Truth: My rural county has one traffic light, and one small public library. Some of our visitors travel 1.5 hours to complete errands, and to indulge in the library’s services. Recently, library usage has changed and we speculate the reasons are linked to the popularity of our digital collections, as well as the culmination of a successful county-wide project to bring high-speed Internet to residents. By incorporating an online community platform into our regular services, I believe we may be able to maintain the personal connection our newly remote visitors used to enjoy when visiting the library. I will share some of the details surrounding our situation and then a plan to use an emerging technology to engage our community remotely.
We know that some patrons who have embraced our digital collections no longer visit the library as frequently as before. By way of introduction to the significance of this Online Community project, I would like to recap an important anecdote from a recent blog post of mine, entitled Context Book Report: Seth Godin’s Tribes (St John, 2017, February 19):
About three months ago, I was setting up audiovisual equipment for a library program when a familiar face appeared in the doorway. “Diane!” I squealed, (we’ll call her ‘Diane’), “…haven’t seen you in a few months; where have you been?” Diane said she had discovered our non-fiction eAudio collection. She felt badly that she hadn’t been into the physical library in some time, but ecstatic that we had such a stellar collection of titles for small business startups.
“I just download them and listen through my Bluetooth.” Diane pointed to the hands free wireless earpiece she was wearing. “Doesn’t matter if I’m cleaning house or making a grocery run, I’m always learning something new about being a smarter business owner. It’s empowering!”
Let’s pause here to highlight two key points:
- I wasin the library, setting up an event for people in the library, using technology designed to communicate to local audiences only.
- My patron, who was still a library lover, confessed she was no longer coming to the library but connecting remotely and feeling a bit lonely out there.
A chorus of library leaders’ voices champions me along the path of connecting this revelation back to Godin’s Tribes:
Schneider (2006): “The user is not ‘remote.’ You, the librarian, are remote, and it is your job to close that gap.
Casey (2011): “The participatory library is open and transparent, and it communicates with its community through many mechanisms”
Stephens (2012): “Technology extends human reach but participation requires engaged participants who feel welcome, comfortable and valued.
Kenney (2014): “After all, some users—like committed digital readers—may never visit their local library or meet its staff…. It could be a decade before they stop by the library, if ever.
In addition to having distant readers, a project to make high-speed Internet access possible for everyone in our county is showing impact on library usage. According to Cook County News Herald (2016):
In 2011, connectMinnesota said fewer than half of Cook County’s households had access to Internet download speeds of 3 megabits per second, which ranked Cook County third from the bottom among Minnesota’s 87 counties when it came to connectivity. By 2015, when the majority of the county was wired for broadband, the download speed was 10 megabits per second, and to date, 1,850 households and businesses are hooked up to broadband.
We believe this has reduced patron reliance on our DVD collection, and has perhaps reduced the number of times each person visits. We are excited that our digital collections are a necessary and well-loved service. We are also excited that Broadband has improved the public’s access to information and services, but we do wonder: how can we support our remote admirers; how do we remain connected from a distance? That question is at the heart of this plan to implement an online community.
An online meeting space provides our library community with so many things. They will have a vital avenue for connecting with one another and with library staff, which will underscore their value and presence in our community. This avenue does not require a day-long trip, but a few clicks of the mouse. The online meeting space encourages users to exploit the high-speed Internet connection they’ve recently adopted, and it gives library staff a chance to share cost-saving (read: pre-paid, or free) media collections. Tax payers can continue to take advantage of tax dollars right from home, and all the while, they will know how very much their participation in the library community is appreciated because our staff will be there, cheering them on and answering their questions as we have done so well during in-person visits.
Please view the plan for more information.
Online Community Plan
Goals/Objectives for the Service:
- Create a vital social networking website to remotely engage our library community and free members to connect with one another outside of the building.
- Acknowledge the remote user’s need to feel relevant and known to the brick-and-mortar library community they’re separating from or imagine exists.
- Provide timely, responsive engagement with users that emulates the personalized, relationship-building experience we supply in person.
- Improve the visibility and relevance of our library to non-users via the Web.
- Empower the online community to self-manage as much as possible and envision staff as equal members rather than web administrators.
Description of Community you wish to engage:
This project aims to reach our remote, digital collection users wherever they are. These distant admirers still wish to be a part of the communal experience they had when they visited in person to retrieve physical items from the circulation counter. This audience contains busy techno-savvy individuals ages 35-45, and a growing demographic of semi-retired individuals, whose homes are dispersed throughout our county. Although the target group is very clear, this service has the long-term potential of attracting non-users, too.
Action Brief Statement:
Our mission here is to convince our remote users that by participating in this online community they will find a powerful avenue for sharing their voices, needs, and library passion with responsive library staff and other community members because we want them to be proud digital collections users, contributing community members, and assured they are known by library staff.
Evidence and Resources to support the Service:
In an article entitled Taming Technolust: Ten Steps for Planning in a 2.0 World, Stephens (2012) warns information professionals against adopting “flashy, sexy technology” that they believe will accomplish more than it actually does. He wrote, “New technologies will not save your library. New tech cannot be the center of your mission.” To achieve our goals for this target audience, I vetted social networking websites. I sought a solution that could encourage maximum user interaction in a way that might be approachable even by a newcomer.
The technology I selected largely involves WordPress software. Jones and Farrington (2011) said:
“Of all the websites built on content management systems (CMSs), around 56 percent of them are powered by WordPress. That’s an impressive statistic that speaks not only of WordPress’s increasing adoption rate by users but also of its permanence as a CMS” (p. 8).
The same authors claim that these traits make WordPress a good fit for libraries: it’s free, it’s easy to get started, it allows web-based administration, you can share the workload, it’s easy to keep the content fresh, the commenting features boost communication, it’s flexible and extensible, and it allows updating from your mobile device (p. 12).
Info 287 – The Hyperlinked Library is a model website for the social networking platform I feel will begin to help us reach our remote users. Designed by BuddyBoss for Dr. Michael Stephens, assistant professor of San Jose State University’s School of Information, the site creates a learning environment and online community network for graduate students. Here, WordPress’ open-source software is combined with the free BuddyPress plug-in to allow students to create personal profiles, friend one another, post status updates, author blogs, share content, join groups for special-interest conversations, and view or comment on the activities of other members. The WordPress platform is a better choice than FaceBook or MySpace for these users, who view those sites with disdain for their blatant commercialism.
Patrons using our WordPress website can enhance the basic service by using an RSS feed such as NetVibes to push blog updates to a single viewing area. Hashtags are viable. Unlike Ravelry, the online community for knitters and crocheters, the Info 287 platform I’m using as a model does not require membership in order to view content. This reinforces the all-are-welcome attitude for which our library is known. It benefits a group that may be hesitant to join yet another online community, or those who are uncertain they have the requisite skills needed to participate.
The Reference and User Services Association (RUSA) of the American Library Association (2013) offers guidelines for the behavior of information service providers in remote environments. Those are as follows:
- 3.1 Provides prominent, jargon-free pointers to all forms of reference services via the library’s web or mobile site.
- 3.2 Responds in a timely fashion to remote queries.
- 3.1 Acknowledges user questions in a timely manner.
- 3.2 Maintains regular online or voice contact with the patron to convey interest and provide assurance that the query is still viable and a response is forthcoming.
- 3.3 Signals an understanding of the patron’s need.
- 2.1 Uses current technology during the reference interview to gather as much information as needed to serve the patron’s need without compromising patron privacy.
- 3.1 Uses appropriate technology to help guide the patron through information resources, when possible.
- 3.1 Encourages the patron to contact the library again if he/she has further questions by making a statement such as “If you need additional information, please contact us again and we’ll try something else.”
The Info 287 platform would allow library staff to provide quality customer service to our patrons. We can create video-enhanced modules that teach newcomers how to get started using the website. From the homepage, we can notify community members about in-house, in-person training days for using the website. The activity feed on the site points us to the newest posts to expedite our responsiveness, and we can set preferences to have emails notify us when our own @username is used. Use of the @username is also indicated in a badge at the top of the screen, but a user must be logged in to see this. We can directly participate in the community groups or comment on patron blogs.
Mission, Guidelines, and Policy related to the Service:
Our mission is to serve as a community resource center that provides open access to information and recreational materials for all patrons. Although we continue to do a good job of this for patrons visiting in person, we must now consider how we will reach our remote community. Members of the Library Board, the Director, and the Assistant Director (customer experience manager) should be involved with policy development for the new service. The team should field interest from the target group before developing policy or approving the plan. Conduct of a focus group would supply detailed qualitative feedback about the plan’s strengths and weaknesses.
Funding Considerations for this Service:
The technology component of this project requires the installation of WordPress, the BuddyPress plug-in, and a webhost. WordPress and BuddyPress are free downloads. HostGator is recommended as a compatible hosting service and packages are available from $5.95 per month to $79.00 per month. I believe the library could host the site on its own server instead, but this will have to be investigated. Aside from the three technology pieces, our website will need to be customized and designed with its intended audience and purpose in mind. We can hire our own local web design consultant. In this case, I do recommend a BuddyPress developer, who would be specialized in crafting the user’s interface and experience, and who will charge by the hour rather than by project.
If popular, this effort to build community may reveal a need for increased staffing, as I discuss later in the plan. Although this may appear to be an outreach strategy, we are just trying to provide customer service to our users.
Action Steps & Timeline:
A reasonable timeline for this project, from discussion of the plan to the first evaluation of the fully operational website, is one year. The timeline accommodates the regular meetings of the Library Board, which are scheduled once per month, website development, marketing strategy rollout, and staff training. The first public reveal of the platform could happen within 6 – 8 months if the following timeline is observed.
- This project will require a budget in excess of $1500. The Director should present it to the Board, who will have the final say about whether the project is within the scope of our strategic plans and budget. The Board, if it would like to proceed, will create a Policies Committee. The Board meets once per month. (1 month).
- The Policies Committee will review this plan. They will put together a list of questions and participants for a focus group, which they will then conduct with our target audience. A committee member will tabulate the results and distribute to the committee for review. (2 months).
- The Policies Committee will discuss the results and share recommendations with the Board, who shall vote to approve the plan. If the Board rejects the plan, members should make recommendations for a new direction to the Director. However, if the plan is adoptable, the Board shall empower the Director to spend within the named project budget (1 month).
- The Policies Committee shall draft policies for the project. They should update the timeline for project rollout, and list evaluation measures to ensure the project is successful in achieving its goals. Meanwhile, an appointed staff person should initiate development of the website using a web developer. Either BuddyPress or a library staff person must develop content for the site, which includes a video-enhanced training module for new users (2 months).
- A demonstration of the website and its capability should be presented to staff. A test run with staff and a quiet rollout to probable members of the target audience should be conducted. Use this time to test the effectiveness of the site’s tools, design, content and learning objects. Feedback shall be reported by the Director or appointed staff person to the Policies Committee, who will consider adjusting the policies and mission statement. Marketing plans can begin. (2 months).
- A full rollout is initiated here, even if the service will require fine-tuning along the way (2 months).
- After 3 months of full service, a survey can be conducted. Tabulated results shall show tool usage, report patron feedback, and attempt to identify the benefits experienced by patrons. The data should demonstrate how the technology’s performance compares to the Committee’s evaluation measurements. (1month).
Staffing Considerations for this Service:
Initiation of this new service will require significant attention from all members of our small staff. It is unclear how many hours per week will be needed to serve the online community, and the level of commitment should be expected to change as the service becomes more popular. A clear path must be defined for reporting problems and training needs, and these needs must be addressed swiftly to keep the flow of activity positive for everyone involved.
Two staff people should be trained in updating the website as administrators. These administrators can also participate in customer service and community involvement, or the library clerks can be responsible for this task, which in a traditional sense would be their responsibility. A goal of this project is that staff can supply a comparable level of personalized customer-service online as in person, which requires responsiveness to members’ inquiries or posts. By training clerks as community members and remote customer service representatives, we can remain flexible and responsive in the Web environment. Because we are experiencing a drop in library usage by our patrons, there are time periods during each workday that clerks are available for special projects. To free more time, we can consider using volunteer labor or initiating a page position for shelving library books. Down the road, some of the community-building components of the site may be managed by invested members of this online tribe.
As part of the website development, a module must be created to teach newcomers how to use the site. This module may need to be re-thought or updated, not only in response to questions but also to accommodate any updates in the software. This would be a staff person’s responsibility to maintain. Overtime, the time commitment should be minimal.
A flow of communication must remain open to the Policies Committee, who will then report findings to the Board. Likewise, the Board shall view their investment in the project as a critical part of its success.
Training for this Service:
I recommend that two persons be trained in website administration. These individuals will work together to maintain the WordPress site, either by updating content or assisting with aspects such as forgotten passwords, etc. Dual control is important for knowledge management reasons.
All library staff should be trained members of the community. Our staff is small; we all take turns working with the public and therefore we must be prepared to answer their questions. Additionally, we understand that users want to feel known by their library staff, and it would be ideal if everyone on staff had a presence in the online community.
Patrons will need to learn how to use this website. Even though a video-enhanced module will be available online, the library shall hold in-person training sessions. Several of these should occur off site in other areas of the county.
Promotion & Marketing for this Service:
We are specifically trying to reach users that do not enter the library. External promotion methods will include radio talks and commercials at QTIP, press releases through our local paper, and announcements made through the county’s highly-trafficked community website, boreal.org. For $200 (plus the cost of producing a short video), using Good Measures Media, we can broadcast 10,000 exposures of a short commercial leading YouTube videos as they are accessed within our zip code. We have a significant number of snowbirds, and our area is a popular tourist destination. It would behoove us also to promote the service in large neighboring cities. For free, we can promote this service on our website and Facebook pages.
Internally, word of mouth and book inserts will be useful tools. Our regional library system can make engaging flyers to hang indoors. We can seek venues, such as post offices throughout the county, to hang flyers outside of city limits, too.
Our project has a planned evaluation period that occurs 3 months after the official release of this service. Aside from gathering any qualitative input from patrons throughout the 3 months, we will conduct a survey to gather more feedback from users. We will measure success based on engagement: are there enough contributing members in the pool to entice more participation? Are conversations taking exciting turns or are two members dominating the conversation? Our survey should help us better understand who is using our social network website and what they feel its value has been. We want to know whether users are telling friends about the site, and why or why not.
The story I wish to tell about this service is: We love our distant admirers, and Cook County is full of them! I wish to share stories, like “Diane’s,” about how digital library collections empower local people to live better, more exciting lives. And, I wish to let other people know that their stories matter in this online community. Aside from evaluating this service at the 3-month mark, it should be reassessed at regular, quarterly intervals during its first two years to ensure success.
Two areas that I feel we could expand upon in the future include videoconferencing and chat. I am curious about whether reference services can be provided directly in this venue. I’d also like to invite users to have “coffee dates” online with our staff or special guests. This is an area we can consider growing into if other services are successful.
Cook County News Herald. (2016, December 3). Broadband commission ended.
Jones, K. L. & Farrington, P. A. (2011). Chapter 1: Getting started with WordPress. Library Technology Reports. 47(3), 8-15.