Thing 23 of 23 yet again: if your library service was a person, who would they be?

We were asked as part of Thing 23 to talk not just about our own experiences of the Things, but how we thought they might shape library services (I presume they mean academic library services here). This really needs not just a post of its own, but a period of calm reflection, skilful analysis of current trends, a lot of reading better informed peoples’ blogs, and a crystal ball. Since I’m about to go on holiday, however, it’s going to get some quick hack and slash work from me and a few generalisations.

The obvious problem with any discussion about library services is that the classic functional model I learnt about at library school is now obsolete. This model had the three components: acquiring information, organising information, and disseminating information, and my experience of it dates from around 12 BG (Before Google) when Boolean searches and the reference interview were still standard practice.

A more realistic modern model of library services starts from the three main kinds of content now available: free (online) content, bulk content (the paid-for online and hardcopy content that most academic libraries have) and special content (the mostly hardcopy content that your library has, but very few other places do). The main library functions then become user education (so users know how to work with content), maintaining and promoting the bulk content, and maintaining and promoting the special content. I’ll also add in as a couple of extra functions widget creation (providing fancy new ways for users to access the content) and library administration (keeping the whole organisation on the road).

Trends within academic libraries are also broadly clear. User education is becoming more and more of an important role for librarians. Maintaining bulk collections, on the other hand, is gradually being standardised and deskilled. I’ve already worked in academic libraries which essentially relied for most of their material on suppliers’ shelf-ready book plus catalogue record. Throw in self-issue, supplier-managed interfaces to e-journals, and the possibility of library services being shared between universities, and maintaining bulk collections looks like becoming ever more routine work. Even the promotion of bulk collections is at least partially being taken over by user education. There’s not much point about telling users about new e-journals, after all, unless they understand in the first place why they might want to use them.

Special collections, in contrast, look like the long-term winners for academic libraries, because they have an obvious USP: something for the users that isn’t (yet) on Google. Producing widgets is also likely to remain a boom area. Aside from its practical benefits, it keeps library systems teams happy and out of mischief, and it also makes libraries look exciting and dynamic, which goes down well with the management of most universities. (Though maybe Cambridge is an exception to this rule). Meanwhile, library administration, like the poor, is always with us.

How do the different social media tools relates to these functions? You can use almost any of the Things for anything if you’re determined enough (tweeting pictures, anyone?) However, the more obvious possibilities I can see are:

User ed – Zotero, Slideshare, podcasts

Maintaining bulk content – tagging (possibly)

Promoting bulk content – Delicious, noticeboard technologies (Twitter, Facebook, RSS, short-form or news type blogs, Library Thing).

I’m using noticeboard technologies here to refer to library communications that are primarily one way, from the library to the user, at least in practice.

Widget creation – Twitter, techie blogs

The main use of social media tools here is likely to be for techie to techie chatting. At the moment, most playing with widgets seems to involve finding way to move data automatically between different applications, with the minimum of human involvement.

Maintaining special content – tagging (possibly), Flickr and YouTube (for small-scale repositories)

Promoting special content – Flickr, Delicious, noticeboard technologies, long-form blogs (with magazine article type posts), podcasts

Library administration – wikis, Google calendar, Doodle, Google Docs, LinkedIn

Even this sketchy outline suggests that the impact of social media tools varies a lot between different library functions. I’m not sure that such tools are going to transform library services in the way that, say, web-based OPACs did. The principal advantage of social media so far for libraries looks like the opportunity to provide a more sociable/humanised form of promotion, once which encourages existing library users into a closer relationship with the library.

But that raises an issue that goes far beyond all the technical questions and practicalities. If your library is going to be involved in social media, wants to be sociable, who does it need to be (and it is who, not what)? If it wants to be peoples’ ‘friend’, what kind of persona does it need to adopt, and how does it avoid presenting a split personality? That seems to me the basic question we are still struggling to find an answer for, and more important in the long run than merely worrying about whether we should be using Facebook and/or Twitter.

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