This week was Social Bookmarking and RSS week over at 5 Weeks to a Social Library (which, by the way, is the best thing to happen in online learning since sliced bread… which didn’t happen in online learning, but you get my meaning). The participants are writing such wonderful things into their blogs, and I’m learning so much from them.
I’m also remembering what life was like for me just a year ago. A year ago RSS was, for me, just some kooky techno-geeky acronym. My co-workers were buzzing about it, but I didn’t get it. (Yeah, remember when you thought a microwave “might come in handy every once in a while”?… Yeah… That’s what I thought about RSS.) My first week at work, they recommended Thunderbird as my email application for many reasons, including it’s ability to read RSS feeds. I tried not to show my complete ignorance about what that was, or why I might want to be able to read these things, by nodding, smiling, and downloading Thunderbird. It was weeks later that I finally asked somebody to show me how this RSS thing worked, and almost 9 months later before I started actually subscribing to stuff. [Update: I only use Thunderbird to subscribe to one internal library blog, which requires authentication, which Thunderbird can handle and Bloglines and Google Reader can't ... as far as I know. But it was my first intro to RSS.]
Another thing my co-workers mentioned my first week at work was Furl. They set me up with an account and told me to have fun bookmarking stuff. They even showed me their archives. “Huh,” I thought, “That’s kinda cool. I’m glad it works so well for them.” And I continued on my merry way.
Fast forward to today and the story is much, much different. I use RSS even more than my microwave, and I’m starting to be able to integrate social bookmarking into my concept of myself as a liaison librarian in ways that I would never have imagined previously. To some extent this has to do with what I’m coming to believe is a natural progression in my techno-life: I need a tool to do something for me and my own work, then I see how it can be applied more broadly in my semi-public professional life, and finally I start applying it in my curricular endeavors. Only rarely does this progression change.
But to get back to the point, I completely understand some of the 5 Weeks participants’ concerns that this is fun, but somewhat irrelevant (that’s an overstatement of their conversation, but the concern is there, I think). And I think it’s important to remember that tools are great, but not for their own sake, or even because they work well for someone else. Tools are only great to the extent that they help you and your library with your own workflow and your own services to your community.
I would simply caution anyone from writing off a tool before seeing someone else’s full-fledged and rich use of it. For me, my inspiration came from seeing Kristin’s data blog and her amazing furl account and from seeing Heather’s furl account in action as she tagged primary source collections or resources for specific classes or even specific students. Seeing these things in action, actually using them to help me answer questions at the reference desk, finally helped me “get it.” That’s when I adopted del.icio.us and started building a curricular and professional link collection. That’s when I started understanding how social bookmarking could be useful to a subject librarian.
Now I’ve got three subject pages that either link to specific tags in my del.icio.us account or link to pages generated by del.icio.us (such as this section of the Art & Art History research guide which links to this RSS-fed page). And this is just the beginning. Now that I’ve started down this path, I can see that it’s going to be an integral part of my liaison activities. I can only hope that one day my link library will be as rich as my co-workers’.
By the way, I highly recommend Jason’s webcast on social bookmarking, created for 5 Weeks (you need to view it in IE). Watch it remembering that this isn’t tools for tools’ sake. It’s a tool that can help you DO something. (Granted, the “something” you can do is becoming more and more important as more and more authoritative information goes up on the free web.) And I think that’s the test we have to put to all these wonderful tools that spring up every day. Does it do something to help me and my library, our workflow, or my library’s users?
I don’t have time to “play around” with tools, and even the wonderful idea of “giving staff time to play” is only useful if the staff have specific needs. “Playing” with new tools is time-consuming and ultimately not as rigorous a test of the tools’ worth as actually using the tools. And even then you’ll have to prioritize. For example, I love the idea of podcasting. I really do. But I’m not doing it. I’ve done the cost-benefit analysis and podcasting came out below bookmarking, teaching, research guides, copyright education, and all the rest. This doesn’t mean that in another year I won’t be podcasting. I have no idea if I will or won’t, but I know that for right now I see wonderful examples of other libraries really leveraging it for their patrons and I think, “Huh. That’s kinda cool. I’m glad it works for them.”