Sunday, May 27, 2007

Checking Out Facebook.com: The Impact of a Digital Trend on Academic Libraries

Checking Out Facebook.com: The Impact of a Digital Trend on Academic Libraries
Laurie Charnigo, Paula Barnett-Ellis
Information Technology and Libraries, 26, no. 1: 23-34 (March 2007).

While the burgeoning trend in online social networks has gained much attention from the media, few studies in library science have yet to address the topic in depth. This article reports on a survey of 126 academic librarians concerning their perspectives toward Facebook.com, an online network for students. Findings suggest that librarians are overwhelmingly aware of the "Facebook phenomenon." Those who are most enthusiastic about the potential of online social networking suggested ideas for using Facebook to promote library services and events.
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While some librarians were excited about the possibilities of Facebook, the majority surveyed appeared to consider Facebook outside the purview of professional librarianship.
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Study rationale
Emphasis in this study centers on librarians' awareness of, experimentation with, and attitudes towards Facebook and whether or not they have created policies to regulate or block access to the site on public-access computers.
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As librarians struggle to develop innovative ways to reach users beyond library walls, it seems logical to observe online services, such as Facebook and MySpace, which appeal to a huge portion of our clientele.
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From a purely evaluative standpoint of the site as a database, the authors were impressed by several of the search features offered in Facebook. Graph-theory algorithms and other advanced network technology are used to process connections. Some of the more interesting search options available in Facebook include the ability to:
*** Search for students by course field, class number, or section;
*** Search for students in a particular major;
*** Search for students in a particular student organization or club;
*** Create "groups" for student organizations, clubs, or other students with common interests;
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Post announcements about campus or organization events;
*** Search specifically for alumni; and
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Block or limit who may view profiles, providing users with built-in privacy protection if the user so wishes.

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Arguably, much of the information provided by Facebook is not academic in nature. However, an evaluation or review of Facebook might provide useful information to instruction librarians and database vendors regarding interface design and search capabilities that appeal to students. Provitera-McGlynn suggests that facilitating learning among millennials, who "represent 70 to 80 million people" born after 1992 (a large percentage of Facebook members) involves understanding how they interact and communicate. Awareness of students' cultural and social interests, and how they interact online, may help older generations of academic librarians better connect with their constituents.

The Literature of Online Social Networks
Although social networks have been the subject of study by sociologists for years and social network theories have been established to describe how these networks function, the study of online social networks has received little attention from the scholarly community. Garton, Haythornthwaite, and Wellman were among the first to describe a method, social network analysis, for studying online social networks. Their work was published years before online social networks similar to Facebook evolved. Currently, the literature on these networks is predominantly limited to popular news publications, business magazines, occasional blurbs in library science and communications journals, and numerous student newspapers.
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Although evidence of interest in online social networks is apparent in librarian Weblogs and forums (many librarians have created Facebook groups for their libraries), actual literature in the field of library and information science is scarce. Dvorak questions the lack of interest displayed by the academic community toward online social networks as a focus of scholarly research. Calling on academics to "get to work," he argues "academia, which should be studying these phenomena, is just as out of the loop as anyone over." This disconnect is also echoed by Michael J. Bugeja, director of the Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication at Iowa State University, who writes, "While I'd venture to say that most students on any campus are regular visitors to Facebook, many professors and administrators have yet to hear about Facebook, let alone evaluate its impact." The lack of published research articles on these types of networks, however, is understandable given the newness of the technology.
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... Facebook membership extends beyond students to faculty, staff, and alumni. Shier cites examples of professors who used Facebook to connect or communicate with their students, including the president of the University of Iowa and more than one hundred professors at Duke University. Professors who teach online courses make themselves seem more human or approachable by establishing Facebook profiles.

Greeting students on their own turf is exactly the direction staff at Washington University's John M. Olin Library decided to take when they hired Web Services librarian Joy Weese Moll to communicate and answer questions through a variety of new technologies, including Facebook.

Brian Mathews, information services librarian at Georgia institute of Technology also created a Facebook profile in order to "interact with the students in their natural environment." Mathews decided to experiment with the possibilities of using Facebook as an outreach tool to promote library services to 1,700 students in the School of Mechanical Engineering after he discovered that 1,300 of these students were registered on Facebook. Advising librarians to become proactive in the use of online social networks, Mathews reported that overall, his experience helped him to effectively "expand the goal of promoting the library."

See: Brian S. Mathews, "Do You Facebook? Networking with Students Online," College & Research Libraries News 37, no. 5 (2006): 306-307]

Bill Drew was among the first librarians to create an account and profile for his library, the SUNY Morrisville Library.

As of September 2006, nearly one hundred librarians had created profiles or accounts for their libraries on Facebook. One month later, however, the administration at Facebook began shutting down library accounts on the grounds that libraries and institutions were not allowed to represent themselves with profiles as though they were individuals. In response, many of these libraries simply created groups for their libraries, which is completely appropriate, similar to creating a profile, and just as searchable as having an account.

The authors of this study created the "Houston Cole Library Users Want Answers!" group, which currently has ninety-one members. Library news and information of interest about the library is announced in the group. In this study, one trend the authors will try to identify is whether other librarians have considered or are already using Facebook in similar ways that Moll, Mathews, and Drew have explored as avenues for communicating with students or promoting library
services.


The Survey
In February 2006, 244 surveys were mailed to reference or public service librarians (when the identity of those persons could be determined). These individuals were chosen from a random sample of the 850 institutions of higher education classified by the Carnegie Classification Listing of Higher Education institutions as "Master's Colleges and Universities (I and II)" and "Doctoral/ Research Universities (Extensive and intensive)." The sample size provided a 5.3 percent margin error and a 95 percent confidence level. One hundred twenty-six surveys were completed, providing a response rate of 51 percent. Fifteen survey questions (appendix A) were designed to target three areas of inquiry: awareness of Facebook, practical impact of the site on library services, and perspectives of librarians toward online social networks.

Awareness of Facebook
A series of questions on the survey queried respondents about their awareness and degree of knowledge about Facebook. The overwhelming majority of librarians were aware of Facebook's existence. Out of 126 librarians, 114 had at least heard of Facebook; 24 were not familiar with the site.
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That librarians will become increasingly aware of online social networks was the sentiment expressed by another individual who wrote, "Most librarians at my institution are unaware of social software in general, much less Facebook. However, I think this will change in the future as social software is mentioned more often in traditional media (such as television and newspapers)."

Perspectives Toward Facebook
One of the main goals of the study was to obtain a snapshot of the perspectives and attitudes of librarians toward Facebook and online social networks in general. Most of the librarians surveyed were neither enthusiastic nor disdainful of Facebook. A small group of the respondents, however, when given the chance to comment, were extremely positive and excited about the possibilities of online social networking.
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However, fifty-one respondents indicated that librarians needed to keep up with Internet trends, such as Facebook, even when such trends are not academic in nature (table 2).
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Out of 126 librarians who completed the survey, only 23 reported that Facebook has generated discussion among library faculty and staff about online social networks. On the other hand, few individuals voiced negative opinions toward Facebook.
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When asked if Facebook serves any academic purpose, 54 percent of those surveyed indicated that it does not, while 34 percent were "not sure." Twelve percent of the librarians identified academic potential or possible benefits of the site (figure 4). The authors were surprised to find that 46 percent of those surveyed were not completely willing to dismiss Facebook as pure recreation.
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For the 34 percent who were not sure whether Facebook has any academic value, there were comments such as "I am continuing to observe and will decide in the future." Academic uses for Facebook included suggestions that it be used as a communication tool for student collaboration in classes (Facebook allows students to search for other students by course and section number). One individual suggested it could be used as an "online study hall," but then wondered if this might lead to plagiarism. Some thought instructors could somehow use Facebook for conducting online discussion forums, with one participant observing "it's 'cooler' than using Blackboard." "Building rapport" with students through a communication medium that many students are comfortable with was another benefit mentioned.

Respondents who were enthusiastic about Facebook thought it most beneficial as a virtual extension of the campus. Facebook could potentially fill a void where face-to-face connections are absent in online and distance-education classes.
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Facebook could provide students who are not physically on campus with a means to connect with other students at their institutions who have similar academic and social interests.

Some librarians were so enthusiastic about Facebook that they suggested libraries use the site to promote their services. Using the site to advertise library events and creating online library study groups and book clubs for students were some of the ideas expressed. One librarian wrote: "Facebook (and other social networking sites) can be a way for libraries to market themselves. I haven't seen students using Facebook in an academic manner, but there was a time when librarians frowned on e-mail and AIM too. If it becomes a part of students' lives, we need to welcome it. It's part of welcoming them, too."

More librarians, however, felt that Facebook should serve as a space exclusively for students and that librarians, professors, administrators, police, and other uninvited folks should keep out. Furthermore, as one individual noted, it is not "an appropriate venue" for librarians to promote their services.

Discussion
While online education is growing at a rapid rate across the United States, so is the presence of virtual academic social communities. Although Facebook might prove to be a passing fad, it is one of the earliest and largest online social networking communities geared specifically for students in higher education. It represents a new form of communication that connects students socially in an online environment. If online academics have evolved and continue to do so, then it is only natural that online academic social environments, such as Facebook, will continue to evolve as well. While traditionally considered the heart of the campus, one is left to ponder the library's presence in online academic social networks. What role the library will serve in these environments might largely depend on whether librarians are proactive and experimental with this type of technology or whether they simply dismiss it as pure recreation. Emerging technologies for communication should provoke, at the very least, an interest in and knowledge of their presence among library and information science professionals.[snip]
As Casey writes, "Libraries are in the habit of providing the same services and the same programs to the same groups. We grow comfortable with our provision and we fail to change." By exploring popular new types of Internet services such as Facebook instead of quickly dismissing them as irrelevant to librarianship, we might learn new ways to reach out and communicate better with a larger segment of our users.

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