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Social Networks for Law Librarians and Law Libraries, or How We Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love Friending

By Debbie Ginsberg and Meg Kribble, Published on January 19, 2008

In the end, the web is about connections. Websites link to resources, resources recommend articles, articles refer to experts. Without links, websites are invisible. Social networks create links between people, forming connections based on interests, expertise, past employment or education, and friendships. Law librarians, while remaining aware of their pitfalls, can use social networks such as LinkedIn, Ning, Facebook, and even MySpace to promote useful websites and legal resources as well their own expertise and interests.

A social network is a website that enables members to form connections. Most are free (or at least offer free accounts) and take only a few minutes to join. Members add information about themselves, providing whatever level of detail they are comfortable giving. The details provided can be used by other network members to locate friends, family, colleagues, and others. Once located, users can build links to whomever they choose. If that person links back, the user now has a useful, two-way connection. In sites like MySpace and Facebook, these connections are called "friends" but other social networks may use different terms. LinkedIn, for example, uses "contacts".

Popular social networks like Facebook and MySpace are used mostly to promote personal interests. These networks feature applications that easily connect to friends and other people who share interests in music, books, religious issues, political concerns, and more. Other networks, such as LinkedIn, emphasize professional networking. Some social networks focus on specific user communities. LawLink, for example, accepts only practicing attorneys.

Social networks provide law librarians with new avenues for libraries to reach users. At the University of Baltimore Law Library, Harvey Morrell has created a MySpace site to promote information and services to its students. The library's MySpace page features resource links, a blog for keeping library users up to date, and video tutorials. However, because the MySpace application is intended to connect people, not institutions, it requires users to provide information that is not relevant to an academic institution. The University of Baltimore Library is therefore a 25-year-old single female graduate student whose astrological sign is Scorpio1. While the site has connected the library with nearly 75 MySpace friends - members of its network - it also does not look as professional as the library's official website. For many law libraries, MySpace may be a bit too "Hello Kitty", i.e., too flashy and young for professional use2.

On Facebook, Meg Kribble has created a group for users of the Nova Southeastern University Law Library. The group contains a welcome message and a list of quick links to the library website for library hours, recommended databases, popular culture collections, and more. Because the library sees no point in re-inventing the wheel, posts from the library's news blog are re-posted to the Facebook group. So far, about thirty students have joined the group. Until recently, Facebook forbade institutional profiles, but has recently unveiled a new feature called Pages that essentially creates a more structured institutional profile. Nova Southeastern has just begun to experiment with this function, and plans to publicize it to students during the spring semester.

Lawyers are also active in social networks. MySpace includes several profiles of law firms promoting their services. Many law firms, including Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom and Baker & McKenzie, have formed Facebook networks which feature hundreds of members. Such networks could be used not only for members of the law firm itself, but also to keep law firm alumni informed about firm activities and to maintain connections with former attorneys.

The LinkedIn network is designed specifically to create professional social networks. LinkedIn users provide information such as their education, resume, and professional interests. Those who sign up may provide personal interests as well, but these are not required or emphasized. Users then invite others with LinkedIn profiles to join their networks, much like inviting friends in MySpace and Facebook. Each member of a network can see the contacts of those in their network, using them to discover who knows whom and who has expertise in which area. Ernest Svenson of Ernie the Attorney realized this is an incredibly useful feature:

Let's say, for example, that you are asked by someone to refer them an attorney who practices franchise law in Atlanta. You bop over to LinkedIn and do an 'advanced search' for franchise attorneys in that geographic area, and you find several. Immediately, you can see a list of likely candidates. But Linkedin [sic] also shows you how many 'degrees of separation' away you are from the prospects. Let's say you are only one degree away from someone who is a graduate of your same law school. You want to help an alum, and so you note the name of the mutual acquaintance and ask for an introduction. Your fellow alum is likely to accept a contact from you (since you are potentially referring work), and you'll probably add them as a contact.

Users control how much of their LinkedIn profiles are public. Some choose to display their names; others show outlines of their career history. LinkedIn profiles have high ranking on Google, which can help increase user visibility. LinkedIn also includes features to build reputations. For example, users can "recommend" those who they feel are particularly strong in a given skill or area. These recommendations can help build librarians' reputations both within their network and publicly. Users can also see people in related networks, and ask for introductions to people they do not know directly. LinkedIn is a great way to track changing contact information. Users are likely to keep their profiles up-to-date, so contacting colleagues through their LinkedIn profile is more likely to be successful than using an old Outlook information.

LawLink is a social network that caters only to licensed attorneys. Members must be admitted to the bar to join. Lawyers can create brochures highlighting their practice areas and employment history. They can create connections to other lawyers based on professional or personal interests and use the LawLink directory to search for lawyers by area of expertise. The site is still growing, but recommended future improvements include the ability to search for lawyers by law school to build on alumni networks.

A newer site called Ning allows its users to build their own networks that can be public or private. Some regional law library associations like SFALL and the AALL Federal Law Libraries Caucus have used Ning to create sites where there members can create profiles, have discussions, and share pictures and videos.

No one, however, should join a social network without understanding the legal and privacy issues inherent in these applications. Many people are becoming increasingly concerned with the legal implications of joining these networks. Users of social networks are subject to copyright and defamation laws. States may require sex offenders to register their social network logins. And many lawyers are mining social networks for discoverable evidence.

Privacy implications cause even bigger concerns. Social networks challenge common perceptions of personal space versus public space (or work space versus home space). Users often find themselves having to create a single profile that will connect their friends, family, and colleagues. A recent New York Times article stressed this problem:

"We've been struck by the dilemma people are in," Mr. Leary said of a study he began last month about how people edit their online personas. "Some people seem to pick an audience. Other people pick and choose the best parts of themselves. As a professor, my Facebook page is just watered down. I can't have pictures of me playing beer pong."

Even social networks that are professional in nature like LinkedIn, which discourages including personal information, such as a picture of your cat, still encourages users to provide a great deal of personal data - education, work history, websites, even a photo. Remember that employers can easily find information posted on social networks, and many users (especially students) neglect to hide embarrassing information and photos. Worse, information that a user intends to be private can easily leak to others.

Furthermore, many users of social networking sites are concerned about how the companies who own the sites will use the information that they include in the profiles. The information is often used to target the ads that generate revenue for the company, but companies have been known to change their policies about other uses of personal information with little or no notice.

While a recent article in the Green Bag claims that law librarians wish to remain anonymous, law librarians are increasingly promoting themselves as well as library resources. Social networks provide great, new opportunities to connect with our users and to share our skills and expertise, but they come with some risks. Once these risks are understood and taken into account, social networking can expand our horizons. In addition to promoting libraries and librarians, we can learn from social networking how our users connect with each other, and see what directions online library service may take in the future.

Debbie Ginsberg, Electronic Resources Librarian, IIT Downtown Campus Library/Chicago-Kent College of Law

It was because of privacy concerns that Debbie was at first hesitant to join social networks. Debbie's blog can be found easily on Google but her blog is clearly intended to be personal. On social networks, however, the line between personal and professional is not always clear. She decided to give Facebook a try, and found that she could easily connect with friends, colleagues, and even family and control how much information she reveals. Facebook helps her stay current with Library 2.0 issues but also provides a forum for playing Scrabulous, an online game much like Scrabble. However, she has not yet joined the Facebook network for her employing institution because too many staff members in the network would be uncomfortable for student members who need a space of their own.

Debbie's Facebook Profile

Debbie's LinkedIn Profile

Meg Kribble, Emerging Technologies Librarian, Nova Southeastern University Law Library & Technology Center

Somewhere out there is Meg's defunct Friendster profile, her first social network, before she knew what a social network is, or knew that she wanted to be a law librarian. She is currently an active user of Facebook, where she often finds interesting new applications and fun games through other law librarians. Many of her early Facebook friends were her high school and college-age cousins. She sometimes has the urge to remind them that when she was their age, if you wanted a personal web presence, you had to carve out the HTML yourself uphill both ways.

Meg is currently losing another game of Scrabulous to Debbie.

Meg's Facebook Profile

Meg's LinkedIn Profile

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Footnotes:

1 On the MySpace page, Morrell notes that he chose female, because the word library is feminine in German. 25 years is the age of the library's current building.

2 Thanks to Susanna Leers for this invaluable metaphor.