Editors: Ann P. Dougherty, Mountainside Publishing; Richard M. Dougherty, University of Michigan, Emeritus
Contributing Editors: William Miller, Florida Atlantic University; Barbara Fister, Gustavus Adolphus College;  
Mignon Adams, University of the Sciences in Philadelphia; Kathleen Miller, Florida Gulf Coast University;
Steven J. Bell
, Temple University; Larry Hardesty, Winona State University; Mark Tucker, Abilene Christian University

Vol. 28, No. 2                                printable version (pdf)    home

November 2007

Building Better Academic Libraries with Web 2.0 Technology Tools

by Steven J. Bell

What do leaders, managers and front-line practitioners at academic libraries want — besides more money from the administration? They want passionate users. Perhaps the greatest threat confronting academic library administrators right now is community disinterest. When the simplicity of retrieving information with free web-based search engines and encyclopedias converges with the complexity of navigating library web sites and their traditional databases, the result is at best a widespread lack of awareness about the academic library research environment and at worst a communal acceptance that the library no longer matters. Is there life for the academic library after the café opens its doors?

Web 2.0. A Tool for Transformation

To better engage their users in a conversation about conducting high quality research, academic librarians need tools and technologies that can arouse their constituency’s passion for the library and its offerings. Such tools could significantly counter the current library ennui that pervades academic communities. And if those tools were of the low or no-cost variety they would be even more attractive to library and academic administrators.

Perhaps it sounds like a pipe dream, but academic librarians now have these technologies at their disposal with web 2.0 technologies. More academic librarians are coming to believe that strategies to stimulate user passion and better library user experiences can be delivered with these web 2.0 tools. Why is there currently such a high level of interest in web 2.0? Perhaps better starting questions for academic administrators are “What is it?” and “How are academic libraries using it?” This issue seeks to answer these questions, explain why this phenomenon is creating a dramatic transformation of the Internet, and examine how academic libraries can use these technologies to offer their user communities a greater opportunity to participate in the expanding cyberspace conversation.

It’s All about User-Generated Content

The vast majority of world wide web content is the product of web developers and designers. Traditional library web sites feature pages written by librarians or web editors. This web paradigm is described as the “read-only web.” In other words, the end user only interacted with content in a one-way stream. No opportunity existed for that end user to edit content or add his or her own material to a website. In the web 2.0 world that paradigm has shifted from read only to “read-write.” Chris Anderson, author of The Long Tail and editor at Wired magazine, referred to this trend as “the age of peer production.” No longer is the web the sole domain of expert content editors and web designers. Now, web sites that fail to invite user participation and peer production risk marginalization.

In what ways is this peer production manifesting itself? The following web 2.0 technologies being used by academic libraries provide examples:

Web 2.0 Infiltrates Higher Education

Higher education institutions are steadily adopting web 2.0 technologies. Educators integrate them into the teaching and learning process because students are familiar with these technologies, and accept them as a desirable way to connect with their peers and faculty. As demonstrated by their heavy presence in social networks, students are members of the peer production generation. Early faculty adopters sought to leverage these technologies to enhance the learning experience. Now many of these tools are finding their way into established institutional technologies. It is now possible to offer blogging, wiki, and social bookmarking technologies directly through a Blackboard course site.

“Libraries, with their traditional web-based catalogs, article databases and non-participative websites, are greatly challenged in this new digital landscape...but, libraries are experimenting with these technologies and discovering ways to integrate them...”

A few academic librarians were also quick to begin their web 2.0 experimentation to determine how the technology might be used to better connect with the user community. Academic administrators should seek to discover how their library is making use of web 2.0 technology, which specific technologies are in use, to what extent they are being used to invite peer production and promote user participation, and whether these efforts are resulting in more engaged users and better awareness of library resources. Academic administrators should encourage library directors to explore these technologies and implement them locally. That means administrators must firmly grasp the different technologies, how they invite participation, and ways in which academic libraries are putting them to use.

A Closer Look at Web 2.0 Technology

Blogs offer a quickly updated online journal that allows academic libraries to deliver news and information much faster than in past years. They have become commonplace on library websites. The software, like most web 2.0 technology, is free or low cost, and there is virtually no learning curve. The real challenge is determining how to successfully engage end users. Blogs primarily do this by seeking reader feedback. Some library efforts to encourage this include adding more commentary to the standard fare of news and event announcements, and pushing blog postings into student spaces such as courseware sites so that students are more likely to see the blog posts. If they don’t read it they can’t comment. These are good ideas, but most academic library blogs have yet to achieve real success in generating user participation.

Wikis may be superior for user participation, and academic librarians are exploring wikis for that reason. Any individual registered to use the wiki may edit the content. Wikis may be private or public. Academic libraries mostly use the wiki as an internal communication tool. A good example is a reference department wiki. Staff can quickly add content about a specific assignment to the wiki. It can be used to give notice about students asking for specific resources or provide suggestions and tips for helping those students. Wikis are becoming popular because they provide an easy way for staff to participate and share information. There are fewer examples of libraries creating wikis designed to capture content provided by students and faculty.

Social networks. Rapidly growing in popularity, social networks are web destinations that academic librarians can no longer ignore. Our students are heavily involved in social networks such as Facebook and MySpace, so we need to consider ways to leverage that to bring students into the library. A common approach adopted by academic librarians is to obtain an account for the social network, add an individual or library profile and then wait for students to extend an invitation to be a “friend.” On MySpace librarians can create profiles for their libraries. Facebook does not allow institutional pages, but individual librarians can create “groups” for their libraries that are then accessible to others who may wish to join. Academic librarians have had varying degrees of success in using social networks to connect with their user communities.

Podcasts. Another web 2.0 territory with which academic libraries are experimenting is audio in the form of podcasts, and some are attempting to engage users with video. Both podcasting (audio files) and vodcasting (video files) enable libraries to promote services and events using technologies that appeal to today’s learners who may be less receptive to the text files on which libraries have traditionally depended. Using free software and low-cost technologies such as digital recorders and webcams, once academic librarians learn to create podcasts and vodcasts they can use the technology to record events such as author presentations, award ceremonies or recorded instruction sessions. The recordings can be distributed across multiple local and global mediums, everything from the library website to iTunes or YouTube. The next step is to invite the end user to participate in the design and development of multimedia, or to ultimately contribute their own.

Social bookmarking. These are another community resource that can foster resource sharing and participation. More frequently academic librarians educate their end users about the benefits of web-based bookmarking sites such as del.icio.us and citeulike. These are publicly accessible bookmark sites where anyone can store bookmarks to a personal account, but one’s bookmarks can be designated as private. Users typically add “tags” to their bookmarks to aid retrieval. For example, a bookmark to a blog post about U. S. Commission on Higher Education could be tagged with the term “spellings” or “accountability.” Academic librarians are also promoting the bookmark site as an alternative to an Internet search engine. For information retrieval, scholars may prefer to explore the content their disciplinary colleagues are bookmarking. Items that are bookmarked by high numbers of users often point to worthwhile content, a phenomenon sometimes referred to as the “wisdom of the crowd.”

It is possible for an individual institution to develop their own internal bookmarking site, but it does require more computing power and programmer expertise. This may change as more commercial, turnkey products become available that allow any college or university to quickly mount an institutional bookmarking site. This encourages users to add their own content and their own tags to repositories where information is shared across the institution. It will then be up to academic libraries to determine how they can allow end users to add tags to traditional library content, and then make it easy for those users to bookmark the content for later retrieval.

Academic Library 2.0 Takes Shape

Rapid growth of web 2.0 technologies has propelled MySpace and YouTube into the ranks of the most heavily visited sites. These sites’ success is owing to their ability to capture user-generated content, invite participation in content creation and provide users with tools to share ideas and information. Libraries, with their traditional web-based catalogs, article databases and non-participative websites, are greatly challenged in this new digital landscape. But academic administrators will be pleased to know that their libraries are experimenting with these technologies and discovering ways to integrate them into the traditional library environment. With each technology identified above there are examples of academic libraries putting them to use.

Blogs. At Temple University the librarians now add more commentary posts that share thought and ideas about the issues of the day in higher education and information industries. As yet there is minimal commentary, but this is a desirable first step in offering content faculty and students will want to read. Libraries such as those at Georgia State and McMaster University seek to encourage user interest by offering customized news feeds to which faculty and students may subscribe. This can help to popularize the blog among the user community, because users must first know the blog exists to make participation possible. Creating awareness and a desire to read the library blog is the challenge.

Wikis. An example of one that allows the user community to add their own content is the Biz Wiki at Ohio University. Biz Wiki takes the idea of the traditional library subject guide and makes it a community resource. Instead of merely finding links, end users are able to add their own resources or edit existing entries with their own insights. According to the site, anyone can edit Biz Wiki. Students and faculty are encouraged to add their own resources or edit existing ones. Those who wish to edit Biz Wiki do need to register. Libraries that offer public wikis need to budget time site monitoring to probe for inaccuracies or intential errors in the content. Learn more about Biz Wiki at http://www.library.ohiou.edu/subjects/bizwiki/index.php/Main_Page. For a short video introduction to wikis visit http://www.commoncraft.com/video-wikis-plain-english

Social networks. More academic librarians are experimenting with social networks as a way to connect with users in their space. MySpace still allows libraries to create organizational accounts. The library at Brooklyn College has garnered some attention for its heavy marketing of the library in this virtual space. The library has created a home page within the social network. The vast majority academic librarians use Facebook because that where the college students are. But unlike MySpace, Facebook only allows personal profiles so no library sites are allowed. One creative method is to make a library group that students can join. That group can then be used as a communication vehicle with students. Groups can be created for specific programs and events to encourage student participation. In the end the success of library ventures in social networks may depend on how well librarians connect with students in face-to-face settings. Students are far more likely to join the groups of librarians they know and trust.

Podcasts and vodcasts are popular ways to record and provide instruction tutorials, interviews with staff members or conversations with faculty and book authors. The librarians at Fairfield University created podcasts that simulate interviews with different library databases to invite users to discover database content and features. Their interviews with faculty are used to promote efforts to build student research skills (http://www.fairfield.edu/lib_podcasts.html). A comprehensive approach is used at Arizona State University, where they have created “The Library Channel” (http://www.asu.edu/lib/librarychannel/). On a single site they offer a mix of both podcasts and vodcasts. These multimedia presentations cover everything from explanations of library policies, pre-recorded tours, interviews with university colleagues, and even their locally produced commercials for library services. Podcasting and vodcasting are the web 2.0 technologies that allow academic libraries to really show their creativity.

Social Bookmarking. The power and popularity of social bookmarking is currently demonstrated at the University of Pennsylvania where the library has established a campus social bookmark community. PennTags is restricted to members of the Penn community. Users of the system add bookmarks to internal (library) or external content, and then they tag their items so others can find and share them. In addition to bookmarking web sites, the system also allows users to bookmark library catalog records. The bookmarking can be done directly within the catalog.

PennTags nicely demonstrates the web 2.0 principle of allowing end users to contribute their own content. Temple University recently acquired the Scholar system and makes it available through their Blackboard system. This presents possibilities for librarians to bookmark library resources such as individual research databases, and provide descriptive tagging. Users searching terms such as “education,” will locate links to library content that they can then add to their own bookmarks, and personalize with their own tags. This is an excellent example of a unique way in which the academic library can integrate its resources into the campus courseware system for easier retrieval by students and faculty.

Pitfalls on the Path to Academic Library 2.0

Web 2.0’s potential for engaging the user community is limited only by academic librarians’ imagination. Because these technologies are low cost and are deployed with greater ease than traditional library technologies, there may be a tendency for librarians to implement them without sufficiently thinking through exactly what services they can enhance or what problems they can solve. A greater rationale than “because we can” should be demonstrated prior to developing a service that utilizes web 2.0 technology. Administrators should be asking librarians to identify the problem for which the technology provides a solution. It may also be desirable for administrators to look for an implementation plan that specifies outcomes and incorporates measures for identifying when they are successfully achieved.

Sometimes it is the library administrator who is the roadblock to progress. At academic library conferences and on discussion lists librarians routinely lament about library directors who quash their 2.0 creativity. They are eager to develop web 2.0-based services, only to find that their library director refuses to support the idea. This happens primarily because academic library administrators are failing to keep up with these new technologies and the ways in which they are being applied to create more passionate library users. Academic library administrators ought to embrace web 2.0 technologies because they represent a low-cost option for developing new services that are more likely to meet the expectations of students living in a web 2.0 world. There is little risk involved in allowing librarians to experiment with these technologies. As long as there is a sensible plan in place, library directors would be wise to support these projects, not create barriers to their success.

Transforming the traditional library, based on the old model in which the end users are on the outside looking in, into the academic library 2.0 takes a united effort in which librarians and their administrators collaborate to study best practices and determine the best options in the local environment. It may be a blog or a wiki, or some combination of technologies that invite users to participate in the academic library enterprise by contributing their own content. With new user expectations defining the ways in which academic libraries create and deliver services, web 2.0 offers opportunities to achieve the long-sought-after, engaged, and participative library end user. It is up to academic librarians to decide how to best leverage the new technologies to achieve these goals, and take the upper hand in the battle to turn user disinterest into user passion. Steven Bell can be contacted at bells@temple.edu




Library Issues: Briefings for Faculty and Administrators (ISSN 0734-3035) is published bimonthly beginning September 1980 by Mountainside Publishing Co., Inc., 321 S. Main St., #213, Ann Arbor, MI 48104; (734) 662-3925. Library Issues, Vol. 28, no. 2 © 2007 by Mountainside Publishing Co., Inc. Subscriptions: $80/one year; $140/two years. Additional subscriptions to same address $25 each/year. Address all correspondence to Library Issues, P.O. Box 8330, Ann Arbor, MI 48107. (Fax: 734-662-4450; E-mail: editor@libraryissues.com) Subscribers have permission to photocopy articles free of charge for distribution on their own campus. Library Issues is available online with a password at http://www.libraryissues.com


last modified: November 2007


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