Monday, 25 July 2011

The Impact of Social Media on Library Services (Part 1: Challenges)

The Committee of Inquiry into the Changing Learner Experience 2009 defined ’social media’ as;

“technologies that enable communication, collaboration, participation and sharing”
Schulz, N. (2010: Unit 4, p141)

This suggests that social media technologies have the potential to fundamentally alter how individuals interact..  If we accept the premise that social media is changing the way individuals interact, it follows that these technologies also have an impact on LIS, as LIS are part of the society they operate in.  The question of how social media impacts on LIS is best addressed by looking at the social functions the above quote suggests the new technologies enable.

Communication is perhaps the most obvious area where social media has had significant social impact.  From the uprisings of the Arab Spring, the Twitter based challenges to the English legal system or customer led revolts against banks, social media tools such as Facebook and Twitter are often credited as catalysts for change, by providing the means for like minded individuals to ‘gather together’ and communicate their message.

Aside from political campaigns, social media has also given readers a new way to discussed books and other cultural resources.  Websites, such as LibraryThing.com, act as an online forum for readers to post book reviews and comments.  While such functions are positive ‘reader development’ activities, they are notably in that they offer a source of guidance and discussion completely (barring the name) unrelated to libraries.  

The threat to LIS reaches a new level with the Amazon Kindle, where a form of closed feedback loop exists between the consumer and content provider, as books can be recommended, downloaded, read and discussed via social media websites using a single device that arguably immerses the user in a virtual experience.

While Facebook and Twitter do involve collaboration amongst their users, the best examples of collaborative social media tools are social book marking sites and wikis.  Websites such as Delicious.com allow users to tag and share bookmarked web pages to aid future search and retrieval.  Vander Wal, T. suggests that the tagging of bookmarks creates a folksonomy, in which;

“...the people are not so much categorizing as providing a means to connect items and to provide their meaning in their own understanding.”
((Vander Wal, T., 2005). Anderson 2007:p17))

Vander Wal considers folksonomies to be of greater value than taxonomies because ‘groups of people with a similar vocabulary can function as a kind of 'human filter' for each other’. This raises the question of how LIS, that derive their 'power' from intellectual authority, will survive in an era in which "news is more of a ‘conversation’.

The challenge social media presents to the library’s role as the arbiter of intellectual authority is perhaps best represented by Wikipedia.  Describing itself as “the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit” Wikipedia provokes a broad range of reactions from LIS professional.  Badke, W. states that Wikipedia has often been described by fellow academics as;

“...shallow, unreliable, sometimes slanderous, and too often dead wrong.”
Badke, W. (2008)

But, as Badke demonstrates, the constant revision of Wikipedia’s entries by its users gives the website a currency that cannot be achieved by similar print resources, whilst also helping to ensure mistakes on the website are quickly corrected.

The social media function of ‘sharing’ has the potential to have a profound effect on LIS as more resources become available electronically.  

"In the world of paper the judgment of quality is bound to economic decisions, to publish or to include in a library collection.  On the net the reduced cost of publishing unties this relationship and allows such decisions to be decoupled from publishing."  
Barry, T. (1996).


Whilst this is a fantastic opportunity for LIS, it needs to be balanced against user expectations, who now expect to be able to immediately access the resources they need.  Services like Google Books have the potential to satisfy the user’s desire for immediate access.  While a service like Google Books may stretch the definition of ‘social media’, it can only be a matter of time before a ‘Spotify for books’ is launched, replete with the social media technology that enables users to discuss and recommend resources to their peers.  While illegal file sharing is already having a significant impact on publishers, LIS need to ask what impact a free and legal online e-book sharing service would have on their own businesses.  

All the preceding social functions depend on participation.  For this to be possible LIS websites need to enable users to post comments and media online.  This is the final challenge social media poses to LIS and is an appropriate point for us to look at how LIS websites have developed to respond to the challenges of free flowing communication within virtual communities, the shift of intellectual authority from the Librarian to the users and the desire for immediate access to current information and resources.

Many public libraries have established Facebook and Twitter accounts in an effort to use the websites as marketing and promotion tools.  The setting up of these accounts has proved a challenge for many public libraries, needing careful consideration of brand image and staff training in copyright, data protection and child protection law.

While there is a growing amount of information available on how to use micro-blogging services as marketing tools there seems to be little research available as to how effective these new resources are.  Whether tweets or posts translate into actual action on the part of our ‘friends’ and followers is debatable.  

Blogs are perhaps a more substantive way for LIS to build a relationship with their users.  Your Library - Edinburgh is a good example of how an LIS blog can be used to combine text, video and pictures to present information about LIS resources to users in a dynamic and responsive way.  

LIS do need to be aware, though, that the management of blogging tools and video/photo sharing websites requires significant time and staff training, including an awareness of the issues surrounding moderation issues.  Decisions need to be made at the very start of any blogging process as to who will be moderating user posts, whether posts will be pre, post or reactively moderated and how often new posts will be checked.


The aspects of social media detailed above pose considerable challenges to the traditional functions of Library and Information Services, but within these challenges there are also valuable opportunities for LIS to develop.


Coming soon...The Impact of Social Media on Library Services (Part 2: Opportunities)

3 comments:

  1. his raises the question of how LIS, free instagram followers app that derive their 'power' from intellectual authority, will survive in an era in which "news is more of a ‘conversation’.

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