On Facebook

If you want to get librarians talking, mention Facebook. Some hate it, some ban it, some dismiss it, some adore it. And me? In the past two years, I’ve been almost all of the above. 

I didn’t join Facebook when I was in grad school because it seemed a place for the undergrads. Though my similarly-ancient library school friends and I were perfectly happy to intermingle with undergrads while waiting in long lines on cold mornings for basketball tickets, Facebook was their turf. Undergrads confirmed this anecdotally.

Things changed when I went to work at Duke University Libraries. A colleague had arranged for a panel of undergraduates to talk to us about their use of technology. As was inevitable, we found students asking for services we already provided. Finally, in frustration, one student said, “Can’t you put that on Facebook?” He was using Facebook to organize his life, and he expected things he needed to be there. I followed up and asked him what he thought about librarians on Facebook, and he replied that his professors were already there, so librarians were also welcome.  

I got the message and started an account soon after and kept it professional. My address was my office; my contact information my work email and phone number. I used Facebook to connect with honors students writing theses as well as first year students who were in my one-shot instruction sessions. I even ended up meeting one student for coffee when he saw my profile and noted we had a mutual interest in East Africa, where he had just spent a semester abroad (that’s right – he read my profile and got in touch with me). I also used Facebook to connect with other librarians and especially my library school colleagues. 

I proselytized: at an area library conference, I gave a talk on how I was using Facebook to connect with students and how other librarians might do the same. I commented that we couldn’t be “tourists,” a term I first heard used by Fred Stutzman to describe people who set up social network accounts but never use them. I insisted we needed to engage with these networks authentically, and even if we didn’t connect with students, we’d understand better how students used technology, essential for any public services librarian. 

I took my own advice to heart. I realized that I was using Facebook more for my own social networking than for work. When I moved to Egypt, my personal use increased. What better way to stay connected with distant friends than to play virtual Scrabulous? Of course, it helped that old friends were joining in droves.

The more I used Facebook for myself, the less I wanted to connect with students. So, I did the previously unthinkable: I shut down my profile using the most restrictive privacy settings and started friending only folks I actually know and ignoring friend requests from students. I don’t use Facebook just like students do (for example, I rarely have events scheduled there), but I do use it to keep up with my friends, for entertainment, for communication, for fun. My college-aged cousin is coming to visit me in Egypt in a few weeks, and all our communication about her upcoming trip has taken place on Facebook. It’s become essential.  

Of course, there are some outreach possibilities for my library. I set up a page for the AUC Library, and we’ve attracted over 215 fans, some of whom have added their own photos of the library. AUC students seem even more enthusiastic about Facebook than American students. 

A dear friend and colleague once told me that librarians arriving anywhere is a sure sign something is destined to become unhip. I’m inclined to believe her (after all, she is a friend of mine on Facebook). But I’m not concerned since I’m there not so much as a librarian but as a user. Two years ago, I wasn’t even on Facebook. Now, I’m there every day, often multiple times a day, and I’m so enmeshed that I find myself frustrated that there are people I know who aren’t on Facebook.

Indeed, I find myself thinking about students on Facebook they way they might think about librarians: it’s okay that they’re there; I just don’t want to see them. 

Blackboardwalla

I’m not a big fan of proprietary course management software. I’ve been a student and librarian with Blackboard, and now a teacher and librarian with WebCT (though we’re switching to Blackboard this fall). None of these experiences has been overwhelmingly positive. Last year a colleague and I decided that Blackboard is Web 2.0 for instructors but remains miserably 1.0 for students.

In any case, now you can laugh at some Blackboard frustrations with Blackboardwalla, a mash-up of Blackboard and Bollywood from the blog metamedia. Hat tip to the Chronicle Wired Campus.

Required library classes

Each semester here at the American University in Cairo, I teach at least two sections of LALT 101, a required no-credit one-hour/weekly information literacy class. Some students do exempt out of the course via an exam, but most undergraduates take it.

I really enjoy working with the same group of students all semester. It’s a nice change from seeing students only at the ref desk, in one-shots, or around campus.

What’s tough, though, is trying to teach research skills outside of the context of a real information need. My supervisor and colleague Nancy and I talk about this constantly. What can we do so that when students need to research for another class, they consider databases we’ve talked about in LALT 101? Much of our effort is spent attempting to create situations where students feel they have a research need, in hopes that they might really learn something.

Many instruction librarians struggle with how best to teach important critical thinking and research skills. And no one seems to have a great answer.

At AUC this is particularly challenging as most of our students are not coming out of high schools with American-style libraries. Like typical American undergrads, they’re on Facebook and Googling their hearts away, but also like American undergrads, their web savvy is no indication of research savvy.

But until they really need research, how will they learn to do it? I’d be interested to hear how other librarians are tackling this.

Welcome to the Chatty Librarian!

This blog is dedicated to the discussion of public services within academic librarianship. I’m Joan, the blog creator and administrator, an Instruction and Reference Librarian at the American University in Cairo, Egypt. 

Working in Egypt is great–I’ll talk about that more in future posts–but I am missing the conversations I had with classmates in library school, and colleagues from when I worked at UNC and Duke University Libraries. Working overseas can feel professionally isolating. So this blog is an attempt to recreate some of those conversations, virtually.

I’ve also invited other professionally young librarians to contribute to the conversations that just can’t wait for national conferences. 

Please join us in these conversations by commenting on the blog or emailing me at chattylibrarian at gmail.