Saturday, July 28, 2007

social capital / social networking

When I began library school a few years ago, I remember reading "Bowling Alone" by Robert Putnam and then then chapter about libraries in his follow-up book, "Better Together." The whole notion of social capital was intriguing -- relationships have real economic worth. Have an emergency and need someone to watch the kids? If you have trusted neighbors and family friends nearby, they will be willing to take them while you take care of business. It's a real value. Going on a two-week vacation? Across-the-hall neighbors can watch the cats instead of a $12-a-visit stranger or an even more expensive stay at a kitty kennel.

When Putnam wrote his books, massive social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook weren't part of the equation. How would these new tools sit with Putnam? I keep thinking of the relationships I've developed as a result of Facebook and MySpace. Twice at ALA last month I spotted people I had as Facebook friends and had conversations with them (Hi, Stephanie, Ken!). While I doubt I could ask either of them to watch my cats, I'm considering the new social capital that I have.

Ken's given me some frank and honest feedback about the numerous experiments he's tried with electronic and digital outreach to his students. This makes me a more informed librarian.
Stephanie posts incredibly interesting insights over at her blog CogSci Librarian, which I would have never discovered had we not conversed on Facebook.

I've taken some pretty crummy workshops and paid for it, both with wasted cash and wasted time. But the things I've learned from colleagues online are invaluable, and free! These relationships are new social capital.

As I've mentioned before on this blog, social networks, in the many attempts I've given, have not proven a worthwhile first-contact outreach tool. As a way to maintain communication with students you've already met, they're great. But when you shift the focus away from student-librarian interaction, professional networking is facilitated by these tools. ACRL provides a lot of opportunities at conferences to get to know people, but those opportunities are few and far between. Facebook is a great way to make new connections with colleagues around the country.

Building social capital isn't limited to professional network building, though -- students need social capital too. Whether it's online or in person, knowing a librarian by name brings all of the skills and experience of librarians into students' lives. Why plagiarize when someone you know, a librarian, can help you find, use and cite sources for you paper? A librarian's help is free, and you know just who to ask.

Social capital is just another way to think about the benefits librarians can provide students. However, thinking about social capital helps us think about those benefits in terms of real economic and academic value. How can we leverage this notion into marketing campaigns and outreach? Can we have fliers that extol our money-saving and time-saving services? "Why spend hours searching the web? Get help in minutes from a librarian!" "Don't buy that book! Check it out at the library!" "Found an article online, but it costs $24.95? Check to see if the library's bought it for you!" (This last question comes to mind because of Google's News Archive search -- many of the articles in the archive are accessible through library collections, but they require purchase through Google's service)

I unno. It's Saturday. Tomorrow I'm going to Cedar Point ("The Roller Coaster Capital of the World!"), so my stomache may be churning for a few days. No more posts for a bit. Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts in comments and e-mail.



CogSci Librarian said...

Hey, Eric, thanks for the shout out!
This is a great topic -- one thing I wonder is "what do we call our Facebook 'friends' "? We librarians love to categorize things, so how would we rank our friends?
* Real Life Friends (RLF?)
* "People I'd ask to watch my cat"
* e-friends (what I used to call folks I befriended on a music mailing list)
* ffriends -- Facebook friends

The mind boggles.

Eric Frierson said...

hmmmmmm. Instead of BFF, maybe FBB? FaceBook Buddies?


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