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Social Bookmarking and 5 Weeks

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.”

11 thoughts on “Social Bookmarking and 5 Weeks

  1. The last paragraph rings very true. I’ve been very critical of social software, and for that I apologize. Not every part of the library (nor every kind of library) has a purposeful use for social software. That, or its usefulness has not yet been fully explored. If I had ever had the need to use blogs, wikis, social bookmarks, RSS, and other social software in my everyday job, I’d be an expert by now. I don’t, so I’m not. (How in the world can social bookmarks help me check in new materials, or RSS, combined with a wiki, help me to tell the users of the library that I just filed the latest update to a popular legal treatise in looseleaf form? Hmm…. that last one is a good idea…) It’s very much like how and why I don’t have a blog of my own. I just hope that the presentation at ALA in June about social software in technical services doesn’t disappoint.

  2. No apologies necessary, Julian. People who don’t use social software aren’t “wrong.” At least, not yet. :) And I think you’re right that social software doesn’t have much relevance in many of the current job duties of any department in the library.

    But I think you’re also right that there’s always room to imagine new job duties, and new ways of serving the library users. And some of your users might appreciate an RSS feed for newly bound legal treatises!

    Probably, as more of the social web becomes less novel and more ubiquitous (as well as more inter-operable), we’ll all be using these tools more often and in more interesting ways.

  3. I know what I forgot to mention. I feel like I am completely behind the times because I’m not an expert with social software. While I’m not running away from it as fast as possible, or rejecting its existence, I should know more than I do. I very often feel highly unintelligent because I am not an expert at, say, using a Python script in an intranet web application (with Apache as the web server, and PostgreSQL as the database, all running on a Linux server) to fill in an XML template to create RSS files that update every sixty minutes during the work day, which in turn can be used in any RSS aggregator by supervisors to monitor check-in statistics for a serials department, as entered by the staff as they check in items. I should know how to do all that, right (considering how I identified how it works behind the curtain)? And wouldn’t that be a great example of data mining, as it relates to library management?

  4. Oh, goodness! That’s some pretty advanced stuff as far as I’m concerned. That’s the sort of stuff I’m always grateful that somebody ELSE knows how to do. :)

  5. You’re very welcome, Jason. I could have gone on about how many interesting things I learned, how many good questions it generated from the participants, and how even the course organizers learned stuff… Really fabulous job!

  6. Speaking of RSS, I found your blog through the librarything and now you are in my Google Reader (which I like even better than the Thunderbird RSS reader).

  7. Well, glad to see you here, but be prepared for a lot of library-ish rambling. You’ll be introduced to my inner geek. :)

    (In case anyone’s interested, this guy’s a friend from college that I recently re-connected with because of facebook, then IM, and now LibraryThing… and he’s not a librarian!)

  8. Oh, and I don’t like Thunderbird RSS. It was just the first time I had heard of RSS. I use bloglines, though I’ve been playing with Google Reader lately. Still don’t think I’m ready to switch, but it’s getting there.

  9. Hard not to mention the thing that’s been one of the most interesting spectator learning activities that I’ve come across in a long time. :)

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