Social Tools: More Than Just a Good Time

I was the convenor at one of the last sessions of the OLA conference, and it was a session that highlighted the value of attending OLA conferences. The presenters, Cynthia Williamson and Jenn Horwath of Mohawk College Library, had attended OLA a few years ago when Gary Price (founder of ResourceShelf, a site listing new information resources for librarians and researchers) had swept through the conference with information about a new web tool called “blogs”. The Web 2.0 phenomenon was just taking off. The idea that users could participate directly in the shaping of web sites in an open democratic way was a departure from the top-down publisher-driven model of the early days of the Internet. Time magazine’s Person of the Year for last year was YOU– the wellspring for the content of Web 2.0.
Cynthia and Jenn took some of the ideas from that earlier OLA conference and applied them to the library at Mohawk College. After a few years of trial and error they came back to OLA to present a report on their experiences.
Today the Web 2.0 world is filled with phenomenal successes (such as FlickR, YouTube, and MySpace), acquisitions and mergers (Google and Yahoo! behind much of it), and some disappointments. The work Mohawk College has done can be seen at their TheBrain site.
Blogs as outreach and communication tools for information literacy instruction have been generally successfully, although it takes a while to build up traffic according to Jenn and Cynthia. Despite the unique functionality, blogs still represent another destination– another task– for busy students and faculty. The value of the content becomes very important in ensuring good use of blogs.
Social bookmarking is probably the most successful Web 2.0 application at the library. The FURL service is a gathering point for favourite web sites otherwise stored in each user’s browser. Librarians can easily organize their most useful Internet sites and share them with other librarians and students. The Library’s FURL site is organized with controlled vocabulary. Another social bookmarking site,, is used for smaller projects at the library. The most significant aspect of social bookmarking sites: e-mail is no longer clogged with messages about web sites to check and share. Jenn and Cynthia observed that Web 2.0 applications that replace e-mail were the fastest to take off.
Podcasts are like blogs but built out of audio recordings instead of text postings. Since faculty members record some of their lectures, this service could be utilized with a lot of high traffic content immediately at Mohawk College. The aspect of Web 2.0 applications that is most appealing in this case is their ease of use which allows faculty to upload files on their own.
Jenn and Cynthia discovered early on that the best Web 2.0 applications were ones stored on external web sites. Most were free or inexpensive to use. Some Web 2.0 applications can be hosted internally, but Mohawk College found these to be high maintenance and compounded by security issues. Jenn and Cynthia emphasized that Web 2.0 is still a nascent field, and all applications should still be treated as beta applications subject to further change and enhancement. With the rash of mergers and acquisitions, Mohawk College Library is now in a phase of having to migrate to different Web 2.0 providers for some applications.
Wikis so far have not been utilized at Mohawk College Library except for personal use. The most famous wiki is Wikipedia, a free encyclopedia built out of input from volunteers around the world. A lot of thought would be required to find educational uses for inhouse wikis, and Jenn and Cynthia said their library is not close to doing that.
Jenn and Cynthia noted that the biggest generational change they have seen is in the use of instant messaging. Mohawk College supports all instant messenger clients, and they use a free tool called Trillian to monitor all the providers. Instant messaging for reference questions is now beginning to supplant e-mail reference and web-based reference forms.
Jenn and Cynthia concluded their presentation by discussing blog aggregators such as Bloglines. With so many blogs out there, gathering and organizing them with a single tool makes sense, but Jenn and Cynthia found that faculty members were less than enthused with one more site to check content of interest to them. The “deliver-straight-to-the-brain” method has not been invented yet, and while tools like blog aggregators are becoming easier to use, navigating the flood of information out there on the Internet is still a challenge. In discussing their future plans, Jenn and Cynthia saw their library as a ongoing helpful intermediary to the information world for their faculty and students.
The Brain at Mohawk College (content is not quite direct-to-brain yet)
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