Everything I Need to Know I Learned Online

Chrystie R. Hill /

Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier, Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of Library Journal.

Last February I was introduced to Bob Spence from the Carnegie Library in Ballinger, TX. Ballinger is a town of about 4000, smack-dab in the middle of the state. The library serves a small, rural community, and in spite of a beautiful 1911 Carnegie building, it is constantly under the gun for enough money, staff, and resources to support its patrons. Right off, Spence told me he'd been "cramming to learn the how-tos" ever since he'd started in his new role as library director, only six months before.

"I'm 67 years old and always ready to learn something new. My learning curve with the library has been mostly up but…it's also a privilege to serve this community and try to get them excited about the information that is available to them. It's an honor to be a librarian."

In subsequent months, Spence shared his goal to have Ballinger's library become "the most practical public library in West Texas." He asked for advice on involving his library board, cataloging relevant web sites, and, in true Texas form, his struggle with "wearing so many hats."

Over the next several months, colleagues and peers brainstormed solutions, shared ideas on programs and practices in place at other libraries, and offered general support and empathy. Spence couldn't be more thankful: "I am here and listening and learning. [This community] has been an able comforter. "

As community manager of the online community for library staff at WebJunction.org, I have had the pleasure of meeting Bob Spence, and colleagues like him, from mostly public libraries all over the United States, Canada, and the globe. This experience has gotten me thinking.

Since the onslaught of Internet services, all librarians have been struggling to incorporate new types of information, formats, and skills into our work, for both ourselves and our patrons. We exercise our professional skills, judgments, expertise, and even "share" an awful lot online, but perhaps we've missed an important point in all the technology hubbub—one that's fundamental to our ethics and practice in librarianship: we must be present and connected with our patrons and each other. What if we were all "here, listening and learning," like Bob Spence, in our online community?

What is an online community?

Quite simply, an online community is a group of people who connect with one another over time and through space using the Internet as their primary medium. Notice I did not say communication. We're not talking about discussions exclusively. Online communities can form or function around anything. They do talk, about summer vacations, pets, and new job offers.

Online communities also act, albeit through text. They organize political action, introduce to-be spouses, and create new products and tools. For us as librarians, they also write filtering software applications, fix networked printers, publish encyclopedias, and collectively brainstorm solutions to the biggest problems in your library. If you're a librarian, your heart should have skipped a little beat at the thought of all that information free-flowing around.

Online communities for librarians have proliferated across the web over the last decade or so. Started in 1992, PUBLIB now has more than 5000 members. In a discussion list community we have a feel for people by their posts through email over time, or maybe they have a signature that links to their personal web site or an affiliation. If you're lucky, and we are at PUBLIB, your electronic discussion community will archive or provide some way of querying past posts. From there, we can point to the Open Source Software for Libraries (OSS4LIB) community and even cooperative reference services for early examples of professional online communities for librarians.

Our commercial competitors in the information arena, as is often the case, launched community-building technologies before we did. We use Amazon to read, write, and publish our own book reviews, employ Ask.com or MSN Messenger to conduct reference interviews, and set up our patrons with Yahoo email accounts and visits to Craig's List. Amid the "We should have been there first!" hollering, we've actually done ourselves some good by becoming voices in a larger online community of information seekers and providers. As web publishing became more prominent, "letters" to the editor and even our book reviews became possible with a click and an email or an online form. Sometimes exchanges were published online, and conversations ensued elsewhere with links to this, to that, and back again.

Web-enabled publishing

The next breed of online community is entirely web-enabled. It involves immediately publishing static and dynamic content onsite, allowing multiple or varied responses, and sometimes even edits, over time and by a number of people. Community members often have profiles with links to their institution, contact information, interests, and even pictures. Sometimes the content they publish is conversation, other times it is collective musings with comments, still others a collection of more traditionally published works that have been vetted by peers, reviewers, or a single editor or community-driven editorial group. Sometimes, conversations turn into published works that are then revised, linked, and supported by the collective community.

Examples of online communities engaged in such publishing and editing include the library-related blogs (such as the one at TechnoBiblio.com), collaboratively edited online encyclopedias (such as the one at Wikipedia.org—click on "edit this page" from any article for a demo of online collaborative publishing at its best!), and the online communities for librarians at LearningTimes.com. As personalization and customization are finessed on the web, so will be our experiences.

Back to the roots

Textual movement makes the vocabulary controller in all of us a little queasy. Personalization inevitably brings up privacy. Don't even get me started on authority. But online communities are teaching us that when we discover we're wrong, it's all right to go back and fix it, if only to tell a more complete story; that it's well and good to create a record of living documents; and that authority can come from trusted relationships with people we know and doesn't necessarily rely exclusively on "experts" whose relationships with us are so often facilitated only by commerce. In some ways, these communities are taking us back to the roots of librarianship: a civic responsibility to disseminate, globally and without discrimination, all forms of human knowledge.

The spirit of sharing more quickly and efficiently, across all kinds of boundaries, online, is reminding us that we can and should be doing better librarianship. All of this, and I don't even get to detail the absolute thrill of learning, publishing, and discussing within a culture of shared responsibility, ownership, and collaboration.

You think you don't have time for all these blogs, online discussions, RSS feeds, and web sites. But at the risk of sounding like a late-night infomercial, you can't afford not to. We have two essential and critical problems in our profession. First, especially in public libraries, we are plagued by a scarcity model. We never have enough staff, time, resources, collections, or patrons…we never seem to have enough of anything. Second, we use the resources we do have to do work and solve problems that have already been done or solved. The good news is that in an online community we can take the skills we all have been trained in to help others and help ourselves.

"Pick me, pick me!"

We do a great deal of fretting about "who gets picked" in our lives. To our patrons we say "pick me!" for ask-a services, community information, DVDs, the latest fiction, and now public access. The nice thing about online community is you pick them. The trick is finding the right group, the one you care about and connect with, as a librarian. It doesn't have to be an online community "for" librarians. It might be a great publishing space on the web. You'll go back, and back, and back again. You'll converse with one another and build on that, leaving a record of your interactions and ruminations along the way.

Eventually, the organizers may choose to edit, publish, revise, and republish, as well as archive, all of it. It reflects our collective experience, and we own it together. Our work becomes better for it because we stop reinventing the wheel, we stop wasting resources, and we can say with confidence that we're building something for our profession and, if we get moving, for our patrons. Then they will have a better reason to pick us.

For almost two years now I have witnessed more than 10,000 colleagues take a new step in professional development: reading, learning, and sharing in a web-enabled online community. Have we made a difference for ourselves and our libraries? You bet! If you don't believe me, just ask Bob Spence.