Be The Change You Want to Be, and Other Best Practices for Social Software in Libraries

By Michael Stephens |

In just 12 months, from the time ALA Techsource published Web 2.0 & Libraries: Best Practices for Social Software, the influx of 2.0 type tools, books, articles about the tools, and conference presentations has been overwhelming. So much excellent content to take in!

Cover of Michael's recent Library Technology ReportFor my report this year -- Web 2.0 & Libraries, Part 2: Trends and Technologies –- I wanted focus the “Best Practices” on the bigger picture instead of a list for each specific tool. There are so many wonderful bloggers and Web sites that offer concise, in-depth examinations of how to use social tools, maybe this wider focus will be helpful as well -- for planning, buy in and evaluation.

So use these ideas as a guide to move forward with whatever tool you're adding to your 2.0 cadre: a library blog, IM reference, or a wiki. Remember, Web 2.0 tools won't solve all your problems, but you may find some solutions that will make your work-life easier.  Here are some selected best practices from my new report:

Create a Prototype

Want to sell your social software project to your boss, your director or dean, or governing body?  Start with a prototype.  Brian Mathews said it well at Designing Better Libraries:

When I speak with librarians who are excited about new social technology, they often mention the roadblocks they encounter. The best advice I can give is to use prototyping. Build a proof-of-concept, test it with a few users, and then present it to the powers-that-be. Instead of giving them the chance to shoot down your idea, let them see it first hand, educate them about it, and show them see how it can be adapted. The secret is user needs — if you can demonstrate how your idea addresses a patron (or staff) need then you'll have greater chance of success.

Many of the tools in my report are free to use for experimentation and discovery.  Within minutes, you might create a prototype Ning network or embedded Meebo Me widget to show off at the next big meeting. Mathews's points are solid: educate the powers that be and demonstrate how users benefit from the prototype. And administrators — trust your staff to point the right way.  Listen to them.

Learn the Tools / Teach the Tools

If you haven't already, take a look at the Learning 2.0 course sponsored by the Public Library of Charlotte & Mecklenburg County.  Any library can adapt this free program, or we could learn from it ourselves individually.  Do the course for your library, your consortium, all the libraries in your area, or on a statewide level.  I just spoke at two library association meetings and I urged both to ponder a Learning 2.0 initiative at the state level for ALL libraries.

Try the same for hardware.  Have staff bring their newest gadget to a “technology encounter session” staff meeting.  Do things first, because staff should be comfortable with tools and technologies early on.  I interviewed Kyle Cook from Nashville Public Library for the new report, who agreed: “Make sure you spend adequate time with staff so they understand how to use the tools.”

Then, be a Technology Learning Leader for your users — teaching them about tools and technologies.  Make the library the place to be for cutting-edge technology and knowledgeable, savvy staff instruction.  Teach blogging, Flickr, MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, and the next tool.  I'm reminded of Princeton Public Library's “Gadget Garage” — a cabinet housing gadgets for hands-on play in the library's training room.

Don't miss Harris County Public Library's adaptation of Learning 2.0 for patrons.  (thanks SuperCrazyLibrarianGuy!)

Give Real World Services a Virtual Space

book discussion groupUse the social tools to give your real-world services a virtual presence.  Give each book discussion group a blog.  Build a wiki for reader's advisory. Embed a librarian Meebo widget on your “Contact Us” page.  Record a podcast tour of your library, or ask your teen group to help make the recording.

Creating an extension of the real world library online can engage users that might only be looking for the library in those spaces.  Or the user might not even know the library is there and that sense of discovery may surprise them.  “Hey — I didn't know the library used IM!”

Be the Change You Want to Be

I also spoke with Kyle Cook about implementing 2.0 tools on the Nashville Public Library Teen Web.  His advice is valuable for all of us initiating change with social tools.

We decided to use flickr for our pictures. We wanted something that would allow the librarians and add their own pictures without having to go through the web team. Also, the librarians were already familiar with flickr, so it wasn't too intimidating. Like,, flickr lets the teen staff create their own sets of items — they're controlling the content. It also lets the teens to go in and make comments and maybe link their own photo collections.

We created a prototype to demonstrate our ideas. This prototype showed what we were after and it didn't take long to build — just paste in two pieces of code. Use someone else's flickr photos for the badge. You can use your own account for the link example.

When we pitched the changes to our library managers, we had a rationale for each. That's important. We chose and flickr because they offered a solution to link maintenance and the addition of photos. At the same time, they made maintenance of the site easier. These were problems we had for some time. Showing your reasons behind changing course and trying something new tells your managers that you aren't just doing something to be cool. Your changes need to have a purpose.

I use the Nashville PL Teen Web in my talks now as a case study of enhancing a Web presence with social tools, many of them free to use and play with -- and as a perfect example of bringing humanity to the library web.  Take a look at the library staff avatars, the faces of the teens at library programs and their shared bookmarking to see this in play.

It also illustrates how we can streamline Web work -- a case, as Kyle demonstrates, that's a good one to make to library managers and admin folk. The next stage, after implementation, is planning for evaluation -- gathering data, evidence, and stories about how the tools are used or how they might enhance the library's online presence.

I want to thank all the librarians who offered their time for interviews and shared their expertise for my new report.  Also, thanks to my editor Judi and the folks at ALA Techsource.