Meredith Farkas - Future of Librarians Interview

Meredith Farkas is a recognizable name to anyone who reads Information Wants to be Free, Techsource, or her American Libraries technology column, to anyone who works with her at Norwich University, or to anyone who's already gotten their hands on a copy of Social Software in Libraries. But for people who don't yet know you, could you talk a little bit about yourself and your background?

Sure, I'm a distance learning librarian and I used to be a psychotherapist; I became a librarian because I am really passionate about being able to help people in a concrete way. Being a therapist it's a lot of "how do you feel about this?" - and the help you give is not really concrete. I really liked the fact that in libraries you can help somebody immediately, it's instant gratification.

For example, at Norwich we have about a hundred databases that students can use and usually they have absolutely no clue how to use them, or which ones are right for their paper - they're just overwhelmed and they come to the desk saying, "OMG!, I need five criticisms on this book!" You know can help them find this and you can teach them how to do it themselves the next time; they're really happy and relieved because they probably spent five hours before this doing something that for me would take five minutes. It's so nice to be able to help in that way and save them time.

How does your background tie into the work you do today?

I think you learn very quickly as a therapist that it's not about you. It's about the person you're working with and their needs; your job is to help them meet their needs. To accomplish whatever it is they are trying to accomplish. And it's really the same thing with libraries. It's not about us. We don't own the library. Our job is really to say to students, patrons, "this is what you need, and here's how you get it." Not, "oh, we don't do that kinda thing at the library". Unless it's hovering over a computer with an ice cream cone, we really should make our space and our services meet the expectations of our users. It's a service philosophy.

With so much Web 2.0 technology, especially wikis, it seems like people can find out and contribute all the information they want. Why do they need library databases, and libraries?

Well, you know, a wiki is great but you never know for sure that the information is accurate, it hasn't always been vetted by experts, it doesn't always have references for the facts that are given, and something like Wikipedia is only giving you a general overview of the topic - it's not giving you enough information to really have a nuanced and full view of the topic. When students are writing a paper they really need resources that go into more depth and you're not going to find expert things like that just on the web. You'll find some, like the Brookings Institution or the Rand Corporation. But, there are still so many things that are only available through databases. [Internet Wikis] are still no substitute for the scholarly articles you can find there.

Sometimes I'll refer students to Wikipedia entries that have bibliographies and links to quality websites - those are tremendously useful. It's just like looking in an encyclopedia where you know it has a little bibliography section with more information.

Can you talk about your new book Social Software in Libraries?

It's definitely a very nuts and bolts guide. I do talk about theories and ideas but it's much more, "This is what a wiki is. This is how it's being used in libraries already, this is how it could be used and here's what you need to know to implement it." So for everything I cover, podcasting, screencasting, blogs, RSS, etc, it's very much focused on concrete examples of how you can use these tools in libraries. It's definitely written for someone who has no experience. My mother in law is reading it right now. There's also examples of software usage that people don't even know of. One person wrote about finding tons of examples she had never heard about. So I think there's definitely something to learn even for people who know a lot about technologies.

Could you name a single most important Web 2.0 technology to libraries?

I would probably say blogs, just because they give us a voice we never had before. It's a more personal way of communicating with our users, reaching out to them as human beings rather than with marketing-speak and press releases. And it can be used in so many ways. I use a blog to syndicate content into Web CT, using RSS and Javascript. It's so flexible.

Virginia Commonwealth University is a good example of a blog with a suggestion page where people can write their complaints and comments. They actually take those, put them on the blog, answer people's concerns and questions, and give people an idea of what they're doing to fix the problem. I love it. Another one is the Ann Arbor District Library.

I think people shouldn't be intimidated by Web 2.0 technologies, they're very easy. You don't need to be a coder or anything to start a blog. In fact, you probably don't need many skills at all. But while these things are easy to start they're not that easy to maintain. It's important that libraries think about the maintenance burden of a blog before they really get involved with it; you have to post all the time, and somebody has to be the one who's going to do it.

In general how can libraries better market themselves?

That's a huge issue, one we're dealing with now. I've come to the conclusion that our students and our faculty know nothing about the databases or how to use them. I think it takes a lot of things; it's not just announcing that we have things like databases, it's also offering workshops where we teach people how to use them in a safe space. I think libraries really need to look at how Web 2.0 companies are marketing their services. Do viral marketing: if you're working with teens, get into the schools and use other teens to promote what you're doing. We really need to stop thinking like librarians and start thinking like marketers.

But who's going to provide the funding for that sort of solution to take place?

That's always a hard thing but I think I'd rather pay for one less database and use the money to have lunches where we teach the faculty how to use the databases in their subject area. If they're not using it what's the point of even having these services and spending money on those? You can do a lot of marketing on the cheap. Start a teen advisory board, and use those teens to market you're services. It's more time than money.

A teen advisory board?

Just get a group of teens together who use the library a lot and have meetings where they give you ideas about the programs and services you have and should be providing. A lot of the time these teens end up getting really involved in the library. I know a great example is the Cheshire Public Library. Their teen advisory board comes up with a lot of cool programs and they do a podcast now which is kinda like This American Life, it's really neat. It's not just a way for us to know better what our teens want but a way for them to start telling their friends, "hey, the library's really cool".

I just can't reiterate more the importance of doing peer marketing. People would rather hear that something's cool from their peers - whether it's teens or faculty members. In fact, we're much more likely to get faculty members on board with things if another faculty member tells them, "wow, this is really great" than if we keep telling them, "oh, you should do this". Getting their peers to market to them is probably the best way of doing it.

Thanks so much Meredith for taking the time to share your thoughts! Keep up to date with Meredith's latest insights by reading her blog Information Wants to Be Free, and be sure to check out her newly published book, Social Marketing in Libraries.

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