Public Library 2.0: Culture Change?
Beginning in the mid 2000s I began keeping an eye on how libraries have been getting involved with social software - I started this haphazardly just out of interest but then I started to be more systematic when I needed to explore online resources for my organisation, the National Railway Museum. When I left to pursue my MA in Librarianship at the University of Sheffield I took the opportunity to do some serious research into the subject with a focus on UK public libraries as it seemed to me that they were hugely under-represented online. Although that research met its purpose in gaining me my degree in 2009 I was not content to leave it there; I had had such an overwhelming response to my online survey I knew that this was a topic that excited interest, both positive and negative. In a fast-moving world where what was the 'killer app' yesterday is all but forgotten tomorrow, it can be hard for the practitioner to keep abreast of what is happening. I intend to provide an overview of current public library activity online with a focus on blogging (as that was the focus of my research) and demonstrate some examples of success.
In aiming to discover the level of engagement of UK public libraries with Library 2.0, I specifically concentrated on blogging in order to narrow the focus of the research to a scope that was achievable given the time constraints. I also felt that blogs are perhaps the most versatile Web 2.0 tool at libraries' disposal, so that taking a snapshot of blog activity would give a pretty good idea of their wider engagement with Web 2.0 tools. Consequently, I tried to find as many UK public library blogs as I could. Further to this end, I wanted to explore the attitudes and behaviours of public librarians towards the use of Library 2.0 in their libraries which I did with an online survey.
Libraries Which Blog
As of August 2008 I identified 20 blogs  (my methodology  was multi-pronged: a mixture of searches and requests to the online library community, as well as an element of chance: as Clyde  said, 'serendipity is involved in finding blogs in general'). By September 2009, only 13 of these were still active; 6 were inactive; and 1 totally defunct (although this defunct blog was part of Newcastle's library services and they have since relaunched their online presence to much greater effect). As of July 2010 the totals are as follows:
Taking Crawford's definition  of an active blog being one that has been posted to in the last 90 days:
|Defunct – link no longer active||
|Private blogs , login needed||
The most recently created blog, somewhat depressingly, is specifically aimed at saving branch libraries from closure in Doncaster .
Compare this with a concurrent study that found 161 blogs in 39 UK Higher Education institutions , also with the 252 public library blogs that Walt Crawford found in 2007 , chiefly in the USA (he updated his study in 2009 and found a lot had fallen by the wayside). The inescapable fact is that these are not big numbers, although this study did only look at blogs. Morris  adopted a wider scope in looking at uptake of social software by public library authorities; he also found a few examples of some libraries performing well with social software, most notably Manchester , Newcastle  and Gateshead .
A quick tour around the public library biblioblogosphere:
- The longest -running blog is Paige Turner – Librarian  for Swansea Libraries, this blog began in December 2006 and is still going strong.
- Manchester Lit List is the most prolific blog with at least one post every weekday.
- The Save Doncaster Libraries blog is the newest, started 15 July 2010.
- Blogger and Wordpress are the most popular platforms used.
- Most blogs are 'mixed,' i.e. cover a mixture of topics from events in the library to signposting online resources.
A few are specific, e.g. the Plymouth Library's Bookstart Bear Blog  which is a reader development blog for under 5s and their families. As often happens, the original focus of a blog can change with use, e.g. What's New at the CyberLibrary  started life as a blog for librarians in south-west England, but has now expanded its remit to reach library users too; but it remains primarily a filter blog, highlighting online resources chosen by librarians and deemed to be of interest and use to readers. Harrogate's New Look, No Shush – Harrogate Library Project  keeps readers up to date with its ongoing library refurbishment project but also provides news of events and basic information such as opening hours.
Attitudes to Library 2.0: Why Are UK Public Libraries Not Blogging?
In order to discover attitudes to blogging in public libraries, I conducted an online survey : 498 people responded and a wide range of attitudes and behaviours were discovered. The construction of the survey followed on from the qualitative methods of Farkas  and Rutherford .
What emerged was a strong desire to blog on the part of the majority of respondents and explore the use of other Web 2.0 tools in an official capacity. This result is not surprising considering the method of recruiting respondents, i.e. using a Web 2.0 tool, the online questionnaire package SurveyMonkey  and the self-selecting nature of surveys in general. But it did provide a microcosm of what many would see as the whole point of social software: it gives you a voice.
When it comes to reasons why public libraries aren't blogging, the trends that emerged may not come as a great surprise:
- technological barriers presented by IT departments
- barriers presented by prevailing organisational culture
- apathy of library staff, lack of engagement
- a feeling that social networking has no relevance to what a library should be doing
- a lack of time to devote to content creation
- use of other methods of communication deemed more appropriate. This latter point referred in part to the library's Web site but there was also some feeling that more traditional methods of communication such as flyers and posters were more appropriate.
The survey responses gathered for this study did seem to fall into both extremes of this debate:
- that public libraries should definitely be engaging with Library 2.0,
- that they definitely should not,
- and every shade in between.
Many respondents felt that their library had something of value to be added to the Internet via a blog or any other social networking tool. Many detected organisational resistance to blogging, from other staff and from management. Others felt their enthusiasm met with ambivalence and apathy rather than out-and-out hostility. Many respondents said they felt that their IT departments were resistant to librarians engaging with Library 2.0, a commonly used phrase referred to the IT department as "gatekeepers" in a derogatory sense. This attitude tended to prevail among the US respondents. Herring et al.  posited blogs as bridging genre, removing the necessity to be so reliant on the IT department to create content. Farkas has recommended blogging as a means of wresting control from webmasters of the information the library disseminates and of delivering it into the hands of the librarians themselves.
The UK respondents complained more about the library as an organisation blocking their online activities. A study carried out by a UK Internet company, Huddle, found that many local government employees were keen to utilise social software for professional reasons but that their access to such sites was blocked by the IT department and the higher levels of management driving policy . One respondent to this survey replied to the initial email sent out inviting participation by bemoaning the fact that their access to SurveyMonkey was blocked on work computers; luckily they were motivated enough to request an alternative way to complete it, in the end I pasted the questions into the body of an email then pasted the replies into the survey myself!
Below is a selection of excerpts from survey respondents' replies that I feel are representative of what librarians were saying in 2008, and are still saying now in 2010:
'I think I speak on behalf of most public library services when I say there is active resistance from our organisations to the concept of a blog. X Council has a very successful Web site, and a blog – or any other social media – is seen as direct competition, rather like setting up an external microsite. There's also an organisational lack of understanding of blogs and Web 2.0 generally.'
'There are some forward thinking individuals within the organisation but they are in a minority and constrained by existing organisational structures, structures set up to deliver a 20th as opposed to 21st century Library service.'
'The main problem we have ... is that the Council doesn't afford us the flexibility we need to have. We should be able to try new things whenever they present themselves to us. Instead, the same new things are blocked by the corporate web filter, or prohibited by the communications policy. Changes are coming, though. Doors are opening and our managers (and their managers) are becoming more receptive to new ideas, and to new uses of technology. I think - I hope - my answers ... would be more positive in 18 months' time.'
'We have been quite lucky as the senior managers in the library service have fought for an independent Virtual Library, not part of the County Council site. This has enabled us to progress well and I am keen to continue this when the new authorities are established.'
So there is some burgeoning hope amid the gloom, some authorities are seeing the value and putting their support behind engagement. However there was a general feeling of despair at the prevailing organisational culture within authorities:
'It's the organisational culture which tends to grind people down.'
'We are reactive not proactive.'
Many respondents expressed frustration at the seemingly unending round of restructuring that left staff much reduced in numbers and in morale. Put this feeling from 2008 with the responses to recent developments with respect to funding cuts and the possibility of the abandonment of the modernisation of public libraries by The Coalition , the context in which this research sits is one of disillusionment, frustration and a fear for jobs:
'We have been restructured year after year - sometimes twice a year, each time losing staff and stock budget. The service is cut further and further and said to be 'more efficient than ever'. We are so efficient we can no longer hold the regular events because we don't have the staff and Reader's Groups are being handed over to the public to run. Service points are left unmanned with the promise that they will bring in self service and make our lives easier. (We know that as soon as they make it work they will sack even more staff.) We are not a happy workforce.'
Evaluation of Libraries' Blogs: What Makes a Successful Blog? How is Success Measured?
As can be seen above, there are barriers to Web 2.0 adoption put in place by the public library authority and/or the IT department. In these cases it may well prove useful to be able to demonstrate the success or efficacy of a blog as a communication tool. In conversation with several public librarians at a recent panel day held by the Oxford University Press, a recurring theme of 'bosses want numbers' was heard. These metrics may help to put together a business case for a library starting its own blog. In addition to this, some degree of established practice may help to provide a framework for success allowing new adopters to benefit from the experiences of early adopters.
The literature suggests public libraries are lagging behind other sectors in engagement with Library 2.0, and blogging specifically; very few peer-reviewed studies had been conducted up to 2009 but there is a move towards deriving and utilising standardised methods for blog evaluation to determine success. Goodfellow and Graham  attended a conference and used a blog to communicate with their colleagues who were not in attendance. They felt that this widened staff participation in the conference and shared the benefits with them. Blair and Level  highlighted the lack of any standard metric for the evaluation of a blog and made some steps towards attempting to measure the success, or otherwise, of their academic library blog. Combining the methods used by these two studies give the following metrics:
- Statistics: number of visits and hits. Their software monitored both visits and hits, the former being number of times the home page was viewed, the latter being a count of all the blog pages being viewed
- Number of inlinks from other blogs and Web sites
- Number of subscribers in feedreaders
- Number of comments
- Self-evaluation – e.g Goodfellow and Graham found that they networked with other bibliobloggers, i.e. other librarians, and also that their technical and communication skills had improved.
It can be seen that purely rating a blog's success on the number of comments it solicits will give an incomplete picture of its impact, indeed many have written on the phenomenon of participation inequality  whereby far more people read online content than react to it via comments or other methods of participation; this phenomenon is referred to as "lurking" which is a rather derogatory term for "reading" in this author's opinion! Perhaps this is something that must be borne in mind for those (such as myself) espousing social software's benefits as a participatory model for user engagement: active participation is not compulsory, "just" reading or "passive consumption" is to be welcomed too!
Moving on from this, Gosling et al.  used three case studies to examine how public libraries successfully used Web 2.0 tools broadly, and blogs specifically, to provide enhanced services. This paper is useful in outlining the development of the blogs, how they are used and how their success is being measured; it would be a good first port-of-call for anyone considering setting up a library blog. One of these public libraries, Casey-Cardinia Library Corporation (CCLC) , later surveyed users to find out how their blogs are being used . They found a receptive audience which was interested in the blog content, but some had not been aware of its presence, although they had been reading its content, pushed to the homepage by feeds. An important point highlighted by this study was that links to and from the library's homepage are absolutely vital if a blog is to survive and thrive. As well as links across a library's online presence, content feeds are vital to maintain a coherent message across whatever platforms are being used, not just blogs. CCPL pulls content from all its blogs onto the library homepage which means that content there is always fresh and up to date and this is achieved automatically.
An example of this coherence of online presence can be seen from Manchester libraries' blog (Figure 1) and Facebook page (Figure 2) where it can be seen that using HootSuite (an online brand management service that pushes content from one application into any or all of your other applications) the latest blog post is also visible on the Facebook page.
Benefits of Blogging
Lee and Bates  suggested that demonstrable professional benefits result from blogging and this was also found in some of the responses to the survey: people felt up to date with issues in the library and information science world They felt that reflective writing forced them to think more about what they did in their roles and that they could prove their worth by simply pointing to the ready-made archive. It was also felt that they had access to the rest of the biblioblogosphere for ideas on what to do in their libraries, a sharing of ideas was valued. Some respondents said they felt they were more in touch with other branches in their public library authority because they read their blogs. It is clear that many of these benefits relate only to the staff. For example, one response to the question that asked whether they considered their blog to be a success replied: 'Early days yet, main process has been to get staff enthused.'
But as McLean and Merceica  found, the service users are starting to read their public library's output. One New Zealander respondent felt their blog was 'relevant and up to date and allows feedback from the public so it is a successful tool. We can advertise and make use of our resources raising awareness when blogging.' Another said 'We are getting an increasing number of hits. The books reviewed are being requested heavily and events are being better patronised. It was also a way to put our library "personality" out there because our Web site is through our council Web site and we do not have much control over it.' Generally blogs were felt to be acquiring 'a growing following.'
The big win when it comes to blogging and indeed any Web 2.0 application is that it gives you a voice, it puts you where your users are  and to provide examples of where this has worked to great effect I have, I regret, to look overseas.
Christchurch City Libraries  in New Zealand demonstrate how lowering the threshold to participation and giving young adults their own online space engages a group traditionally regarded as non-users. They offer them the opportunity to comment, as on most blogs, but also invite them to write a review, make suggestions and enter competitions whilst avoiding being patronising or attempting to appear 'cool'.
Austin Public Library's Connected Youth  pages show how gaming and events are central to the library's offer, this is by no means unusual in many US public libraries.
And those trailblazers, Public Library of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County (PLCMC) show how their Library Loft  site pulls content and provides links across a whole host of Web 2.0 platforms, lowering the threshold to access about as low as it is possible to go! This site uses embedded content so well that it is not necessary to go anywhere else, it is a comprehensive list of what's current: IM via Meebo, flickr, Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, YouTube, OPAC search, among others.
Keys to Success
Important factors in producing a successful blog are outlined here, drawn from my own research and also from some of the recommended reading:
Find an Advocate
It seems that those libraries that have been able to successfully use social software have been greatly assisted by having advocates in their service, both enthusiastic individuals who are willing to put the time in, often their own in the first instance, and in higher levels of management who understand how their services can be enhanced and promoted more effectively. A good example of this is Plymouth Libraries (see above).
Blogs that post new content regularly seem to live longer! Regular posting of new content shows that you care about your blog, if you fail to demonstrate this, then why should anyone else care enough to read it?
'I think online social networking sites could be very useful for libraries if they are properly maintained. I think too often people get very keen about the new technology, but forget about the hard work needed to promote it and keep it going. The technology is not enough, there has to be some content, resource, function which users perceive as useful and worth visiting again and again, otherwise you end up with a pathetic looking page, which is of no interest to anyone and a waste of time and resources in setting it up.'
As well as currency of course, you must pay attention to relevance, posting about things that your readers will find interesting. Gauging this is easy if you enter into conversations with your readers, the very spirit of Web 2.0, therefore:
Make it easy for people to comment and reply to people who do.
A commonly heard moan is that 'we started a blog but nobody commented and nobody looked at it.' See above regarding the reluctance to comment, but the response to this complaint should be 'how did you promote the blog?' One of the really surprising things I discovered was how few blogs and library web pages linked to one another; this was in some cases due to the fact the blog was unofficial, but otherwise it is a cardinal sin. See the examples above of how content is pushed and pulled across a library's online presence to create a coherent message promoting the library's blog/twitterfeed/Facebook page, etc. Here Plymouth Libraries provide a coherent message across their Web presence, with two-way links:
In addition to this, there are more traditional promotional methods within the library, especially word of mouth; this leads to another key factor: staff buy-in.
Some survey respondents felt that there were many members of staff who saw no relevance to the library's work in using Web 2.0. If staff do not use these applications themselves then it will be hard for them to to understand their value. Lewisham libraries glut of blogs  were produced when they followed the 23 Things programme (see below), originally devised by Helene Blowers of PLCMC . This set of tutorials was created to 'encourage staff to experiment and learn about the new and emerging technologies that are reshaping the context of information on the Internet today' and can be a powerful tool in converting sceptics.
Don't be afraid to fail: if something just is not working, learn lessons and move on; it is alright to let a blog die, sometimes they run a natural course, especially if their focus is a specific project or an initiative run for a specific period such as a summer reading challenge.
Conclusions: Where to Now?
Aside from noting negative factors, it must be said that in the UK, and especially in the USA, there are some excellent public library blogs, widely respected within the profession but more importantly appreciated by their public (see above). When I began this research in 2008 I did not include microblogging sites such as Twitter in my remit, I did not see much evidence of engagement at that time but now see that activity as mainstream. It must also be mentioned that many examples of UK public libraries starting to dip their toes into the wider Library 2.0 world were found along the way to finding blogs. Now more and more are starting to appear on Facebook, MySpace, YouTube and elsewhere; I have now decided to track this activity  too, now I know the numbers involved are not yet too daunting. Library 2.0 is moving beyond specific technologies, and engagement does not need to be tied to any one application as has been shown above; the more ways the library finds to reach its users, the better. Indeed moving beyond the individual technologies can be encapsulated and governed by a general social media policy if that is what is deemed important before adoption is approved by local authorities. A recent blog post from a (non-librarian) social media expert  threw out the challenge to public libraries to develop such policies in order to safeguard themselves in the digital age in a context of funding cuts. Some authorities have started to do this and for those who have not, there is no need to start from scratch: Stephens  has drawn one up that can be adopted and adapted to suit.
Exciting developments: Portsmouth and Surrey library staff has produced a Libraries and Web 2.0 wiki  whose aims are to:
- Create a record of Web 2.0 ... usage by libraries around the United Kingdom
- Build a useful resource for librarians around the South East / country interested in Web 2.0
- Provide evidence on the usefulness of Web 2.0 and set it in context
- Develop a more up-to-date version of '23 things' as a training tool for staff
This UK-specific 23 Things  programme has just been trialled 'by staff from 11 library authorities, 15 HE/FE institutions, and two NHS trusts... and two intrepid librarians in Australia' and results are pending. I intend to put myself through the 23 Things and would urge everyone to get behind this initiative. If librarians fail to keep pace with the changing needs of existing and future patrons, then they will render themselves obsolete; these are scary times and our worth is continually being questioned.*
It is hoped that this research will prove useful in providing information for more public libraries to get involved with social software and that it goes some way to answering the query one survey respondent had:
'I would appreciate finding out how many library services maintain blogs as we have had difficulty convincing our corporate authority that this is vital in terms of reaching out to audiences. We have explored other options such as Facebook... and received a similar response.'
Get in Touch
Although my initial research is done and the MA safely completed, I shall keep going. The blog continuesand I will add more bookmarks to the Delicious pages as and when. I have decided to widen my remit to include all Library 2.0 engagement, so please let me know via my blog  whenever you find a UK public library engaged in Library 2.0 in some form: wiki, Facebook, Twitter, LibraryThing, netvibes, mobile optimised interface, podcasts, etc, and I will put them on the delicious page  and the Libraries and Web 2.0 wiki . Alternatively please edit that wiki yourselves! Additionally, blogs will continue to be bookmarked  and entered on the uklibraryblogs wiki . Let us hope that very soon I am inundated and cannot keep up with all the online activity. Indeed, it is to be hoped that very soon this research will have been rendered pointless since a public library's presence online will just be another part of its core offer.
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and Farkas, M. (2007). Social Software In Libraries: Building Collaboration, Communication and Community Online. Medford, NJ: Information Today, Inc.
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- McLean, M. & Merceica, P. (2010). "Evaluating Web 2.0: user experience with public library blogs." VALA 2010 9-11 February 2010 Melbourne, Australia VALA - Libraries, Technology and the Future Inc.
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- Block, Marylaine. (2007). The Thriving Library. Medford, NJ: Information Today Inc.
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- "23 Things in Public Libraries", Helen Leech, July 2010, Ariadne, Issue 64 http://www.ariadne.ac.uk/issue64/leech/