Blogs and social networks in libraries: complementary or antagonistic tools?

Author:Mazzocchi, Juliana

Library blogs: theory and practice

Blogs were one of the first Web 2.0 tools to be analized to be used by libraries. (2) In fact, from the very beginning it was rather simple and quick to create and use a blog through free platforms without needing to know HTML or without interacting constantly with webmasters. Therefore some authors suggested how libraries could use this new tool: to publish information and news about the library, to promote library events, to announce new acquisitions, for reference service, for information literacy, to communicate between the staff and, especially for academic libraries, to promote the use of online resources and to provide assistance in case of problems. (3) However, what distinguished blogs from a more traditional website was its possibility to engage users in the "conversation" through the publication, more or less immediately and more or less moderately, of their comments to librarians' posts. Several authors also indicated the most suitable strategies to promote library blogs, to make them appealing and engaging for users. (4)

As a matter of fact, libraries began to create a great number of blogs and many of them were studied from the point of view of content, types of platforms used, functionalities and, above all, number and frequency of posts and comments. In various analyses related to blogs from different countries (especially from Anglo-Saxon countries) and carried out in different years,5 the results show that in the vast majority of cases blogs are hardly updated or are not updated at all, that URLs often change and above all that users' response is almost nothing, even in the case of the most active blogs (for number and frequency of posts). (6)

Among the reasons for the lack of "conversation" between users and librarians, there is definitely the large amount of human resources and time necessary to keep blogs active and attractive. This is an aspect that is often underestimated both by the literature and by librarians, deceived by the gratuitousness and facility with which a blog can be created. That is why many blogs are inaugurated without any strategy and planning for their management and evaluation in the long term, running the risk of being neglected and quickly abandoned. The low number of comments, even in the most active blogs, makes the blog seem more as an "information" tool rather than a "communication" tool, (7) duplicating a function that in theory should already be performed by the official library website. Besides, the lack of users' participation shows how users are really not much interested in a dialogue with the library and often, as evidenced by some surveys, (8) most authors of the few comments are other librarians.

However, among the reasons why library blogs never "took off", some assume the arrival of social networks, especially Facebook, the explosion of which coincided with the beginning of the descending curve of blogs created by libraries.

According to a study carried out in the years 2006-2009 (9) over one thousand library blogs (mostly academic library blogs) and librarians' blogs, mostly in English, indicators such as the number of active blogs and the number of published posts show that the descending curve of blogs began in 2007, continuing without interruption for the following two years, coinciding with the explosion of social networks. According to other studies, this trend is confirmed for blogs in general: on the one hand the same bloggers started to feel the threat of social networks, particularly Facebook, (10) on the other hand blogs started to be considered out-of-date compared to more up-to-date tools such as social networks. (11)

But can social networks really be considered antagonistic and competing tools compared to library blogs?

Social networks in libraries: theory and practice

Social networks too are Web 2.0 tools. They were born, like blogs, in the 90s, but their great popularity was reached in the 2000s, first with Friendster (2002) and LinkedIn (2002), then with MySpace (2003), Facebook (2004) and others, including the recent Google+ (2011). (12)

Social networks were devised mainly with the purpose of finding and putting in contact old friends, old schoolmates, relatives and people with similar interests. (13) However, many authors suggested that libraries can use social networks for a variety of other purposes: to promote services, to instructs users, for the reference service, to allow users to propose the purchase of documents or provide a feedback to the library, to show photo galleries of library events, but above all libraries can use social networks to create a community of users who actively participate in the library profile page and that, through their contacts, can enlarge the whole of the contacts of the library inside the social network. (14) Moreover, within the social network sites, such as in Facebook, it is possible to insert applications to search directly a library OPAC or other databases such as Worldcat or JSTOR. (15) Other authors gave suggestions also about the most suitable communication style in a social network for a library that wants to attract and retain users. (16)

Several authors, (17) however, doubt whether social networks, in particular Facebook, are really the most suitable tool to reach users, given the many critical issues: a) the risk in the attempt to approach users of being too "pushy" or "aggressive" and making them go away, b) students' use of social networks for leisure activities in the context of which librarians may seem out of place, c) a fair number of librarians who consider inappropriate the use of Facebook by libraries, but, above all, d) the amount of time required to manage effectively a profile. On this last point even some (18) among the most enthusiastic authors about libraries on Facebook underline how the time required for the management should not be underestimated: for the daily check of the institutional page, for the publication of posts, to answer users' questions and comments, to keep up with the technical changes of the platform and the privacy policy, to monitor the correctness of users' comments. Instead, if users are allowed to publish on the library's profile not only comments but also posts, photos and videos (as Web 2.0 would require), the time necessary to verify that the contents posted by users are appropriate (and act accordingly if necessary) will be even more. Other authors, (19) on the other hand, underline that Facebook is a proprietary platform and a profit-driven company that, according to their own commercial interests, can suddenly make changes regarding the layout, the applications, the policies of access to the contents posted by users, the privacy, upon which libraries do not have any kind of control. Libraries do not have any assurance neither about the preservation and the exportability of contents (for example in case of shutdown of the social network) nor that the service will be free of charge forever. (20)

In addition to the theoretical reflections on the possible uses of social networks in libraries (almost exclusively Facebook), on their advantages and disadvantages, on the best strategies to attract users, many articles were published including the results of surveys concerning in particular their use by academic libraries. In most cases the analyzed sample is not very large and concerns different countries and years. But some trends emerge comparing the results of the surveys. Firstly libraries on Facebook do not prove to be very active for the number and frequency of posts. (21)

Secondly, the number of users' posts (if allowed) and comments, is extremely low and sometimes most comments are by librarians themselves. (22) Lastly, the number of Libraries' fans (transformed in 2010 into "Like") is rather low (even on the most active pages) and a good part of them are often librarians who work in the library itself. (23)

Blogs versus social networks?

Some surveys on the use of different types of Web 2.0 tools by academic libraries show that in few years (2008-2012) the percentage of libraries that use blogs and social networks changed, highlighting that social networks (mainly Facebook) grew dramatically while blogs dropped conspicuously...

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