Electronic Journal of Academic and Special Librarianship

v.10 no.3 (Winter 2009)

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The Implications of Web 2.0 for Academic Libraries

Brian McManus
Washington State University Libraries, USA


New technologies are impacting the daily work of academic libraries and librarians more and more, with Web 2.0 services at the forefront.  Many academic libraries in the United States are beginning to leverage the power of these services to provide better and more relevant services to their patrons.  They are doing so by integrating Web 2.0 services into their web presence, library instruction programs, and reference services.  The implementation of these services have huge implications for how libraries now and in the future will stay relevant to their communities and how they will face the next generation of new information technology.


The idea of being able to use internet social software via an internet platform is a relatively new idea when considering the history of the computer and its networking capabilities.  Only within the last 10 years have these services been available for public consumption from internet platforms such as Facebook.com, MySpace.com, Blogger.com, Meebo.com, and from a multitude of other providers.  Some specialize in one aspect of Web 2.0 offering and services, for instance Blogger.com, where registered users can write blogs and share with others.  Other Web 2.0 service providers have decided to offer a mashup or combination of Web 2.0 content to registered users, such as Facebook.com, where users have create a public profile, blog, micro-blog using the ‘status’ function, send messages, and even chat with other users using the Facebook.com instant messenger.

Even more, many of the Web 2.0 services offer ways to link your blogs written in Facebook.com to other social bookmarking sites, such as Delicious.com, where users can tag and access other user content, collaborating with one another to a new heightened level.  Other services like Meebo.com allow registered users to access multiple instant messaging services all on one web based platform.  This allows users to access address books from different services in one place and chat, connect with other users on other instant messaging services at the same time.  And there are even more, different types of Web 2.0 services that are just as innovative and collaborative.

Whereas blogs and wikis have been around for a while, they can be used to build community online and help people collaborate on research, which is where we go from web pages to Web 2.0.   This is also where we go from Web 2.0 to Library 2.0, the integration of these services into the library paradigm, more specifically the academic library paradigm of services.  With regard as to why libraries and librarians need to be mindful of and work to integrate these technologies into their services, it is simply because they have to, library services would be made useless otherwise.

Web 2.0 services are becoming part of library patron primary activities online when accessing information and libraries need to stay vital to their patrons by using these same services.  Dan Sperring discusses this issue in his article about how Web 2.0 fits into the library paradigm and states “library users are there for one common reason, to find information, and if we don’t provide them with that they will go elsewhere to find it” (Sperring, 2008, p. 6).  Academic libraries must find where these different ideas of community and collaboration fit within their vision of services in order to keep up with their users.  Which combinations of Web 2.0 services an academic library uses is a factor of which ones they understand to be useful, assuming they understand the resulting implications of these services.

Defining Potential

Jennifer Boxen frames the terms Web 2.0 and Library 2.0 very well in her article, Library 2.0, a Review of the Literature.  Web 2.0, per Tim O’Reilly and Dale Dougherty of O’Reilly Media in 2004, is “the move to the internet as platform, and an attempt to understand rules of success on the new platform.  Chief among those rules is this: Build applications that harness network effects to get better the more people use them” (Boxen, 2008, p. 23).  Library 2.0 is a term that is now synonymous with Web 2.0 services in libraries and was coined by Mike Casey (Boxen, 2008, p. 23).  For the purposes of this paper they will be used interchangeably with reference to how they are used in academic libraries and what their effects, implications may be.

An understanding of the major Web 2.0 components is needed as a general frame work in order to understand how libraries can use them to their fullest potential and where they may lead us in the near future.  There are many different definitions for Web 2.0 services and some are changing quickly, such as from blogs to video-blog or vlogs.  Generally, the following definitions accurately depict the main idea of each type of service.

The major Web 2.0 services cover a wide variety of manners in which users or patrons can collaborate and communicate and are dynamic in that they allow for users to interact with other user created information.  One of those services is a blog, which “is a web page that consists predominantly of user-supplied content” (Boxen, 2008, p. 23).  This could take the form of a journal entry, or could contain news, links, or downloads.

Another of those services is a wiki.  “The wiki has become a popular collaboration tool, providing accessible online space in which to develop and share documents, as well as to browse and search information” (Lombardo,2008, p. 130 ).  Wikipedia is an excellent example of this, allowing users to change and update factual information as they see fit, filling in those knowledge gaps for others.

Podcasting is an interesting service because it allows for the most portability relative to the other Web 2.0 services.  Podcasting “is a form of audio-blogging,” where an audio file, such as an interview or a presentation, is embedded in blog or webpage (Stephens et al., 2007, p. 2).  They can also be downloaded to a patron’s computer or MP3-player for later listening.

Other, more  ubiquitous and well known Web 2.0 services are instant messaging, which ”is a real-time conversation using text” (Murley, 2008, p. 202), social networking, which is a ”way to interact and connect with other people” online and share their online communities (Reichard, 2008, p. 275), and social bookmarking applications, which enable people to save or bookmark their favorite websites, blog posts, images, articles, or podcasts in an online space” (Kroski, 2007, p. 2015).

How Web 2.0 can be used in the libraries

Web 2.0 poses general challenges for libraries.  As a platform for collaboration and increased internet community and because of its decentralized structure, Web 2.0 further emphasizes the librarian’s role as a guide to information rather than the traditional role of an information keeper.  Even more importantly Web 2.0 technologies allow libraries the opportunity for more outreach activities and customizing their online presence for their patrons, helping “create new resources for their users” (Bradley, 2007, p. 8).  This is where academic libraries can get the most use out of Web 2.0 technologies.  Many of these technologies allow for organizational customization and increase participation by library users (Bradley, 2007, p. 192).

One of the more popular social software platforms now are the many social networking websites, such as Facebook and MySpace.com.  Libraries may use these networks to market themselves to members by creating library profiles.  By doing so, libraries and librarians could possibly bringing their services to the website membership and create a greater online presence.  This would lay the ground work for interacting with more patrons and users within the web-spaces they participate.

Academic libraries especially should try to create more value with social networking profiles “by offering a space for patron to give feedback, by providing news and information, or by providing a portal to library services” (Farkas, 2007, p. 122).  This would allow for more patron interaction where the patron may feel more comfortable and willing to give more candid feedback about library services.  Also, by engaging students and patrons within an online social network, academic libraries can keep in touch with the informational trends and needs of these groups.  “An understanding of these resources, even if they are not currently being used, is necessary in order to keep in touch with and have an understanding of this group [students]” (Bradley, 2007, p. 182).    While social networking online is effective and dynamic Web 2.0 software for libraries to augment their traditional services, it is not the only one.

There are many types of Web 2.0 technologies that can be used in combination to provide better services in academic libraries.  One of the most useful combinations of these is social bookmarking and RSS feeder services.  Social bookmarking allows for library staff and users to ‘tag’ specific information on a website so that other users and staff could find similar useful resources.  Where this would be extremely useful would be on library subject resources page.  By using specific, standard tags on this subject resources page and having patrons use RSS feeders, the subject specialist librarian could instantly update their subscribers as to new and useful resources or pertinent information related to that subject (Bradley, 2007, p. 90).

An additional beneficial aspect of social bookmarking for academic libraries is that this software gives patrons the ability to collaborate on the relevant efficacy of certain library services and materials.  For example, if specific databases are as effective as others or recommending ideal books or websites for further research.  By enabling social bookmarking within the library website libraries allow patron collaboration.  In her book Social Software in Libraries, Meredith Farkas suggests using similar techniques to those of Amazon.com, “what if we ask our patrons to rate the books they’ve just read … if two people liked the same four books, then each may like additional books the other recommends” (Farkas, 2007, p. 139).  Using this thought process in providing academic library services would prove to enhance collaboration between peer researchers and strengthen the librarian’s role as an information professional through monitoring the research efficacy of this service.

Another of these technologies and one that easily fits into an academic library’s reference services paradigm is instant messaging.  This allows library patrons remote access to a librarian while conducting their research.  While it might be just as easy to ask a question face to face, accessing a librarian remotely affords the patron use of their own computer and instant access to the suggestions made by the librarian.  The librarian can send informational links or database web addresses via the instant messaging system.    Moreover, instant messaging provides faster access to information in most cases, allows both parties to see the reference related questions, and having this service available to patrons gives an academic library’s reference services the ability to have a constant presence on their website and within their patron’s chat software, if the patron chooses to add the reference services to their address book (Bradley, 2007, p. 137).

An academic library’s reference services would also benefit from using a ‘weblog’ or blog on their subject specialists’ pages.  By combining a weblog and an RSS aggregator, a subject specialist could gather “content from many different sources” (Bradley, 2007, p. 40).  This is extremely useful because of its ability to gather a small amount of generally useful information from other internet sites and resources onto one page for library’s users, generally researchers at an academic library.  The subject specialist could go a step further and have an area of the page where researchers could add their own useful resources, thereby encouraging more peer to peer collaboration.

As an example, Georgia State University libraries have taken blogging to another level of outreach and public service through their subject specialist, liaison efforts by creating subject blogs.  The university library uses blogs in conjunction with their reference services where “each blog contains a variety of content, including new subject-specific databases, calls for participation and requests for proposals, subject-related world news and studies, book reviews, conference announcements, and relevant library news” (Farkas, 2007, p. 31).  This is an excellent example of how an academic library can leverage their services with Web 2.0 software.

Much of the technology leveraged in the Web 2.0 framework is geared toward gathering information for individuals and  collecting it for them to absorb at there leisure, when they have time.  Current Web 2.0 trends show that libraries are using a combination of elements to do just that.  In an article about a presentation given by David Lee King and recorded by Stephanie Willen Brown, Emerging Trends, 2.0 and Libraries, it is explained that Web 2.0 technologies can be used with other essential communication tools to help a library’s reach go even further (Brown, 2009, P 38).

David Lee King discusses how three major, elements can contribute to this and they are podcasts, videocasting, and extending the functionality of the library catalog.  By combining an RSS feed reader and podcasts, libraries can access and deliver audio commentary and instructions to patrons wherever they are located (King, 2009, p. 13).  Another combination is a RSS feed from the videocast, a RSS reader for the patron, and creating videos for your patrons to view for help with accessing library resources or even upcoming library events.  In fact there are many academic libraries that have already begun to successfully implement these same types of activities.

Initiatives and Trends in Academic Libraries

The library information literacy program at the Wake Forest University Z. Smith Reynolds Library began to notice in 2003 through course evaluations that their students were finding more and more value in research and information found via electronic resources and placing less value on the more traditional library resource topics of different classification systems, print monographs, citation syntax, standard subject headings (Smith et al., 2007, p. 117).  Technologically the students were leaving the library behind, information literacy was changing.

It was becoming clear to the library that they would need to give the students more control over the direction of the classes, they decided to use Library 2.0 technologies to assist them.  The library’s literacy program decided to introduce this new approach in the Spring of 2007 (Smith et al., 2007, p. 118).  Within this new frame work, using Library 2.0 services, the program allowed students to focus more on the skills they needed to conduct successful research rather than those skills that were not as relevant, such as complex cataloging searches (Smith et al., 2007, p. 118).  This was achieved by using social software to satisfy their instructional goals.  “They permitted rapid development of course content and served as a collaborative space for student” and allowed students to use methods they were already familiar with (Smith et al., 2007, p. 120).

A wiki was used to manage course interactions, as the Course Management System, where both the instructors and students could edit and discuss each other’s posts and assignments.  Other collaborative software employed were Flickr, social tagging/bookmarking websites, and different mashup software applications to show data harvesting, which also gave the students an idea of how new information can be built upon other people’s information (Smith et al., 2007, p. 120).

The results of changing the library’s literacy program by using Library 2.0 software are interesting.  By shifting to a more collaborative, student content controlled approach the program noticed that the overall class participation and projects improved.  Also, by allowing group work and “students free reign over the specifics of content, format, and work assignments, we [information literacy program] found that groups collaborated together to fill in each others’ knowledge gaps” (Smith et al., 2007, p. 128).  This case study shows that Library 2.0 can be very effective for teach students information literacy, since it allows them to explore research through methods they are already familiar with and because it also allows them to learn more through collaboration.

Another Library 2.0 initiative being widely used at academic libraries is instant messaging reference services.  At George Washington University Library instant messaging has become the preferred reference services method by students.  The librarians became aware of this through consistent student feedback on their reference services during the 2005-2006 academic year (Gaspar & Wilhelm, 2007, p. 133).  Originally the two main libraries on the George Washington University campus were using a virtual reference model that included purchased software, included in this software was a form of instant messaging or chat.  Problems arose when offsite users’ computer firewalls and pop-up blockers inhibited the effectiveness of this service and a total of only 1.5% of their students were using this service (Gaspar & Wilhelm, 2007, p. 133).  The virtual reference service was actually not that useful of a service and was hindering services more than it was helping.

In this instance, as in the previous Library 2.0 initiative, it was found that moving from virtual reference services to a reference service that their patrons were more familiar with would greatly enhance the efficacy of the library’s reference services.  They were able to implement this enhanced service by “inserting the AOL running man logo as an online indicator on the library web page” (Gaspar & Wilhelm, 2007, p. 140).  As with most instant messaging systems, students were able to see if there was an available librarian for reference questions by their ‘status’, for example ‘busy’, ‘away’, or ‘offline’.  An added benefit of this type of software, is that it gives the library the option of capturing the entire transaction, the interaction between the librarian and the patron, this was not lost on George Washington University Library.  They were able to use the transaction data to better manage their reference hour needs and the types of questions they were receiving (Gaspar & Wilhelm, 2007, p. 142).  Instant messaging is not the only Library 2.0 software being used to enhance reference services.

An New York University Eastern Asian studies Librarian used Facebook as an outreach tool in order to introduce herself as a subject specialist and the library’s services.  In 2007 she sent messages to Eastern Asian Studies students using the social networking website Facebook (Lawson, 2007, p. 148).  This effort was motivated by the need to bring the library to the user, in their online world, and by the perceived need to advertise library resources to university patrons, where most of the time they are not aware of them.

The librarian conducted an advanced search for students majoring in Eastern Asian Studies and contacted with a standard Facebook message.  In this message she detailed how she could help them with their research questions and other library resources.  This allowed the student to make the decision as to if they would like to interact with the librarian and it left the option open to the student if they wanted to use the library’s services, all the student had to do was click the ‘reply’ button in the message.  The librarian successfully made contact with potential library patrons by finding them in their webspace and successfully advertised the libraries reference services.

The results from this initiative showed that of the 140 messages sent out on Facebook, 24 or 17.14% responded in different ways; 15 messages thanking the librarian for contacting them and that they seek library services when they needed them, four students asked to be the librarian’s friend, three of the patrons who sent responses also sent friend requests, and one wrote on the librarian’s Facebook ‘wall’ (Lawson, 2007, p. 148).

Another useful feature of most social networking sites, such as Facebook, is the ‘status’ field, which allows the user to announce if they are busy with another task or not.  This is potentially useful for librarians using this type of Library 2.0 software, since it allows them to notify many users of their availability for fielding reference questions or if they are physically at the library (Lawson, 2007, p.153).  A further useful feature is the use of the ‘wall’ on most like sites.  Library patrons could post their reference questions here and then other patrons with similar interests or questions could also see the librarian’s answer.  This is where creating a library group on a social networking site could be additionally beneficial for the same reasons.

These initiatives are examples of the many Library activities being undertaken by academic libraries to greatly enhance library services.  Social Software, Web/Library 2.0 has allowed the librarians in these instances to bring reference services to the patron’s space by using social networking sites like Facebook.  It has given a greater number of patrons access to references services through the use of instant messaging.  Also, social software allowed students to gain a greater understanding of information literacy through using a combination or mashup of Library 2.0 technologies to enable collaboration in the learning environment.

Implications of Services and the Future

The web in general is moving from a collection of websites to more of its own platform where information seekers will access software applications that will allow them to interact more with the Web, according to Stephen Abram (Abram, 2008, p. 19).  In his article Social Libraries, he discusses how it is not the interaction experienced through emails and surfing, but the human interaction we are starting to see more and more of, a more personalized and customized interaction that allows for collaboration and community (Abram, 2008, p. 20).  Examples of these web features are WIKI’s, blogs and micro blogging, and a multitude of social networking sites.  These and other Web 2.0 features allow users to personalize their experience and library patrons will definitely be affected by these features.

Abram states that using Web 2.0 features will allow for a Library 2.0, which has already begun to emerge.  Libraries have started using different features to enhance their web portals and let patrons personalize their research and learning experiences, that we are on the ‘beachfront’ of this trend and the future holds a greater, inherently richer experience for library users and researchers, especially those patrons and libraries who have already embraced Web 2.0 technologies (Abram, 2008, p. 21).  Librarians are the information experts that will provide the support to willing patrons need to make those new, personalized connections that will allow them to collaborate and learn.

Web 2.0 technologies, per the article, are laying the ground work for Librarian 2.0, where librarians are the most qualified information professionals to help and assist library patrons with gleaning a greater learning experience from increasingly immersive environments.  Also, Abram feels that because of how this new paradigm is evolving librarians need to be involved with its future development and implementation in order to be an integral part of that future.

There are other predictions as to the future of academic libraries and the implications of Web 2.0 features on them.  For instance Shu Liu’s article, Engaging Users: The Future of Academic Library Web Sites.  Shu Liu’s article is insightful and going forward should prove to be an excellent benchmark for providing better library services to patrons. Lui discusses the current perception and form of most academic library web sites, stating that more of them are storage points for accessing information and research and even though their web sites provide a better quality of information, they are facing major competition from such web information services companies as Google and others that provide information in a more entertaining manner and allow for more customization and mobility.  Lui’s study consisted of 111 academic libraries, ARL member websites, with English as their primary language and limited to library home pages (Lui, 2008, p. 7).  The author identified the major content of most of the sites and found that they used a “one-design-for-all approach”, there were multiple ways of searching for an item, and little or no ways for users to customize and share information and that most library web pages had an overwhelming amount of text and links (Lui, 2008, p. 8).  Lui  did find that some libraries had started using Web 2.0 features, for example 30 libraries provided RSS, some had ‘my personal library’ space where patrons could keep lists of favorite materials, a live chat room was available on most web pages for reference help, and some web pages provided a Google Scholar search box.

The important Web 2.0 principles to Lui, based on the Lui’s study, are that in the future there needs to be a movement from the traditional relationship between users and information, where there is a distinct exchange between the information and the user, to the Web 2.0 relationship, where the users are providing more and more of the information and user engagement adds value (Lui, 2008, p. 10).  This can be accomplished, according to Lui, by following the article’s three part conceptual model, which focuses on what users may want and creating a more virtual place within the academic library website.  The three parts to the model are creating a more layered approach to services according to the user’s library affiliation (Lui, 2008, p.12-13).  Starting with the library homepage, lessen the amount of text and links currently being used.  Next, implement a portal style web site that allows users to identify themselves as an undergraduate, for example, and the services for these users could be tailored to their needs.  Adding to this experience, the user could use a “my library space”, potentially creating a ‘one-stop-shopping’ experience.  This would give the user the options of bookmarking or saving specific searches and sharing and creating content by using blogs, wiki’s, and podcasts (Lui, 2008, p. 13).

There are those who think that the patron experience will be the ultimate library contribution to learning and will incorporate the library’s community at the same time.  The concept of the Living Library is the ultimate use of social networking within a community, it is face-to-face interaction.  Patrons in essence check out people, a human book.  Originally conceived to cut through prejudices, it is the ultimate human experience (Hourston, 2008, p. 6).  Is this what libraries are moving towards, is this what Thomas Frey was referring to when he stated that libraries would become a community’s center of culture (Frey, 2007)?  Most likely not, but it does give an interesting perspective to the idea of a more personalized library ‘experience’.
The idea of moving towards a user focused web site for academic libraries seems inevitable, where users are able to really personalize how they use the library.  Web 2.0 tools add portability access where there was none just a few years ago, especially with regard to RSS pulling tools.  As an example, researchers can have personalized online library accounts where, through a journal subscription, they are able to ‘subscribe’ via RSS to certain topics and have the new research pushed to them, instead of having to seek it out through the now standardized library web site’s database searches.  This would change major academic research as we know and it is well on its way.

Conclusion: Implications for Academic Libraries

When it comes down to the overall, reaching message of Web 2.0 and Library 2.0, the idea to take away is that we have entered a time where change is the constant aspect of the technologies we use to serve library patrons.  Academic libraries need to embrace change, which is very hard for large institutions to do.  With the Web 2.0 technologies, academic libraries can make change a very easy and consistent activity, “it’s about making change in your organization easy and routine” (Casey &  Savastinuk, 2007, p. 133).  Using the web as a platform for collaboration and dynamic idea building, academic libraries can more easily implement changes to patron services.

In the future there may be more patrons taking part in what has been traditionally librarian work, such as making recommendations for books and reviews of databases.  Patrons would be contributing to the collections they use in a whole new way.  This has already been seen with the West New York City radio station and the Brooklyn Museum, they are looking to their patrons and listeners for more involvement in what type of content they provide.  Beth Evans believes that we only need look to these examples to see what direction libraries are headed in (Evans, 2008, p. 52).  Both the museum and the radio station have used social networking and blogs to get patrons and listeners to become content producers, helping them create original, interesting, and wanted content for their patrons and listeners.  This is the way of the future academic libraries as well, tapping into library patrons for advice on content and giving them a more active role in the functioning of the library.

Library patrons will be more involved with how library services are implemented and managed.  From the standpoint of what social software and Web 2.0 services emphasize, which is the “social aspects of information such as reviews, recommendations, and tagging,” library patron research will be based more on the content of other patrons and the information’s usefulness (Coyle, 2007, p. 289).  According the Karen Croyle, there are on going discussions about how as a library’s catalog changes and there is more involvement by patrons, there will be new services with this orientation that will be layered on top of the existing library catalog.  These include user feedback on library materials and recommendations.

Along those same lines, we are moving toward an experienced based library, a library as the cultural center piece of a community (Frey, 2007).  With all the changes that will occur in how information is created and disseminated there will be a change in how libraries are used as a result, Web 2.0 software included.  This genre of software is bringing us closer to seeking out information that is based partially on the success of past patrons.  Thomas Frey, Futurist at the DiVinci Institute, recommends that libraries embrace change and keep up with it, that the library experience in the future will be of paramount importance, that through new technology libraries will be able to better control their own futures (Frey, 2007).  Using Web 2.0 services and leveraging them to help academic libraries provide better services and dynamic content for other patrons can be seen as a start onto the path Frey describes.

The academic library of the future will offer more personalized services via Web 2.0 technologies, in a way that presents information in a more familiar format to patrons.  While the beginnings of this are starting to be used in different libraries, this is only the beginning.  The way in which library patrons seek information will continue to change and the places on the web they congregate and seek that information will continue to change.  The implications of Web 2.0 on academic libraries are not completely known, however what is know is that libraries and librarians will need to leverage every aspect of the Web 2.0 technologies in order to remain a vital service to their researchers and patrons.


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