Endless Possibilities: An ALA TechSource Conversation with Cliff Landis

By Michael Stephens |

landisTS.pngAh, summer break. It’s nice to have some time to breathe and energize. My eyes fall on the stack of fiction and just-for-fun reading awaiting me these next few weeks. I must confess, however, that my thoughts also return to teaching and prep for next semester. I’ve already started work on integrating Drupal into my courses, working with my graduate assistant Kyle Jones, a TTW Contributor and blogger in his own right.

Another goal I have for the fall is to utilize Facebook more in my courses, both as a means to communicate with students and as a teaching tool. I want them to see what libraries could be doing with Facebook and other similar technologies. To get a jump start, I thought I’d bounce some questions off Cliff Landis, Assistant Professor/Reference Librarian, Valdosta State University about Facebook in the academic library setting. I’m always impressed with his presentations and work with social networking. We conducted a spirited interview via e-mail:

MS: What role do you see for Facebook in academic libraries?

CL: First and foremost, Facebook pages can be used for marketing and outreach to library users. Facebook is the social hub of most campuses today, and students use their profiles to proclaim their identities to their peers. So by becoming a fan of the library's page, students declare, "hey, I like the library, too."

Beyond that, the possibilities are endless--it is only limited by what librarians are willing to do, and what users want and need. For example, the British Library page has 688 fans, and includes pictures, videos, events, and comments. At Odum Library where I work, our library's page gained 19 friends just by word of mouth--no marketing. My hope is that by adding content and a little advertising in the future we will be able to reach more students--especially those who never set foot in the library and never go to the library's webpage.

I have seen Facebook used for reference, collection development, instruction, technical support, circulation, and a myriad of other things. Again, the only limit is the imagination of the librarian and the desires of the user.

MS: I am sure I know the answer, but I’m intrigued by librarians that say their users aren’t in Facebook or no one has asked about it before at the desk? Should librarians participate in social networking like Facebook?

CL: Absolutely. The lines between the personal and professional are not necessarily breaking down, but they are becoming more blurry. Users want to know that we're human, and want us to recognize that they're human too. Participation on a personal level is the first step to excellent outreach services.

MS: Absolutely. A perfect example of making the library human. The strength of a personal connection between a user and librarian is much more important to me right now than 20th Century-style marketing and sitting behind a desk waiting for the students to find you. I keep hearing in my head: “Go where the users are...”

CL: And recognize what your users actually want. Laurie Bridges points out that those library Facebook Applications that are most successful are the ones that allow users to interact successfully with the data and each other.

Merely pushing your sucky OPAC into Facebook won't make users happy--first, fix your OPAC to make it return better results and be more interactive, and *then* push it into other arenas. The work that librarians like Laurie Bridges, Gerry McKiernan and Aaron Schmidt have done has been important in exploring the connections between libraries and social networks.

Participating both as a librarian and as a library opens the door to better outreach services. It's up to librarians and users to work together to take it from there.

MS: That brings up something that has been on my mind for the past few months as I watch more libraries diving into creating Facebook pages and other sites. What do you think about the Facebook pages for libraries that have a bunch of other librarians as fans? Frankly, it disappoints me. I've actually curtailed some of my "fan-ing" of pages lately. I’d rather leave the fandom to the users and watch to see how it goes from outside. How do the users find and adopt the page. What are the patterns of use and what types of outreach builds the community. Tapping into that is most important for understanding user needs.

CL: This is another symptom of librarians talking to each other, saying "Hey! Look at this neat thing I did!" and never involving the users. What do you suppose would happen if the person managing the library page wasn't a librarian, but a student? (I can already hear the gasps of thousands of librarians.) Let's face it--we're control freaks.

MS: (LOL) I would have to agree that many of us are!

CL: Since Facebook is a social utility, why not hand the fan page over to users who actually use the library *and* Facebook? Or, you could have a competition amongst the college's business students to see who could design the best Facebook-centered marketing campaign.

I think that it's great that librarians are fans of their libraries, but too often it stops there. The possibilities for Facebook fan pages are endless, unless we're the only ones with ownership. If that's the case, then it will end with us.

MS: I use Facebook to interact with friends and colleagues all over the world. After my speaking engagements in Australia, I had a flurry of adds from the great folks Down Under. This way, I can stay in touch with them from afar and build on the connections. I wonder, though, about my role as professor. I've had Facebook chats with students and even been "poked" by a few. How should faculty interact with students on Facebook?

CL: Here, I defer to Fred Stutzman's excellent blog post, "Facebook as a Tool for Learning Engagement." Stutzman is a researcher on Facebook who is getting his PhD in Information and Library Science from UNC-Chapel Hill. In the article he explains Facebook's limitations and opportunities. He goes on to give great advice to faculty on how to interact with students in this social sphere. Although the article is a bit dated in the fast-changing world of Facebook, it is still an excellent guide. Librarians who read it will learn how to reach out to students without looking creepy and stalker-ish in the process.

MS: I've long followed Stutzman's work. Impressive stuff. Before we end this, Cliff, I have to mention your recent presentations on users and the social catalog. Tell me more about your thinking: the library catalog is a social network for ideas.

CL: This idea came out of my exposure to meme theory. The basic idea of meme theory is that we can view ideas as having a life of their own, spreading, growing and evolving from one mind to the next. As librarians know, the content of an information object can be the same from one medium to the next. The same holds for ideas in peoples' heads. The idea (content) can be separated from the carrier (medium).

In this way, we can watch ideas "duke it out" in the public sphere. The FRBR debate is a great example of this. Through publications, blogs, comments, interviews, etc. we can watch the idea of FRBR get discussed, debated, understood, misunderstood, and reinterpreted over and over.

I began to think about how our libraries hold billions of ideas trapped inside of different media. Each one is represented by a bibliographic record and a holdings record (a profile). Each one is related to other ideas through citations--who they cite, and who cited them (friending). Further, as citation and criticism build up for each work, other ideas can make claims about those ideas that came before (commenting). These three criteria (profile, friending and commenting) are what danah boyd and Nicole Ellison use to define social network sites. So in effect, we can watch ideas interact with each other through our catalogs.

If we take the concept a little further, we begin to notice other similarities. Groups emerge as subject headings. Photos emerge as book covers, graphs and tables. Each new level of metadata can have its analog to a social networking profile. Looking for a book based on physical description? It reminds me of the old "A/S/L?" question.

So ultimately:
1) No idea is an island. Each idea relates to other ideas in some way.
2) We can't remove the human experience element from ideas. As ideas move and flow between people, we each add our own experience to the idea as we spread it to others.
3) People are idea creation/consumption machines. We create and consume ideas, and then remix and mashup those ideas into new ideas.

Librarians are poised to be at the center of all this action. Our hard-earned knowledge of information evaluation, organization, and instruction will aid us (and more importantly, our users) in the future.

As the flood of ideas becomes a tsunami, we'll be the ones with the surf boards.