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Social Networking Through Your Library Automation System: What Librarians and Vendors Have to Say

By Barbara Fiehn - Posted Sep 1, 2009
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In my article Social Networking and Your Library OPAC!, which appeared in the September/October 2008 issue of this magazine, I wrote about the emergence of social networking features being added to school library automation systems. At the time, Follett’s Destiny was the leader among school automation vendors in implementing the social networking or Web 2.0 features, and some schools and media specialists were getting on board. A good deal has transpired in the ensuing year. So here’s an update based on a user survey I did as well as information from interviews I conducted with vendors at the recent American Library Association (ALA) conference in July 2009.

What do "social networking" or Web 2.0 applications have to do with library automation programs, you ask? Well, plenty, actually!

A big rationale is that students are already using social networking applications outside of school, so why not offer them an environment that is both safe and friendly within our automation systems? Encouraging students to interact with the library staff and each other via the library catalog may be the thing that will bring students to the virtual library interface. There are a number of social networking possibilities such as book reviewing, ratings, recommending purchases, sharing of lists, and "you have to read" patron-to-patron communications. These features can enhance and support book clubs and discussion groups as well as other peer-to-peer interactions.

What Librarians Say …

I recently surveyed school library media specialists, asking them about their use of the social networking features in their automation systems. Responses came from media specialists in Georgia, Illinois, Kansas, Minnesota, South Carolina, Wisconsin, and Texas. Sixty-three percent of the respondents represented high schools, while 37% represented elementary, middle school, and other grade-level configurations.

According to the survey responses, a "top 10 books" display in the OPAC was the most frequently used feature. This was followed by the use of student reviews and wish lists. Table 1 (see below) displays the responses to the question about which social networking features are being used.

Student reviews of favorite books may help increase book circulation. made customer book reviews popular, and other online vendors have picked up the practice. The survey showed that 54.5% of the respondents had implemented this feature. There are concerns about student-written reviews, though. They need to be monitored for language, and monitoring takes time. Still, one respondent indicated it didn’t take as much time as dealing with reserves and overdues. As with all student writing activities, poor spelling and grammar must be dealt with. One vendor told me that issue is addressed by allowing unedited reviews to show only on the reviewing patron’s login.

Coupling review writing with language arts activities helps to create high-quality reviews. There is also something to be said for applying skills from the curriculum. One survey respondent indicated she was working with the English/Language Arts staff to raise the quality of reviews. As Mary Alice Anderson wrote in the July/August 2009 issue of MMIS, "Student reviews posted on web catalogs have led to a new level of involvement. Students are no longer just searching for books but contributing to the catalog’s content."

Sharing Lists

Many of the current school library automation systems will allow students and teachers to build lists of some kind. A perfect Web 2.0 extension of list building is enabling the sharing of lists with friends, fellow students, and colleagues. Peer-to-peer communication is a reality in the real world of students and teachers, so it seems logical to allow such communication from within the OPAC. The survey shows only 9.1% of the respondents are providing patron-to-patron communication, but 45.5% have active "wish lists." Looking to online vendors as a model, list sharing has become an extremely useful tool. Certainly the question of "who made this list" is a consideration. However, within a school district, having shared lists for common research topics generated by media specialists, teachers, and students could facilitate research by establishing starting places. Being able to refine these lists as new materials arrive and old materials are removed eliminates the need for paper or word-processed bibliographies. These lists are then available to users 24/7 via the automation system.

Still Behind the Curve?

Automation expert and blogger Marshall Breeding ( and many others, including Michael Stephens in his blog, Tame the Web, call for libraries to do things differently. The message is to think differently, to meet the changing expectations of digitally knowledgeable patrons. As school library media specialists, we may have lingered in our old operations mode a bit too long.

A recent paper from OCLC, "Online Catalogs: What Users and Librarians Want" (, shows that patrons and library staff have different expectations for the library catalog software. While that has been evident to me ever since I worked with my first automation system in the late 1980s, this is still news to many. According to the OCLC paper, patrons want the library catalog to work similarly to other web-based tools. They want reviews, book covers, tables of contents, and summaries of the cataloged works. They want the library catalog to work for them and with them, with clear and uncluttered interfaces that provide them with more information. While this report references college students and adults, it offers some food for thought for K–12 media center staff.

In my survey, I asked why some respondents said the social networking features embedded in their automation systems were not being used. Some people are concerned about the management time; others are unable to overcome district bans on all social networking. And then there is the issue of giving students access to the features. Access requires a student to log in. Other respondents said they are still in the planning stages for implementation, which is reasonable because these features are still quite new. Another issue, frankly, is a lag in realizing there is actually a need for these social networking features!

A media specialist from Illinois said, "Most of our students select books based on our displays, book talks, library-created bookmarks, reading programs, author visits, conversations with librarians, student-created book trailers, and recommendations from their friends or teachers. In addition, we have a blog on the library website and it hasn’t received a lot of traffic. I’m sad to report that few actually use the online catalog as a means to locating a book for independent reading."

Making the 2.0 OPAC Work!

Facilitate the login: There is some preplanning needed before opening up the social networking tools. Students need a login to access these features. Many schools use the student’s automation system bar code as the login code. This allows students to also access the library’s circulation records. Other schools use their district network login code. One media specialist who responded to my survey indicated the school uses one login code for all students. The method used is not as important as the time it takes to establish a strategy that meets the needs of the district’s technology and library staff and then implementing it.

Reach out … to students and staff: Only 19% of the survey respondents had been using the social networking features for 2 years; the rest had been using the features for 1 year or less. All acknowledged the need for more time to teach students and faculty about these new features. Some expressed frustrations with the lack of interest in—or, in some cases, the lack of awareness of—the online catalog, on the part of both students and staff. While some early adopters are active and excited, as with most technology innovations there is a lag time in building a viable body of users. Reach out to people and show them what Web 2.0 and even some of the other new library automation features that are not necessarily social networking can do for them. (See Tablee 2, below, for some examples of this latter category.)

What Vendors Say …

At the ALA conference in July, I spoke with several vendors about the development of social networking features in their automation systems. All of the vendors were enthusiastic about this developing trend.

Follett Software Co. ( Follett, which launched its social networking features more than a year ago, was pleased with the slow but steady adoption of these features in its client schools. Representatives felt the early adopters were those who had student logins in place and were "ready to go" last year. As more schools using Destiny establish student logins, they are moving toward opening access to the social networking.

Follett plans to release Destiny 9.5 in November. I was told it would be a big release, but the specifics of the contents were not available. I also asked about the reception of the free ebooks offer that began a year ago. The Follett staff told me that one of the most frequent questions asked at ALA this year had been how the ebooks worked within the automation system. Many Destiny client schools have taken advantage of the free ebooks to begin offering this service to their students.

COMPanion Corp. ( COMPanion’s Alexandria has a couple releases coming in the next year. V.6.0 has some Web 2.0 tools, and V.6.1 will have even more. In V.6.0, users see the latest items cataloged (new items) as well as the most popular items. There are website links, with the ability to link to video book reviews as well as to text reviews, cover art, and additional summaries. Icon-based searching, for example, will allow a teacher’s picture to act as an "icon" that links to that teacher’s recommended reading lists.

V.6.1 is expected to include rating scales and allow for student comments with an approval method. A five-star rating system will show an average rating and may show who has rated the book.

TLC (The Library Corp.; In its LS2 PAC, TLC includes tagging, list sharing, and user reviews. The searching capacity has expanded with faceted results, which breaks searches into manageable subsets and includes subscription data results. This OPAC also provides RSS feeds established by the library staff, allowing patrons access to current news or other information as part of their search queries.

TLC has recently announced a 5-year contract for library automation services in the Chicago public schools. Test runs have indicated the capacity for 4,500 circulation transactions as well as 2,400 LS2 PAC searches per minute. It will be interesting to see how this system works in the third-largest school district in the U.S.

SirsiDynix ( SirsiDynix has teamed with Chili Fresh to provide integrated reviews and ratings of library collection materials within the SirsiDynix automation OPACs. Stephen Abram, vice president of Innovation, has a long history of supporting the use of Web 2.0 and social networking applications within the library environment. SirsiDynix works with its clients to integrate not only SirsiDynix applications but also those created in the digital world into the library environment. Abram has taken a leadership role within the library community to help find solutions to existing and emerging needs.

Ex Libris ( Ex Libris Primo incorporates Library 2.0 and social computing features that enable patrons to share tags, ratings, and reviews. In addition to providing very streamlined searching of a wide variety of print and digital source materials, Primo has built upon models from online vendors. Patrons are able to set preferences and alerts and can maintain access to materials via their "personal research space." From this space, users can rerun saved queries and request notification by email or via RSS of new results for a saved query. The Ex Libris system offers an extension of its searching capability using bX scholarly recommender service, which, based on a patron’s search strategy and other similar searches, will recommend additional sources.

Open source software (OSS): OSS is providing a lot of excitement in some libraries. OSS programs provide individual library or consortium design options not necessarily available in proprietary ILS systems. While previously limited to those libraries with the technical support staff to manage and design the OPAC interfaces or back ends, there are now several companies that will do both the design and management as well as training work for schools that want to work in an open source environment.

The LibLime ( booth at ALA seemed reasonably busy each time I passed by it. LibLime, Media Flex (, and Equinox ( currently support OPALS, Koha, and Evergreen OSS software. All of these products integrate a wide variety of social networking features into the automation or OPAC system. You may want to take a look at LibX (, a customized toolbar for accessing library catalogs and databases; Fish4Info (, developed by the School Library System for the Genesee Valley (New York) BOCES; Blacklight(; and VuFind ( These are OSS-developed web programs that act as public interfaces to library catalogs and include user-friendly features such as spell-check, tagging, user reviews, and the ability to search across catalogs and databases in addition to more traditional OPAC features.

While visiting with the vendors at ALA, I noticed the remarkable change in OPAC interfaces. All of the vendors have improved the graphical qualities of the OPAC. These interfaces have clean, modern, colorful screens. Many have very interactive displays using rollover. It feels as if there has been an influence from online media vendors in these new looks.

Barbara Fiehn is an assistant professor at Western Kentucky University, College of Education, Department of Special Instructional Programs. She teaches school library media classes and has an interest in MARC cataloging and automation. She may be reached at


Table 1. Survey responses to the question, ‘Which Web 2.0 features are you using?’

63.6% Top 10 books note

54.5% Student reviews

45.5% Wish lists

27.3% Recommendations for new purchases

18.2% Material rating

18.2% Digital content

9.1% Recommendations—patron to patron

9.1% New Arrivals note

9.1% "You may also like"

Table 2. Other library automation features used by school libraries.

54.5% Ebooks

54.5% Enhanced records (graphics, contents,reading levels, etc.)

45.5% Wish lists

45.5% Web searching

27.3% Adding locally produced digital content

18.2% Digital content

18.2% Search enhancements

18.2% Graphical search features (cloud searching or subcategory searching)

18.2% Shelf browse

9.1% Other: reading lists

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