Posted by: Maria | May 16, 2008

Facing facts–and fictions–about Facebook

The use of social tools in the academic library is something that people have been talking about incessantly for the past few years. And, in my opinion, when it comes to certain tools, people have been talking about this ad nauseum. I mean, what else is there to say about using a wiki, for example? Wikis are useful collaborative tools. Use them, or don’t use them. The end. (I am oversimplifying, of course, but only because I am so bored by that particular line of inquiry and would rather talk about something more interesting.)

But some discussions about social tools are not so simple. For example: Facebook. How are academic libraries using it? Toward what end? How successfully? Does it matter? What’s the point? Well, the general consensus seems to be that it is worthwhile to explore how academic libraries can use Facebook for instruction and reference purposes, as well as for outreach purposes. Students use Facebook more than they use email. This is their preferred mode of online communication. So it makes sense for libraries to have a presence on Facebook; we can potentially reach more students in this way. While I remain somewhat skeptical about how useful and effective it is to use Facebook is for outreach or for reference assistance, I am willing to at least try it, because it is such a low-stakes risk.

But what about other purposes? One issue that I’m not seeing come up in discussions on this topic is the use of Facebook for official account-related library communications. It is not always about promoting our LibGuides, or letting students know about an event coming up in the library. Sometimes the library has to communicate with students about boring and uncool and not-fun things, like overdue books. Is it appropriate to contact a student through Facebook to let them know that they have an overdue book? Is that a violation of privacy? Students make themselves findable through Facebook, so why can’t we contact them in this way? Is it acceptable to use a social networking tool for a non-social-networking purpose? If our present, and our future, is composed of students who do not reliably use email, then do we need to modify our communication policies so that they are in alignment with how our students behave and communicate?

I know that other academic units on my campus are using Facebook to communicate with students, and I’ve sent some messages out to find how, exactly, they are using it, and what types of messages/topics/issues they are communicating about. But I’d also like to get a sense of how other academic libraries are dealing with this specific issue: not outreach/marketing/promotion of the library, not reference/instruction, but official library communications having to do with circulation and access issues.

Any readers out there want to share their thoughts and experiences on this?



  1. Interesting notes, Maria! I have to admit to a certain queasy feeling about using the tools of a for-profit company with negative interests in privacy and an insatiable need for data collection to communicate with our users. While we can find students this way, I guess I don’t actually think we should–to be, facebook is an essentially social space, and administrators (that’s us when we’re speaking as the library) should probably stay out. Right?

    I know you guys put up a facebook page for your library. Did it get any traction? Do you have any sense of whether or not it “worked”?

  2. I feel a little queasy about using Facebook to communicate with our users about information that we are ethically obliged to keep private.

    But now I’m questioning all of the other modes of communication we do currently have and use. For example: We do have an email reminder that is automatically generated for due date reminders and overdue books, but is that any less secure than Facebook messages? In theory, only the email recipient would receive the email, but I know that email is not as private as we think it is. Email is password protected, yes, but people save passwords on their computers, and anyone using that computer could get into that user’s email.

    We did put up a Facebook page for our library, but it’s not getting much action at all. I have an idea about maybe starting a Facebook group for the incoming freshman class, where I will put links to LibGuides and other stuff, but I have no idea if students will even care or want to join the group.

    I think the reason that libraries struggle to make Facebook be useful is that we were never meant to be on there in the first place. And now that we are, were are trying to force ourselves in a sort of Procrustean way. No wonder it isn’t working.

  3. To be sure, one should take precautions to ensure the right profile is being contacted. If the email address matching the profile is the same email address you have for the patron, chances are you’ve got the right person.

    If the email doesn’t match (such as a university student on MySpace who never checks his campus email), but there are other signs–same name, age, city, etc–one can avoid disclosing any private information by communicating vaguely (this is probably a good practice all-around):

    “This is _____ Library, and our records indicate that you have some overdue items. Please be aware late fees are $.xx per item per day. Items may be returned to the circulation desk or deposited in the book drop after hours. For further information, contact the circulation desk at xxx-xxx-xxxx.”

    Furthermore, those with concerns about online security should worry more about off-line security. Far more opportunity exists for someone to gain privileged information via your snail-mail than your Facebook account, yet no one questions sending the same information through the USPS. Why is this?

    As to the concern that Facebook is a social space & libraries shouldn’t make use of its tools, I think that libraries owe it to their other patrons to use all viable technologies available to recover overdue items. Why should patron A have to wait four months for patron B to check his email & realize that his books are overdue? Why should the taxpayers have to foot the bill for replacing books that were written off, when the originals could have been recovered in more timely manner? Why should a naive college freshman have to drop classes to pay the collection agency, when we could’ve saved her a load of money & credit woes via a simple message on Facebook?

  4. Thanks for weighing in on this, Rob. You make good points about online security vs. offline security. And your argument that libraries should use all possible avenues to recover overdue or lost items is a good one, too. If a simple Facebook message–especially like the one you describe, one that does not have any specifics about the overdue items–may in fact help the overdue items return more quickly, this benefits all parties.

    For me, there is no easy answer to this, and I can’t seem to make up my mind. All of the various arguments on this topic–pro and con–make sense to me, and I’m having trouble arriving at a conclusion on this. Ack! Indecision!

  5. When it comes to Facebook and libraries, I feel like you hit on something fundamental, Maria: it is a social space. Although it could be used for negative notifications (overdue fines, etc), Facebook is a place we hope to connect with users. I think this would put a bad taste in my mouth if the library sent me a notification about fines.
    As you stated, our presence in facebook at all is under fire from users and librarians alike. If we want to remain there long, we need positive interaction for a while (maybe forever) on a social site like Facebook.
    As far as privacy goes, the emails to remind users about books that are overdue are typically automated by the ILS platform the library uses–no librarian even knows about them. I could see Facebook being a place where users might volunteer to have automatic notifications sent to their Facebook profiles (maybe have a button on the library website: send notifications to my Facebook account)…but, like Emily I would feel weird about an actual librarian sending one to each user who is abusing privileges.
    As far as positive notifications go, that is exactly what groups and pages are for on Facebook: let the interested community know about up-coming programs and events or new services.
    Although your library page may not be getting a lot of action, it is just one more way you are trying to engage your users like Rob was saying.

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