Sunnyvale, CA Public Library on Facebook: D.O.A. or Just Late to the Party?

5 Dec

I’ve been putting off dealing with the matter of Facebook. It seemed so inherently problematic to me, really, that I just didn’t even want to go there.

There are scores of articles (like this one) and blogs (like this one and this one) that discuss the issue, and debates about whether or not users (usually students) want their libraries to be on Facebook (in a lot of cases, it’s determined that the answer is a rather emphatic “no”). While most of the focus is on academic libraries, since students were the initial, and continue to be the most well-known users of Facebook, I think the issue certainly extends to public libraries as well. The fact of the matter is, libraries are widely seen as old, stuffy, and authoritarian, and librarians as those stereotypical, shushing curmudgeons we’ve all heard so much about. While libraries all over the world are hard at work trying to break free from these stereotypes, they’re not going to disappear overnight, and right now they are still hanging on rather stubbornly. I think it’s fair, then, that many users feel uncomfortable with the idea of encountering their library or librarian in spaces that they expect to be distinctly informal, irreverent, and above all, social.

I don’t want to delve too deeply into this debate, because it’s been done exhaustively, and quite well, by many others. Suffice it to say that this idea of library culture being rather antithetical to that of Facebook is what has dominated my mindset regarding the issue up until now, if only in a very vague, unscientific sort of way.

However, I did my best to check these nagging doubts, and to go into this with an open mind. I’ve been pleasantly surprised during this assignment already, and lo and behold, it’s happened again.

Examining Sunnyvale Public Library’s Facebook profile demonstrates both why the library’s entry to the realm of Facebook has been such a fraught one, and why these concerns are blown too much out of proportion.

To start with, although most individual profiles on Facebook are visible only to those who are registered members of the site, SPL’s page is visible to anyone with Internet access. While Facebook might at first appear intimidating to some users with all its different “apps” and options, it is fairly intuitive to use, and users can engage only at a very basic level if they so choose.

SPL Facebook page

Nearly all of SPL’s “wall” is taken up by its various notes, which convey information about upcoming or ongoing library events and programs and community news, as well as highlighting specific materials in the collection. This works well because users can scroll up and down the screen, looking at the titles and first paragraphs of each note to see if any are of interest to them. If they find one they want to read more about, they can simply click on the link to take them to the note (essentially a short article) in its entirety. While I don’t think the format of Facebook is ideal for conveying news through this kind of RSS-like feed, it definitely does the job. It makes the library news easy to browse and therefore, perhaps, more palatable.

The whole point of Facebook, though, is to be social, and I think this is where it can get tricky for libraries. Sometimes it works quite well, such as when users post links or news articles that are relevant to the library and its users. On SPL’s wall, for example, there’s an invitation from a children’s author to read her books at the library and to see her Facebook page; this kind of interaction not only gives a face and a personal, social aspect to library news, but also serves to showcase materials in the collection and promote the use of the library. Other times, I would argue, it certainly isn’t harmful, but neither is it very useful. The “like” feature that has become so pervasive in and emblematic of Facebook is an awkward one, I think, for libraries. It certainly doesn’t hurt to have users “like” various upcoming events, or news items, or resources that are mentioned. But it also seems irrelevant and –dare I say it again- verging on the unprofessional. It’s not a point I want to belabour because I don’t think it’s a terribly important one, but I think this is one feature that might justify concerns about the library culture not being an ideal fit for the Facebook environment.

"Like" feature on Facebook

Where user interaction does become genuinely problematic is in the “spam” wall postings that are now so prevalent on Facebook. These usually come in the form of some kind of advertising, either of products, services or websites that are wholly unrelated to the library or its interests. While for most Facebook users this is merely a nuisance, it can be seen as more of a complicated and serious problem for organisations like libraries. As public (and sometimes academic) institutions, they are expected to be free of product placement or advertising. While it could be argued that there are ads on almost any website and that this is unavoidable, I think it’s much more serious when they are actually part of the content itself (in this case, SPL’s “wall”), where the library’s knowledge and endorsement of such information is much more likely to be misconstrued. This kind of spam can be seen in several instances on SPL’s page, where it’s apparent that staff members aren’t in the habit of deleting such content, or of disclaiming library affiliation.

Spam wall post

While the SPL profile has several tabs displaying features like “Calendar,” “Photos,” and “Events,” it uses these features very little or not at all. As well, it really doesn’t use the “Info” page to full advantage.

None of these are very serious or important offences, and are certainly not reasons to determine that SPL shouldn’t be on Facebook. They are merely evidence, I think, of the fact that libraries and Facebook aren’t a great fit- or certainly not a natural one.

This is perhaps the price libraries pay for trying to go out into the spaces of their users. It’s inevitable that they will feel foreign at first, and that interaction will be awkward, but I think perseverance is the best bet.

In my newly optimistic opinion, Facebook is definitely worth a try if resources allow; it might not be an ideal format in which to communicate news or interact with users, but if the “likes” are any indication, Facebook users are certainly warming up to the idea of their libraries entering their social space, and even welcoming them. There may be a few kinks to work out yet, and some lessons to learn, but libraries have embedded themselves in the social circles of Facebook, and I think they’re there to stay. The “likes” of the users have spoken, and who are we to leave the party early?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: