Online Cool on a Budget
by Rachel Singer Gordon and Michael Stephens
For many of us, just getting a basic library Web site online, let alone keeping it updated, is an achievement to be proud of. Without the time, resources, or staff to devote to creating jazzy Web pages, it has been difficult for a lot of libraries to develop an online presence that pops. Luckily, that was then … and this is now.
New online tools make it easy—and cheap—to go beyond the basics, letting your library show its best side and appear as dynamic, interesting, and relevant in cyberspace as it is in physical space. Here are a few free and low-cost options that any library can use; pick and choose those that seem most interesting and relevant for your community. (Some of these brief overviews will be followed by lengthier discussions in future columns, but you don’t have to wait for us. Just jump on in!)
Appear Dynamic, Relevant
Start a blog. Refresh yourself on blogging basics and possibilities with April’s Tech Tips, then brace yourself and take the plunge. Blogs, especially those hosted remotely, offer one of the quickest and easiest ways to add interactivity to your Web site. They’re also a great option for easily updating content. Try using Blogger for a simple 5- to 10-minute setup process.
For those of you without a current Web presence, blogs offer a simple way to get information online without having to go through a system or municipal IT department, to learn HTML, or to invest in Web design software. Why not devote 10 minutes a week to updating a blog with your upcoming programs, listing or reviewing new materials, or highlighting part of the library’s collection or services?
Get a Flickr account. Photos say so much more than plain blocks of text. Get your institution a digital camera—or use an old film camera and scanner—and tell your library’s story in pictures. Flickr, an online photo sharing site, does much more than allow you to easily post photos online. By letting users talk about images, group them into topical galleries, and designate others as contacts and friends, Flickr serves as a community-building tool as well. You can think about inviting your patrons to join in and to contribute their own photos and/or to comment on yours.
You can also use Flickr to store the images you use on your blog; the site gives you all the code you need to easily paste into a blog entry (or any library Web page). You can use Flickr to store galleries of images of events or displays, all tagged with the library’s name. Assign “tags” as you would keywords so that Flickr users can easily look up your library’s photos.
Or think about using Flickr and its many “toys” or applications to create useful promotional images, either for the Web or for printing. (For more on using Flickr toys, see May’s Tech Tips.) Flickr partners with companion sites to offer photo printing services and easy ways to create items like calendars and photo postage stamps. Think of all the creative ways you might be able to use such items in your institution!
Flickr offers both a free basic service and a “pro” account for $24.95/year. If you begin seriously using the service, you’ll soon outgrow the limits imposed on free accounts, so you may want to invest in the pro version.
Check out Google Maps. Whether your library has one location or several branches, you can make a nifty interactive online map with Google Maps. This will let visitors to your Web site get a visual image of where you are located—including a satellite view.
First, go over to Google Maps to sign up for a “Google Maps API.” Paste the long string of letters it gives you into a safe place, or e-mail it to yourself for safekeeping.
Now, with your Google Maps API in hand, pop over to Google Maps EZ, which will walk you step-by-step through the process of creating your own map. Follow the directions, and copy and paste your own information in the appropriate places. You then can copy the Google Maps code anywhere onto your library’s site for an instant, interactive Google map.
Try a del.icio.us account. The built-in bookmarks in Firefox or Internet Explorer can be difficult to share, to transfer between machines, and to organize. Social bookmarking sites such as del.icio.us offer an alternative—and an interesting option for libraries. Rather than trying to keep paper lists of online subject resources current, why not open up a del.icio.us account and share resources internally or with your community?
del.icio.us and similar services offer the ability to describe and “tag” your bookmarks for easy retrieval, letting you give multiple keywords to each. They also allow you to share your bookmarks with others. Why not let patrons know about your del.icio.us account and let them follow what you are bookmarking?
Build a wiki. Wikis get a bad rap in the library community because of controversy about the authority of sites like Wikipedia, but they have fantastic potential for libraries. Wikis are specifically designed to let multiple people contribute and edit content, without having to know Web design. You can set up a password-protected wiki that only librarians, reference staff, or whoever you designate (and give the password to) can work on.
This provides another great alternative for keeping lists of online subject resources and information current, as well as easily searchable. Tap into the expertise of various staff members by having them create wiki pages on their areas of expertise, frequently asked reference questions, and resources for common homework assignments.
Try using a free hosted site like PBwiki, which will walk you through a quick setup process that’s similar to Blogger’s. PBwiki doesn’t claim any rights to your content, and it allows you to download backups.
If you’re unfamiliar with wikis, take a look at the Library Success: A Best Practices Wiki site for an example of a collaborative, librarian-created project.
Join the crowd on MySpace or Facebook. There’s been much sound and fury surrounding teens’ use of MySpace lately, partially because of the lack of self-imposed filters and the excessive sharing of personal information. Yet, any service with more than 50 million accounts deserves a look—especially by librarians who want to reach out to a younger demographic. (MySpace’s users are largely under the age of 25.)
MySpacers sometimes have thousands of people in their networks. Shouldn’t you be among them? We can broaden our definition of “outreach” to meet users wherever they are, online or off. Librarians who have experimented with MySpace find it a unique way to reach out to users and potential users. (For one example, see the Morrisville College Libraries MySpace page.)
Facebook, a similar service for institutions of higher education, defines itself as “an online directory that connects people through social networks at schools.” Librarians at academic institutions can look at creating Facebook accounts as a way to connect with students and to become part of their personal, trusted networks. Librarians who have experimented with Facebook find that some students do add them as “friends,” as part of their online networks.
For both of these services, it may be better to participate as an individual librarian rather than to create a faceless and generic “library” account. While this can be problematic when staff members leave, students and teens are more likely to trust and to connect with individuals, rather than with institutions.
Get Out and Be Social
You don’t have to jump into implementing every one of these ideas and services, but do think outside the basic library Web site box and about meeting your users where they are. Most of these options are in some way “social” in that they are designed to bring people together and to create community online. We talk so often about libraries building community, as being at the center of the community—it’s essential for us to participate in these online spaces that are becoming central to many of our patrons’ lives.
The best way to begin building your interactive and interesting online presence is to take a little time to play with some of these tools, with an open mind as to how you might use them in your own library.
Looking good online, taking little time and effort, and building community, all at the same time? That’s a win-win-win situation.
Rachel Singer Gordon was previously the head of computer services at Franklin Park Public Library in Franklin Park, Ill. Now she is a consulting editor for Information Today, Inc.’s book department and Webmaster of Lisjobs.com. She is the author of The Accidental Library Manager (ITI, 2005) and The NextGen Librarian’s Survival Guide (ITI, 2006). Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Michael Stephens alternates writing this department with Rachel Singer Gordon. His e-mail address is email@example.com.