn’t work out … and others start claiming “After John Blyberg and others come out and say that library 2.0 didn’t work and neither did tagging, etc., the flood […]

    Posted by Has Elvis Left the Building? : David Lee King | January 24, 2008, 7:01 pm
  15. […] been a Library 2.0 “course correction” which is both healthy and inevitable. Kate Sheehan and John Blyberg are particularly astute on this topic. This doesn’t mean that Library 2.0 is […]

    Posted by They tried to make me go to FRBR, I said no, no, no | January 27, 2008, 10:07 am
  16. […] Farkas links to a couple of interesting posts on libraries in social networks, by Kate Sheehan and Andrea Mercado: both argue that librarians often don’t understand the cultural context of […]

    Posted by Simon Chamberlain’s library weblog » Blog Archive » Late January roundup | January 29, 2008, 7:01 pm
  17. […] “Library 2.0 Debased“, which in turn was inspired by Kate Sheehan’s post “Are librarians culturally self-aware“. I recommend you check out both posts as well as the comments, there is some interesting […]

    Posted by Connecting Librarian » Blog Archive » Librarian 2.0 not Library 2.0 | January 30, 2008, 6:30 pm
  18. […] Blyberg ? Library 2.0 Debased ????? Kate Sheehan ???????????It’s easy to become enamored of social networking sites and […]

    Posted by Library Views ????? » Web 2.0 ???????? | February 2, 2008, 9:30 am
  19. […] REPORT (pdf – University of Michigan) Data: Students + Facebook + Library Outreach (userslib.com) are librarians culturally self-aware? (Loose Cannon […]

    Posted by Uncontrolled Vocabulary #26 - Welcome to Uncontrolled Realty | Uncontrolled Vocabulary | March 1, 2008, 11:38 pm
  20. […] a social networking website before trying to market services through it. Here’s a couple of great posts on the […]

    Posted by Hidden Peanuts » Blog Archive » Culture and social networking sites | March 17, 2008, 9:27 pm
  21. Hello Kate

    I hope all is well and you are enjoying your new job. everything is great at dpl. i am enjoying working with mary. i thought this artilce from the nyt very good. i like the idea of having a video war day for teens.


    bruce miller

    The New York Times
    Printer Friendly Format Sponsored By

    March 22, 2008
    Taking Play Seriously at the Public Library With Young Video Gamers

    And you thought libraries were supposed to be quiet. Not on Friday.

    Under the Beaux-Arts arches of Astor Hall at the New York Public Library’s flagship building on Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street, thumping hard-rock beats mixed with tennis-ball thwacks and the screech of burning tires late Friday afternoon, as the library showed off the latest addition to its collections of books, films, music and maps: video games.

    Beneath the engraved names of august benefactors like John Jacob Astor and Simon Guggenheim, several hundred children, young adults and the people who love them virtually jumped, drove, battled and rocked out as the library celebrated its burgeoning “Game On @ the Library!” initiative.

    The library first offered games at a single Midtown branch in 2006. Now the library system offers both organized play sessions and games for circulation at 18 branches across the Bronx, Manhattan and Staten Island. (Brooklyn and Queens operate their own separate, library systems.) The library now owns about 2,500 copies of 92 different games available for circulation in one-week intervals. Overdue fine: $1 a day.

    Standing a few yards from boisterous teenagers playing Super Smash Bros. Brawl on Nintendo’s Wii and driving through Burnout 2 on Microsoft’s Xbox 360, David Ferriero, the Andrew W. Mellon director of the New York Public Libraries, referred to the system’s planned $1 billion expansion — to be kick-started by a $100 million gift from the financier Stephen A. Schwarzman — as he explained what video games were doing in such unfamiliar surroundings.

    “Especially at this pivotal moment in our history, it is so great to have so many people of this age group here in the library, because it foreshadows what life is going to be like around here when we have transformed this building,” he said. “We want to do a better job of integrating the circulation and research collections, and part of that is becoming more relevant for a younger audience.”

    Jack Martin, the library’s assistant coordinator for young adult services and the mastermind of the “Game On” project, said the library was in some ways only catching up with libraries in Ann Arbor, Mich., Los Angeles and parts of New England in making video games part of its programs and collections.

    “What we’re seeing is that in addition to simply helping bring kids into the library in the first place, games are having a broader effect on players, and they have the potential to be a great teaching tool,” Mr. Martin said. “If a kid takes a test and fails, that’s it. But in a game, if you fail you get to take what you’ve learned and try again.

    “In a lot of these games you have to understand the rules, you have to understand the game’s world, its story. For some games you have to understand its history and the characters in order to play effectively.”

    The program now includes games for the Wii, Xbox 360 and Sony PlayStation families of game systems. Mr. Martin said he hoped to expand soon to include online PC games like World of Warcraft. He said the library system had spent about $61,000 to provide hands-on game spaces in the 18 branches. The 2,500 circulating games appear to have cost at least $100,000.

    In Astor Hall (also known as the lobby), a procession of tourists stopped in their tracks as they passed through security, alternately stunned and thrilled by the juxtaposition of the venerable hall with the three big screens and throngs of exuberant players.

    “This is pretty cool, and it definitely expands the audience of the library,” said Garrett Lynn, 15, a ninth grader at Rockhurst High School in Kansas City, Mo. “It’s good because you don’t see too many kids my age in a place like this to check out a book.”

    Donna Roth, 50, a makeup artist from nearby Prairie Village, Kan., and a chaperon for Mr. Lynn’s visit to New York with her son Donald, answered, “But you should!”

    Across the hall, Radhames Saldivar, 16, a 10th grader from upper Manhattan, ripped through a blistering rendition of Heart’s “Barracuda” on Guitar Hero III. Afterward he said: “I never thought I’d see this happen. I might have to check out the library some more.”

    A few feet away, Carlos Rivera, 16, said he helped organize the regular Friday afternoon game sessions at the Jefferson Market library branch in Greenwich Village.

    “I thought a library was just for books, just for studying, just for a lot of things I don’t normally do,” he said. “But when I found out the library was starting to have games it was great, because it’s really good to hear that the library is paying more attention to the youth and what we’re into.”

    He paused. “And it’s also good because I can just say to my parents, ‘I’m going to the library.’”

    Posted by bruce miller | March 22, 2008, 2:45 pm
  22. I don’t think it’s fair to expect the users /out there/ to accept us stepping into their turf, if we the libraries remain protectionist and don’t allow them to step into ours. This is even more obnoxious than staying in our own ivory towers and cathedrals and expect the users will come to us automatically.

    Posted by mace | June 8, 2008, 12:18 pm
  23. […] sosiaalinen web Sosiaaliseen webiin mukaan lähtemisestä Loose cannon librarian kysyy are librarians culturally self-aware? Kommentoin seuraavaa: I don’t think it’s fair to expect the users /out there/ to accept […]

    Posted by Sosiaalinen web on kaksisuuntainen katu « macen hieno blogi | June 8, 2008, 12:26 pm
  24. […] molemmat artikkelit Kate Sheehanin Are librarians culturally self-aware? ja John Blybergin Library 2.0 Debased. Artikkelit olivat tosi mielenkiintoisia ja mielestäni […]

    Posted by Opittujen asioiden soveltaminen « sinttut | June 13, 2008, 7:36 am
  25. how do video games effect teens…

    How does the rss feed work so I can get updated on your blog?…

    Posted by how do video games effect teens | July 17, 2008, 4:10 am
  26. […] Are Librarians Culturally Self-Aware? (Loose Cannon Librarian) […]

    Posted by The OPLIN 4cast » Blog Archive » 4Cast #87: Library 2.0, LTR, Social Media, Gaming | August 7, 2008, 1:35 pm
  27. […] Are librarians culturally self-aware? […]

    Posted by Opittujen asioiden soveltaminen « Sorvipenkin äärellä | August 11, 2008, 1:10 am
  28. “…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?”

    Maybe ‘leveraging’ is the problem. My experience with social networks is that they are about sharing and showing and when they are used for leveraging and marketing it feels like a incursion. If you’re trying to get something out of the deal it will show and feel out of place to most users.

    Posted by Jeff | November 10, 2008, 1:03 pm
  29. […] over an old post or two. While this is often a little painful, I’ve found myself returning to this post about cultural self-awareness regularly (spammers love it). It’s an issue I think we still struggle with – the cultural niche […]

    Posted by Loose Cannon Librarian | On stereotypes and the echo chamber | March 15, 2010, 9:29 am

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