In their 2007 report, “Sharing, Privacy and Trust in Our Networked World,” OCLC surveyed members of the general public about the role of social networking in a library setting. The results were not encouraging:

The general public respondents do not see a role for libraries in constructing social sites, and most would not be very likely to contribute content, self-publish or join discussion groups if a library were to offer these services. Interest in participating in activities on a library-hosted social networking site was low among respondents.Most activities evaluated garnered the interest of less than 10% of the total general public who indicated they would be either extremely or very likely to participate.

Library directors were similarly uninspired about the possibilities; only 14% saw it as the library’s role to engage in social networking with the community.

When asked why social networking should not be part of the library’s role, both types of respondents agreed that libraries are places of learning. The two main social networking services that respondents agreed a library might provide were book clubs and discussion groups, activities which did not seem to conflict with the “learning” focus. In other words, libraries were seen as fulfilling a very specific, almost sacrosanct, educational role– and any attempt on the library’s part to facilitate socializing outside of that role was viewed as somehow inappropriate.

However, this study was performed in 2007, and more recent research suggests that the public’s views may have changed. In their more recent report, “Perceptions of Libraries, 2010: Context and Community,” OCLC found that Americans were more dependent on the library’s services than ever as a result of the 2008-2009 recession. But the library is no longer simply for checking out books: patrons also see it as an important resource for videos, music and internet access. In other words, the public’s perception of the library’s role has changed significantly. Additionally, social networking has also grown exponentially and is now used heavily by all age groups. Because of this, the 2010 study encouraged libraries to consider how they might use social networking to meet patrons’ needs for a “third place,” one which is “not home and not work, but instead a neutral place to reflect, connect and become inspired.”

The opportunity may now be arising for libraries to leverage new tools and platforms in order to connect with users. It’s crucial that libraries understand their own role in the community before jumping on the Web 2.0 bandwagon, but shifting perceptions may create new possibilities, and libraries must be ready to take advantage of them.

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