As I began to think about my project in the context of our classes this past semester, I realized I started my research in a similar place to where we began the semester: thinking about the internet and infrastructure. In their article “How to Infrastructure”, Susan Leigh Star and Geoffrey C Bowker define infrastructure in three parts as “a moving target, taken-for-granted, and having relative usefulnesss to different populations” (Star 230). In the first week of class, we discussed how the role of internet in our society has meets this criteria, therefore the internet has become part of our social infrastructure. In her article, “The first 30 years of the internet through the lens of an academic library” Beth Sandore Namachchivaya lays out how the internet has affected the practices of academic libraries. For example, she covers how the patron’s search experience has changed through the creation of the OPAC. At the end of the paper, Namachchivaya concludes “the existence of the internet as an open infrastructure has enabled libraries to step ably into the role of publisher and archive, developing tools, best practices, and policies, to directly support users” (Namachchivaya 638-639). After researching how academic libraries use Twitter, I think libraries’ use of social media is an integral part of their internet infrastructure. It fits with all three of the defining characteristics of infrastructure laid out by Star and Bowker. I would posit that libraries’ use of social media supports the thesis that the internet has become an important part of academic libraries’ infrastructure.
Social media in libraries is, and probably always will be, a moving target in the sense that it is always changing and evolving. Libraries need to try to stay ahead of the curve of popularity, something that can be seen in recent years with academic libraries’ migration to Twitter. Many of the articles I read were written just four or five years ago, urging libraries to create Twitter accounts. As I’ve shown in my blog, Twitter has exploded in popularity in the past few years. Libraries have had to scramble to create a positive presence on Twitter; as was mentioned in my interview, UW Madison libraries didn’t even have a Twitter presence until 3 years ago. In a study from 2012, researchers found that out of a sample of 200 academic libraries, a third didn’t even have Twitter accounts. Academic libraries need to create a social media presence on sites that are popular at the moment, taking the time to learn the nuances and build their profile on the platform.
Although I’m not sure that academic library’s presence on Twitter is exactly taken-for-granted, I would argue that it has become taken-for-granted as a way to replace certain library functions. One of the most striking examples I can think of is my discussion with the academic librarian about marketing on Twitter. She mentioned how libraries used to rely on flyers and newspaper announcements to promote events, but now their main method is to promote the event using social media. Having become a college student in 2010, I took for granted that libraries and university organizations would promote their events online, particularly social media, instead of through a different medium. My academic research indicates that other library functions may be headed this way; librarians are beginning to get feedback, promote their collections, and even answer reference questions on Twitter. How long will it be before we take for granted that these functions can be performed by academic librarians on Twitter?
Finally and perhaps most importantly, use of social media under-serves a population of library patrons. In our class, we talked extensively about the digital divide and how it impacts library patrons. One article in particular “The digital identity divide: how technology knowledge impacts college students” by Joanna Goode, addressed how stratified digital literacy affects the lives of college students. In her introduction she states “Knowing how to utilize technological ecosystem of university life is certainly critical for academic success” (Goode 498). She goes on to argue that students who have use and skills access to digital technologies will have greater success in a college climate. Although Goode does not specially address it, one can think of an academic libraries’ increased use of social media as a factor in this gap. Students who aren’t able to access computers regularly may not be aware of social and instructional events happening at university libraries. Even those who don’t have social media accounts will not be aware of many of the libraries’ promotional activities. At this point this may not be a drastic loss for the student, but as more and more library functions migrate online and to social media it easily could become a greater divide. As social media is becoming part of an academic libraries’ internet infrastructure, librarians need to become aware of how they are using this infrastructure, how they can improve it, and who is being under-served.
Beth Sandore Namachchivaya, “The first 30 years of the internet through the lens of an academic library,” Library Hi Tech 30:4 (2012), pp. 623-642.
Joanna Goode, “The digital identity divide: How technology knowledge impacts college students,” New Media & Society 12:3 (2010), pp. 497-513.
Susan Leigh Star and Geoffrey C. Bowker, “How to infrastructure,” in Leah Lievrouw et al., es., Handbook of New Media (London: Sage Publications, 2006), pp. 230-245.