Exploring the Virtual Commons: Using Ning to Build a Community at Lafayette Public Library

By Michael Stephens |

The series I did last year on The Commons in Libraries has become part of my research interests these days and also part of my presentations exploring "The Hyperlinked Library." Of course, the commons does not have to be just a physical space but can also be a virtual one. I thought it might be useful to explore what some libraries are doing to build the virtual meeting place via online tools like Ning.

Lafayette Public Library  in Lafayette, Colorado recently introduced Lafayette Readers, a virtual community built in Ning. I sought out Pam Sahr, Horizon System Administrator at the library, to tell me more about the project.

MS: Pam, how did the Ning project come about?

PS: The Library Board and reference staff designated 2008 as the year to introduce a social network for our adult patrons.  There were no objectives, measurements, etc. specified in the Strategic Plan.  Just Do It.  So a Reference Librarian, Bernice Hicks & I (both ex-programmers with minimal aesthetic sensibilities!) cobbled together Lafayette Readers.
MS: It doesn't seem cobbled at all. I like the look and feel of your work.  I did notice the Lafayette Readers Ning is private as are others I’ve explored. What was your thinking in planning?
PS: We made it a private network to offer a personal connection for our patrons to their local library & community -- as opposed to being one of 1000s of members on GoodReads, LibraryThing, etc.
MS: I like the idea of a personal touch and a community-based space. How many members are patrons?
PS: Of 174 members, all but 20 are patrons.  The non-patrons are friends of patrons.  Even though initial invites are for Lafayette patrons, members are welcome to invite their own friends.
MS: Those are good numbers. Having that many folks it makes me wonder how much interaction is happening. Sometimes it seems like a lot of people join such communities but not a lot happens. What are you doing to encourage the community?
PS: With the influx of new members, I am optimistic that they will begin generating more content.  Also, I am hot on the trail of our reference librarians to respond to any/all patron comments!  2 of them actually were on the lines of "I don't know what to read, can you give me some recommendations?"  YES we can!!!
MS: What promotion have you done?
PS: We sent a GraphicMail invitation to all patrons with email addresses on 12/30.  The response was good -  7632 emails sent; 1405 opened; 152 clicked; 106 joined.
I am sending our monthly "update" to members now via Graphic Mail. My latest idea is to send a Graphic Mail invite to all new cardholders (batched together after the end of a month).  The 1st-ever mailing on Feb 2 yielded: 181 sent; 61 opened, 9 new members.
MS: Are you seeing an increase in activity?
PS: There has been an increase in pageviews, but we have still have more lurkers than members who actually post.
MS: That's okay. Lurking is a viable behavior in online communities. Dr. Gary Burnett, Assistant Professor at the School of Information Studies at Florida State University wrote about this in an article I used in my dissertation. Those invisible participants in the community, he states, who read what others have written “without also writing themselves constitute significant information-gathering activities” (p. 8). I would suggest giving it time and to keep doing what you are doing with inviting content creation and encouraging engagement.  Are you planning to expand the Ning or do others?
PS:  Bernice and I just created a public Ning for Boulder County's "One Book One Boulder" program this spring.   Lafayette has 25,000 residents; Boulder County nearly 300,000, so we’ll be interested to see how a larger pool of members affects participation.


Thanks to Pam for taking the time to tell me about the Ning at Lafayette. I'm interested to hear from other libraries that are using Ning or other open tools to create communities. What has worked? What hasn't?


Burnett, G. (2000). Information exchange in virtual communities: a typology. http://informationr.net/ir/5-4/paper82.html