Building Community Online

After doing some reading on what it takes to build community online, it seems like there is a pretty strong consensus on what works. Once I heard some of the “best practices” described, I realized there was a lot of common sense out there that may be worth considering for those trying to build an online community.

So many, including Nancy White and Martin Reed point to the fact that you need to ask the question: “Why do you want an online community?”. Both of them seemed to be saying you need to have a purpose for having your community online. Don’t just do it because everyone else is or because it seems “trendy”. This seems especially important when considering library communities. In one of my library classes, we talked about it over and over: make sure you’re considering your community of users before implementing technology. If they are not going to use it, it will be sitting out there on the web, dying and ghostlike, making your library look bad.

Another piece of “common sense” that I don’t think I fully realized was how much time and effort it takes to build, maintain, and moderate an online community. Nearly everyone across the board says this. As part of the same class I mention above, I had the opportunity to hear how much effort it took over seven years for something like WebJunction to get as far as it has. As Martin Reed says in his article, “Community building takes a lot of time and effort. Results take a long time to arrive – do you have the time, patience, commitment, spare time?”. Once again, the consideration of time and effort seems important for libraries looking to build online communities. With limited staff and budget, make sure your community building efforts are purposeful and necessary.

With all of that said, it seems to me that community building can be quite  fun even if it is hard work. Most of what I’ve read and heard has been inspiring. It’s especially inspiring to hear how the successful community builders really want to include the ideas and suggestions of their members. They seem to really remember that the community is about its members – and they practice what they preach. I had the privilege of hearing WebJunction’s Chrystie Hill tell a story about running into a member at a conference who had an idea for a forum. She said to this member: “That’s a great idea! Why don’t you set it up?”. I think we librarians know by now that our members, or patrons, are essential. Integrating these community building practices, online or otherwise, are vital to our success.

Users Creating for the Library AND Each Other

It is exciting to see all the ways libraries are collecting and utilizing content from users/patrons. When you think about it, gathering user-created content means that libraries are not only adding value and interest to their online presence and collection for themselves and their users, but the users are adding value for their fellows as well. In a lecture for the class I take from Meredith Farkas‘s, I learned about Penn Tags and how it can be used as a “treasure map” (Meredith’s term) for students doing research. If another student has already created a tagged, “annotated bibliography” on the same or a similar topic, there will be a beautifully laid out list of resources for them to start with and, perhaps, build upon. What an interesting way to help fill out the research guides reference librarians already create! I think it would be interesting to have students within a major or a specific class create subject guides for classmates or future students via wiki or Libguides. It would be a collaborative assignment that librarians and professors could put together as an ongoing user instruction/information literacy initiative. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are people already doing this, it’s not a terribly original idea, and it could be a fruitful undertaking if it were done right.

I also learned about what Danbury Library and Bedford Public Library did with their catalogs and LibraryThing. I linked here to the record in each for Margaret Atwood’s Year of the Flood. It’s interesting to see how patrons tagged them, and I really like that “similar books” are provided (I’m not completely sure these are generated by LibraryThing and, therefore, the “crowd” – anyone know?). It’s neat to see the published review blurbs on Bedford’s site as well, but it would be REALLY cool to see reviews from actual patrons of those libraries and to see what books those in your community would recommend having read that book – readers’ advisory from your users themselves! Again, I bet there are libraries doing this that I have missed. Certainly, other libraries have places on their sites where patrons can write reviews of books (e.g. Denver Public Library’s Evolver site’s reviews by teens). But it would be great to see reviews integrated into catalog records as well.

At Emerson College’s Library (full disclosure: I work there) they have started an outreach/marketing campaign for National Library Week so that people visiting the library’s website can submit their own stories on the subject “How the Library Saved My Life”. (Submission happens via LibGuide widget.) The stories will be moderated, similar to the way blog comments are moderated in that the story will need to be approved before it gets officially “published” – I think on the library website, but since it’s a new thing I’m not totally sure where it will be published yet. This is such an interesting way to get students to participate and “sell” the library to their peers. You might also enjoy checking out the superhero-style posters they’ve created in conjunction with this campaign introducing each librarian and their “lifesaving” superpower!

I realize some of my suggestions might be a bit technically naive if they haven’t been done already – maybe pie-in-the-sky. But it’s fun and interesting to think about the new and collaborative ways users can be induced to create content for the library and, ultimately, themselves and their fellow patrons. From what one is always reading about the characteristics of the Millennial generation, collaborative creation with the library could be on the upswing – or at least welcome.