Libraries, social community sites and Facebook

During the summer and autumn of 2007 Facebook was the social community on the Internet that grew most rapidly. The Nordic Countries were quick to embrace Facebook, especially Norway and Sweden where the number of members put them in the 6th respectively 7th place compared with other countries.

Facebook started as a local network for university students in Massachusetts 2004 and spread rapidly throughout the United States and then the rest of the world. Today Facebook has 67 million active members – a number roughly corresponding to the population of a country somewhere between Germany and France in size. In Sweden alone there are more than a million members. In Norway 23 percent of the population are members. Facebook has grown rapidly although we now see that this growth rate is starting to level off.

Is Facebook a relevant for libraries? My answer to this question is yes, even if there’s no exact answer as to how it’s relevant.My own strategy has been to observe the phenomenon in order to explore the role libraries could have in Facebook and similar communities.

Facebook is relevant for both public and academic libraries. Students – one of an academic library’s primary target groups – constitute the largest member group in Facebook. More than every other 20-30 year old in Sweden is a Facebook member. There are over a million users from the age of 14 and upwards and this means that even school and public libraries have patrons who are Facebook members.

How can libraries use Facebook to communicate with their patrons? It is significant that libraries aren’t the only institutions that find themselves at a loss as how best to cope with the new challenges offered by social communities on the Internet.Within the marketing industry discussions are focused on finding the best methods of using these new networks to reach existing and potential customers. And there are certainly many aspects of Facebook that, in theory at least, should make rewarding marketing targets.

An important characteristic of Facebook is that information spreads virally, i.e. with word of mouth. It doesn’t take long for a member of Facebook to establish a group of friends in the community. As soon as one of these friends adds a new application, i.e. a program which creates activity in the network, then the person’s activity is visible via a so called news feed and is sent to all of the member’s Facebook friends. For example, friends can see that Lisa has competed in a quiz competition on film and it’s now possible to compete with Lisa by adding the same application.

This is the way information is spread in Facebook. There are other possibilities, but this is essentially how Facebook operates. The idea is built on the universal concept which Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg has formulated thus: Nothing influences people more than a commendation from afriend.

One of the appeals of Facebook, initially at least, is that every time you log on there’s the feeling that something new has happened since the last time you were there. You can see what your friends have been up to and you can choose to be active by participating in competitions and similar applications. A concept that often comes up when discussing motivation is Maslow’s Hierachy of Needs theory. In short, humans strive to satisfy one or more of the following needs: self-actualization, esteem, security and physiological needs. A site like Facebook meets these kinds of needs in several ways.There have been attempts to market businesses and services by means of the above mentioned applications. Today there are library applications in Facebook even though most of them consist merely of a search box which connects to a catalogue. Certainly, it’s not uninteresting to feature the library in Facebook, but this type of application doesn’t really create any special activity allowing comparison with others, or yourself, and consequently the use of these types of applications in Facebook are relatively limited.

Some Nordic libraries are Facebook members with their own profiles and groups or pages. The level of activity is however, mostly fairly low. One of the libraries that established a user profile in Facebook received some media attention during the autumn of 2007. The Bromölla Library in Skåne was urged to terminate Facebook and MySpace memberships by the municipality’s IT-department while the legal aspects of the library’s participation were considered. This happened despite protests from the library that Facebook membership had facilitated the library’s efforts to establish new contacts with its users.

As far as library participation in the web 2.0 world goes, one general principle seems to apply: The individual takes precedence over the institution. The focus has moved from the library to the librarian – to personal meetings and personal communication. Gunilla Fors has formulated this tendency elegantly on the Library Blog, in a review of the OCLC report Sharing, Privacy and Trust in Our Networked World.

“Internet is a part of everyday life for most people and contributes to an increasingly homogenous global culture. The new social networks are well on their way to trans-forming the web’s entire structure and basic foundation. Most people aren’t overly concerned with personal integrity and those public libraries, which were quick to adapt to developments on the web, have now begun to lose ground. To put it bluntly, libraries aren’t especially interested in the new social communities on the Internet, possibly due to the fact that these services demand the presence of the librarians rather than the libraries. On the social web, the library brand must go from institutional to personal”.

This is why there is a need for a more daring approach than that which is advocated in the report LASSIE: Libraries and Social Software in Education, Case study 5: Libraries and Facebook from University of London. Librarians are urged to: Only show your profile to people you really want to see it; only show your complete profile to your friends; share only information about yourself that you’re comfortable showing to colleagues; be selective in adding applications; take good time when building your groups; choose your friends carefully, join a local network and interesting groups, create your own groups and pages; try to limit your time on Facebook – it’s easy to become addicted.

This report is a good example of the attitude cited by Gunilla Fors in the above quote. If we want to use social community sites in a library context then we can’t be overly cautious. People want to establish contact with other people – not with buildings. How can libraries in the future make the best use of these social network sites – both those created by others and those that the library itself creates? This is the challenge we face today.

Anna-Stina Axelsson
Region Stockholm

anna-stina.axelsson AT kultur.stockholm.se

Translated by Greg Church

Stockholm Region Library Project Manager for the twinning