Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Comment Enabled Blogs: Are Libraries Really Having Conversations?

Casey and Savastinuk write that the "participatory Web seeks to harness the power of its users in order to enhance content" (p. 59). They go on to write that "participatory service seek to do for library services what the participatory Web has done for the Web itself. Users and their knowledge have the ability to reshape library services, but libraries must first change the way they craft their services and tools so that users have a clear and open avenue on which to communicate and participate" (p. 61).

There are, of course, numerous routes through which libraries can and have attempted to encourage this kind of participatory service ethic. Casey and Savastinuk, along with many of their Library 2.0 peers, have written broadly about the potential of library blogs (both internal and external), catalogs, wikis and any number of the rapidly expanding body of software applications as exciting new platforms through which libraries and their users can "talk and communicate as never before" (p. 75). With dependable regularity, the example most Library 2.0ers use as their demonstration model to exemplify this is the comment enabled blog. "As librarians," Casey and Savastinuk write, "we know that a give-and-take conversation is critical to being understood...With blogs, when a question comes through, it no longer lives in seclusion..."(p. 84).

That is, provided a patron actually does post a question through the library blog.

I've read about this a lot over the last year and I've made a habit of checking the comments of the various library blogs I've visited. Rarely, if ever, do I see patrons making use of these comments, leading me to wonder just how effective this kind of conversation is. I think library blogs can serve an important purpose but I wonder if it isn't perhaps time for us to reevaluate if conversation is one of them. What libraries are truly having sustained comment enabled conversations with patrons?

Surely Casey and Savastinuk would provide us with effective examples. Libraries like "Waterboro Public Library in East Waterboro, Maine," they write, "are creating blogs that allow customers to comment on library happenings in their community" (p. 62). But a visit to Waterbro's library blog reveals that it isn't currently comment enabled. Perhaps it once was but the blogs archives aren't available to check. What happened? Why did they stop? Is this the best example Casey and Savastinuk can muster? Offering another example, Casey and Savastinuk go on write that other libraries, "such as Darian Library, are creating blogs on which their directors post news and field questions and comments from the public" (p. 62). But while the director, since the blogs launch in July of 2006, has sporadically posted (she starts of strong but hasn't posted any new content since July of this year) and received roughly a dozen comments, none of these rise to our authors' claim of providing valuable feedback to "be discussed in meetings, and used to improve existing services."

What, I fear, Casey and Savastinuk are positing/inflating is the ideal while neglecting the reality of what's really happening on library blogs. It would be brilliant to see library directors, staff and patrons engaged in a rich, sustained current of blog enabled conversations but I've yet to see it. Are there blogging libraries truly having such conversations?

Earlier this summer John Blyberg, one of Library 2.0's most lucid and critical writers/thinkers, wrote of the "fairly severe disconnect between what the 2.0 pundits say (among whom I count myself), and what is really happening." The 2.0 pundits have been writing for over 2 years now of blog enabled conversations between library staff and their users. I don't doubt that the one way conversation is happening--there are plenty of libraries regularly updating their blogs, offering convenient RSS feeds, and passing along valuable information regarding a stunning array of services and programming. But perhaps it's time, as the 2.0 pundits so often remind us, to reevaluate this claim. The comment enabled library blog, as it now stands, doesn't seem to be encouraging a two-way conversation.


Joe said...

What's wrong with having comments available? I agree that it's good to rein in overblown punditry, but as long as having comments yields no negative effects, why "reevaluate"?

It is possible for open comments to have negative effects, of course: first, if the blogs get spammed, that provides an unfortunate experience for the reader, and may end up wasting some staff member's time cleaning that up. And if users comment and then get inadequate response, they may develop ill will towards the library.

Isn't the primary problem simply that not a lot of people read the blogs?

Chris Breitenbach said...

I should have been more clear. There's nothing wrong with having comments available. I'm all for it, especially if patrons really are using it to "have conversations" with library staff or other patrons. The problem is that 2.0 pundits, almost across the board are making claims that libraries are indeed having (or will have) these conversation when all the evidence seems to suggest otherwise.

One of the mantras of Library 2.0 is to constantly reevaluate such services to see if they're working or not. Certainly there's no reason to get rid of the comment option. If one patron responds, that's better than none. But I suppose the bee in my bonnet is that I've grown a little weary of this example being used so many times by the 2.0 pundits when I've yet to see anything live up to the claims.

As to the whether or not patrons are actually reading the blogs--I suppose it varies from library to library. I wonder how libraries are measuring who is reading their blogs? Site Meter? User surveys? What library valuation oppotunities are libraries using,if any, to capture this data?