Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Libraries woo patrons on the Web

Plug in to social networking sites

Katie Dean 6/09/2007 8:39 am

Libraries have long struggled with a stuffy reputation, but on the UW-Madison campus and in some public branches, librarians are taking a decidedly fresh approach to attracting patrons by using social networking sites.

Sites, like Facebook, MySpace and Friendster, are wildly popular among students as a way to connect with friends and socialize online. People can personalize their own Web page with pictures, notes and music, and link to their friends' pages. Fledgling bands have used MySpace to promote their music.

To see libraries plugged in to this trendy social circle is a little surprising, but librarians say it's just the newest way to reach out to their patrons and promote library services.

"People are living their lives online, especially people who are under 30," said Shawn Brommer, youth services and outreach consultant for the South Central Library System, a network of more than 50 libraries in seven counties. "If we want to stay current and provide information in a format people are expecting, we need to be very current, we need to know what social networking is and how to use it. And, we need to be where (the people) are."

Brommer said social networking helps to "keep the library at the forefront of (patrons') minds, even if they're not physically in the library."

About 10 to 15 percent of the libraries she works with are using social networking or blogs to market programs and services, and promote new materials, she said.

In fact, many libraries across the country have set up shop in these online spaces to welcome and recruit patrons. The Wendt Library, which serves the College of Engineering and the departments of computer sciences, statistics and atmospheric and oceanic sciences, is at the forefront of this trend among the University of Wisconsin-Madison's more than 40 libraries.

Amanda Werhane, liaison librarian and marketing coordinator at Wendt, runs the library's blog (, which features a collection of links and notes about useful research tools and journals. She's also set up a Wendt Library page on Facebook, MySpace and Friendster and posted library pictures on Flickr, the photo-sharing Web site.

"Social networking is almost a bridge between a static Web page and human interaction," Werhane said.

The online tools help the library to be proactive, so users "don't have to come to us. We're already there, she said. "It's like being in the neighborhood."

Werhane, the first librarian on campus to have "marketing" in her official title, uses the sites to promote the library and its events and workshops. The sites also advertise some of the library's services, like instant messaging and chat reference, where librarians provide research assistance and answer questions.

While users might not comment directly on the library's blog, Werhane knows that it is being read, as patrons ask about such resources when they visit the library in person. A post about technology and science-related sites in the virtual world "Second Life" was particularly popular.

This array of online tools helps create a more interactive and customized experience for patrons even when students and professors are not on campus. Engineering students, for instance, spend some time off campus with industry internships, and the library wants to stay accessible to them during that time, Werhane said.

Cost-wise, such outreach and promotion is a relative bargain. The Web sites and pages have all been created using free software and services.

Some of the ideas about reaching patrons came from observing the library's student employees and what Web sites they use, like Facebook. Werhane also keeps tabs on what other libraries are doing in cyberspace. The UW Law Library's WisBlawg, one of the early adopters of the blogging trend among libraries, proved to be a helpful model for the Wendt Library Blog.

Bonnie Shucha, head of reference for the UW Law Library, created WisBlawg in 2004, with the aim of conveying "the things that are in a librarian's head" to anyone interested in Wisconsin law.

"We designed the blog originally to be a service," Shucha said. She posts "things that we hear through the grapevine or just know as librarians, research tips and (information on) how to make people into better legal researchers."

But it's also turned into a useful marketing tool. The site gets about 200 visitors a day, and has an active e-mail subscription list.

"It's increased the reputation of the library among our colleagues," said Shucha. "Now there are over 100 law library blogs, and we were one of the first."

She also maintains a Facebook page, and has put up a profile on a social networking site for lawyers, called Lawbby.

Still, not all librarians are enamored of the online strategy.

"The newer librarians are more excited about it, about the possibilities of reaching out to users," Werhane said, noting that there is a generation gap in terms of who is interested.

Yet even as these tech-savvy librarians try and keep pace with students online, they're still hoping to attract them to the actual building. Werhane believes "there's still a role for a physical place in the mix," where students can interact with someone face-to-face and seek research guidance.

Shucha agreed.

"With the proliferation of electronic resources, yeah, it's at your fingertips, but there's so much of it," she said. "That's where we as librarians come in."

Librarians can help identify and navigate the massive amounts of electronic resources, but they need to reach the patrons first.

"It's definitely a different image for a library," Shucha said. "You don't have to be the stodgy librarian with the bun in the hair. If (patrons) are not going to come to you, you have to come to them."

No comments: