I’ve recently observed a rise in posts about ‘social networking’ on the various public library mailing lists, professional journals, blogs and newspapers that I subscribe to. Wikipedia aside, Facebook seems to provoke the most heated debate amongst librarians discussing Web 2.0. Undoubtedly, social networking is a key element of 21st century online life, but is it appropriate for public libraries to occupy a space in this type of community?
East Renfrewshire Council
Facebook offers public libraries an opportunity to exploit a relatively cost effective marketing tool to promote services; interact with existing users and deliver an additional access point, suitable for reaching potential new users. East Renfrewshire Council in Scotland was the first in the UK to launch Facebook pages for all of their libraries . The Scotsman featured an interesting editorial piece about the launch and SLAINTE promoted the story on their website.
Despite this positive publicity, there still appears to be little consensus on whether other local authorities should fully embrace Facebook. As Tony Durcan observed in a recent article in Library & Information Review (March 2008, Vol 7(3):
“…there is absolutely no national leadership on the digital future of public libraries”.
In fact, I find it incredibly confusing and worrying that some authorities in Scotland have banned the use of all social networking sites for a variety of reasons; fear that employees would waste time online or that library users would be exposed unnecessarily to commercial advertisements, or, perhaps, as I suspect, as the result of a lack of knowledge and expertise at a higher level?
To ban or embrace?
Whatever the reason, would it not be a better idea to educate users and staff about the proper use of social networking, rather than banning the concept entirely? As far as I can tell, East Renfrewshire have done just that, by attempting to address issues such as:
- protecting personal data online
- adopting appropriate online communication skills
- creating awareness that online ads are just like newspaper and TV ads; they are no way endorsed by the Facebook account holder (i.e. the Council)
- staff training to ensure Library Assistants understand the basics of the service and can help users to create their own profiles, join groups and network, should they wish.
Thoughts for the future
I think it’s time to establish a set of national guidelines and a best practice toolkit to ensure that the strong presence of public libraries in our physical communities is replicated effectively and appropriately in virtual communities online.
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