Features - Social Software in the Library

 K. Matthew Dames, JD, MLS, is the founder and editor of SNTReport.com, an online publication that covers how people and organizations use social software to improve productive collaboration and communities of practice. SNTReport.com is a business unit of i-brarian Information Strategies, LLC, an information strategy and advisory firm based in Washington, D.C.


Most of the published literature about social software has been more about the commercial viability of services like Orkut, LinkedIn, Feedster, and Ryze. Missing from much of the discourse is an analysis of the practical and educational value of social software. There are few published articles that explain what social software is, how social software tools may be used to build knowledge networks, or the information professional’s role in using and mediating these tools. The purpose of this article is to fill that void. By its end, the reader should have a solid understanding of what social software is, and hopefully will understand how these tools may be used to help people and organizations work better and more collaboratively.

This is a critical time for both the social software industry and librarianship. On one hand, businesses, educational institutions, and government agencies increasingly are turning to social software to communicate with customers, students and constituents because other media channels have proven less effective. On the other, the increased availability of these tools suggest to the uninformed that a librarian’s role is diminished or unnecessary. But librarians can use the social software movement to their advantage: librarians’ proper adoption of social software not only can help the organizations for which they work, it can help boost librarians’ credibility and value as information agents at a time when the value of librarians is being questioned.

What is Social Software

“Social software” is an umbrella term that applies to any tool that allows two or more persons to collaborate while each person is in a different location. The collaboration may occur in real time (called synchronous collaboration) or at different times (called asynchronous collaboration), while the locations may span continents or simply an office building.

No matter what the distance or form of collaboration, the ultimate goal of social software is to build a community of practice1 or knowledge network in which participants constantly give and receive valuable information commercial sites using social software applications – or the name, title and e-mail address of a prospective business partner – as it is in Friendster.com

The relevant issues in social software are, in order, the people who use and need information, the quality and context of that information, the timely (and if necessary, secure) transfer of that information, and finally, the social software tools themselves. Neither information nor social software tools should ever take precedence over the people or communities that are involved in a given project.

Why Social Software?

There are two reasons why librarians should consider social software movement as a permanent addition to their toolkits, and be involved in its application within their organizations.

First, there are few information professionals that know more about building community than librarians. The library always has been a laboratory for learning, and a place where people congregate in order to solve problems collaboratively. Lately, though, the library’s user base has been eroding, as customers increasingly want to use the library’s services and collection without being present in the building. Social software tools not only afford libraries the opportunity to extend its reach beyond the library building, but also allows the library to serve its patrons in ways that previously were impossible.2

Second, there is the issue of job security. When used creatively by a librarian who is skilled in both information science and technology, social software tools allow librarians to reclaim areas of influence and expertise in the organization that have been ceded to the IT department. It is imperative that librarians succeed in the reclamation project if we are to avoid becoming museum artifacts. I have written elsewhere that librarians are endangered species because the public perceives us as superfluous at best, expensively unnecessary at worst.3 “After all, we can find it on Google,” is the response of patrons, managers, and budget officers. Of course, librarians know that is a false statement, but the perception that librarians are irrelevant to today’s information landscape persists, and in today’s society perception often is more important than fact.

Being able to find or organize information efficiently – the limited roles that others perceive as playing within the organization – is not enough to warrant a full-time position in today’s marketplace. In order for librarians to remain relevant, we must demonstrate value to the organization. And in order to demonstrate value, we have to develop new skills and form alliances throughout the organization, often with the very people who seek to diminish our value.4 The savvy use of social software tools to help people collaborate and build communities is one way that helps librarians demonstrate value to their respective organizations and the budget managers within those organizations.

Key Social Software Applications

There are several important social software applications that affect librarians, and the challenges inherent in each element span subjects as diverse as information science, technology, business and law.5 In this section, I survey some of the social software applications and developments that librarians should be monitoring.

Blogs and RSS

A blog is a frequently updated, publicly accessible journal. While the “blogosphere” started off as a medium for mostly personal musings, it has evolved into a tool that offers some of the most insightful information on the Web. Further, blogs are becoming much more common, as businesses,6 politicians and policy makers7, libraries8 and library associations9 have begun to blog as a way of communicating with their patrons and constituents.

Fortunately, several librarians publish blogs that offer a wealth of information about social software and its uses. SNTReport.com10 focuses on the social software industry and how social software tools are being used to help people collaborate. Sabrina I. Pacifici's beSpacific focuses on law and technology news, and over the last year has bolstered its coverage of the social software industry. And Jenny Levine’s The Shifted Librarian is a goldmine of information about applications of social software tools in libraries, as is Steve Cohen’s Library Stuff.

Blogs and their related technology, RSS,11 not only offer libraries a new way to communicate with customers, they have internal uses as well. For example, large library systems can use a well-formed blog to exchange ideas and information about Web development projects, training initiatives, or research issues. These questions and answers can be cross-indexed and archived, which helps build a knowledge network amongst the participating librarians. Most importantly, the price of setting up a well-formed, secure blog and leveraging it into a knowledge and content management tool is a pittance when compared to other, proprietary solutions.

Right now, the majority of blogs are published exclusively in text. The next generation of blogs, however, will implement audio and video elements, bringing a sophisticated multimedia blend to the medium


As recently as a year ago, wireless computing was a novelty. Now, it is a essential part of business and educational environments, and its use is becoming as standard as the Web browser. Wireless fidelity, or Wi-Fi, comes in several flavors – from the high-speed 802.11a to the slower, but more common 802.11b – but all of them allow a person to move away from a fixed location and still compute effectively. Most importantly, implementing wireless networks can be relatively cheap and easy – I installed one in my home last fall. Security and universal access remain concerns, but as Wi-Fi networks become standard service offerings (just visit your local Starbuck’s), network access providers are becoming more sensitive to these concerns by closing security gaps and increasing range and availability.

Instant Messaging and Chat

Instant messaging (IM) is a text-based telephone conversation, and traditionally, the medium has been the exclusive province of the youth.12 No more. Businesses have been looking at IM as collaborative tool,13 and are looking to develop ways to make IM more secure. And libraries have been using IM as a reference tool: the Bird Library at Syracuse University and the House Library at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill are among the libraries that are using IM-based chat as a way to answer ready-reference questions for their patrons. Even Westlaw is using IM: its reference attorneys now answer nearly 80 percent of reference questions from law students using the company’s proprietary IM platform.14

One of the challenges with chat is determining which IM client to use. AOL, Yahoo!, Microsoft’s MSN all have their own IM clients, and interoperability remains a problem. One solution may be MECA. MECA’s Messenger IM client provides a powerful new feature, called InterOp, that allows users to use four IM services – AIM, MSN, Yahoo and ICQ – simultaneously through the MECA device. With MECA, users can interact with buddy lists from these four services, as well as an additional MECA buddy list.15 MECA may solve the IM interoperability problem.

Like blogs, the next generation of instant messaging devices will be better able to send and display multimedia materials.16

Perhaps the biggest challenge in IM is how to make it more secure so that businesses and government agencies migrate fully to the platform. But security issues are less likely to be a problem in the library environment. As a result, given the IM orientation of successive incoming students, instant messaging should be a standard reference offering for most large university library systems within the next two years, and we should see widespread adoption of IM as a library service within four years.

Handheld Devices

From the time Apple first shipped the device in November 2001, the iPod has become the most popular digital audio player in the world. But the iPod does more than play music: it can be used as a personal digital assistant (“PDA”), a portable, medium-capacity hard drive, an alarm clock, and game player. The iPod’s flexibility shows how handheld devices have developed into multipurpose devices that simultaneously can address a user’s entertainment, business, computing, and communications needs.

While for many the iPod holds represents the “crème de al crème” of entertainment-based handheld devices, devices like Handspring’s Treo and Research in Motion’s Blackberry represent the vanguard of handheld devices for the business world. Both devices combine a cellular telephone, Wi-Fi, e-mail, and Web browsing capability; the Treo adds a camera and the ability to create, read, and edit Microsoft Office-compatible documents with the help of applications like Documents-to-Go.

In other words, handhelds are quickly becoming viable replacements for the laptop computer.

Librarians in the business and medical fields already have been helping professionals use handheld devices for reference and diagnostic applications. While the legal community has yet to use handhelds for purposes beyond communication and personal contact information, the platform is ripe for the next level of development and adoption. The handheld is a perfect platform for ready reference materials such as statutes, regulations, and court rules. And I have been waiting for years for West to make Black’s Law Dictionary available in a handheld-compatible format; it is a potential “killer app” that Thomson has been surprisingly slow to develop.

Given that there is a fertile community developing applications, content, games and other content for the handheld device, this area will be chock full of interesting developments for at least the next three years. Librarians can show their value in this area as usability and display experts, archivists, record managers, and content developers.


The use of social software holds great promise for organizations of all types, but a haphazard implementation of these tools that places technology before people is doomed to fail. As experts in building community, fostering collaboration, and placing information within its proper context, tech-savvy librarians are perfectly poised to lead social software initiatives.


1 “Community of practice” is a term coined by Etienne Wenger, an educational consultant, that refers to a group of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and who interact regularly to learn how to do it better. For more information about communities of practice, please consult Wenger’s Web site at http://www.ewenger.com/theory/index.htm, or his book, Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity (Cambridge University Press 1999). <back to text>
2 Interestingly, using social software to extend a library’s reach may bring people back into the library, instead of permanently driving them away. For example, just as a reference chat session between a librarian and customer may answer the customer’s question completely – which likely will end the interaction without the customer’s appearance in the library building – the same chat session may lead to additional questions that cannot be answered effectively online. Raising these questions could spur the customer to visit the library for a more extensive consultation, which paves the way for a lasting relationship between the library, its professionals, and the customer. <back to text>
3 K. Matthew Dames, From Librarian to I-brarian: The New InfoPro Looks at 2004, 23 LEGAL INFO. ALERT 1 (2004). <back to text>
4 For an insightful article about librarians’ need to network across the organization – especially with information technology professionals – please see Martha K. Heyman, Building Successful Relationships with IT Professionals: Speaking IT, and Staying a Librarian, 5 INFO. OUTLOOK 34-42 (2001). <back to text>
5For a representative list of social software tools and topics, please consult the “Categories” list of SNTReport.com, at http://www.sntreport.com. <back to text>

6 Michelle Conlin and Andrew Park, Blogging With The Boss's Blessing, BUSINESS WEEK ONLINE (June 28, 2004), at http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/04_26/b3889107.htm; Nat Ives, Nike Tries a New Medium for Advertising: The Blog, THE NEW YORK TIMES ON THE WEB (June 7, 2004), available at http://www.nytimes.com/2004/06/07/business/media/07gawk.html. See also Steve Gillmor, Sun Adopts RSS, EWEEK (Mar. 8, 2004), at http://www.eweek.com/article2/0,1759,1544882,00.asp (Sun Microsystems uses RSS protocol as “fundamental transport for developer communications and community building.”) <back to text>
7 K. Matthew Dames, FCC Chairman Steps Into Blogosphere, But Will He Answer?, SNTREPORT.COM (July 12, 2004), at http://www.sntreport.com/archives/000404.html. See also Cynthia Webb, Kerry Gets Cozy Online, WASHINGTONPOST.COM (July 6, 2004), available at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A30758-2004Jul6.html. <back to text>
8 For a wonderful example of how a library has raised its profile within its community by adopting a social software initiative, please see UThink: Blogs at the University of Minnesota, at http://blog.lib.umn.edu/. <back to text>
9 K. Matthew Dames, AALL Blogs 2004 Convention, SNTREPORT.COM (July 8, 2004), at http://www.sntreport.com/archives/000403.html. <back to text>
10 The author is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of SNTReport.com <back to text>
11 RSS, short for “Rich Site Summary” or “Really Simple Syndication,” is the XML-based format that allows the syndication of Web content. <back to text>

12 Ellen Edwards, Buddy Lists and Mixed Messages, WASHINGTONPOST.COM (May 4, 2004), available at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A64312-2004May3.html. <back to text>
13Dan Farber, Top Strategic Technologies for 2005, ZDNET AUSTRALIA (April 26, 2004), at http://www.zdnet.com.au/news/business/0,39023166,39145906,00.htm. <back to text>
14 Michael Wilens, Address at the ABA TechShow 2004 (date) 12, at http://www.abanet.org/lpm/lpt/articles/ts04keynoteaddress.pdf. <back to text>
15 Tim McAllister, MECA Solves the IM Client Shuffle, SNTREPORT.COM (July 19, 2004), at http://www.sntreport.com/archives/000444.html. <back to text>
16 Xeni Jardin, Saying Yes to MMS, MSN.COM (No date), at http://mobilemomentum.msn.com/article.aspx?aid=19. <back to text>