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The Real and the Virtual: Intersecting Communities at the Library [Available Full-Text, Free]

By Kelly Czarnecki - Posted May 1, 2008
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Building community: What a powerful phrase and a tremendous responsibility for a library. It is an even more powerful feeling to step back and see the community grow as a result of what you’re doing with library services to create new groups of people and new ways to share and discover information. It’s like that "wow!" moment when seeing a teen’s face light up when you tell him you want to add his movie project to the library’s YouTube site or when she sees a picture of her friend having a great time at a library-sponsored event on your library’s Flickr page. The conversations begin, and the bonds of new relationships can start like vines intersecting and thriving as a result of the library being a part of the virtual space.


A discussion took place recently on a listserv I belong to on the subject of libraries serving users virtually. Are money and time being wasted in this endeavor, people wondered? Or are virtual services and virtual communities valuable resources?

Well, as you can tell from my opening paragraph, I’ve already tipped my hand. From my vantage point as the technology education librarian for teens and youth at the Public Library of Charlotte & Mecklenburg County (PLCMC) in North Carolina, creating virtual communities can indeed build an important library asset. I even see it as a responsibility as participation in online communities is driven by advances in technology.

Research bears this out. Michael Stephens captured an overview of research into virtual communities several years back on the librarian online community WebJunction ("Recent Research on Virtual Communities," His summary looks at ways in which these communities relate to libraries. He says, "The study of virtual communities is important because the pervasive nature of the Internet has linked the world in ways never imagined by early communicators and the impact on information retrieval environments is far-reaching. Future librarians may do their reference work in online communities as well as 21st Century libraries."

He also points out how the use of networked devices such as phones or PDAs is also worthy of further research due to their increased use, portability, and change in the nature of communication that can result from using these devices as a more convenient or instantaneous way to relate.

A recent study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that 64% of online teens in 2007 (ages 12–17) have participated in content-creating activities (up from 57% when the study was done in 2004). The kinds of interaction that result from teens being able to participate (through allowing access) in virtual communities and create content while at the library is a rich topic for research.


The virtual community can often work in concert with face-to-face interaction such as discussions or programs the library might provide. Being able to offer both, especially to people of a generation comfortable with finding their friends and developing their likes and dislikes through a virtual community, is a great library service.

So how can you go about doing that in your school or public library setting, especially if sites are locked down or if you just don’t have the time to figure out how to do one more thing at the moment?

At ImaginOn, a branch of PLCMC in partnership with the Children’s Theatre of Charlotte that focuses on the needs of youth up to the age of 18, we’re all about building virtual and face-to-face communities. Working with staff at other branches (including those at a state level) to raise awareness about virtual communities and learning from teens about their needs and interests are ongoing projects of ours. Here is some of the wisdom we’ve gleaned that may help get you started in your own library space:

* ‑ Have a policy in place that encompasses taking not only photos in the library but video as well ( Look for creative solutions where an open policy allowing for taking photos, shooting videos, and viewing them would be problematic. There might be ways to support creation and viewing of videos through your library’s website or by using alternatives to YouTube such as

* ‑ If possible, use photos taken of teens attending your programs as further promotion of future programs, and let teens know about them by having them visible in the physical and virtual space. Showing real pictures of other teens having a great time while letting them know the library has a Flickr site can go a long way toward getting the word out about the library (see

* ‑ Try after-school gaming programs at your library. Don’t forget about the online communities that exist through the consoles that can now have internet access, such as the Wii, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Nintendo DS, and more. Your students could challenge another library through some friendly online competition by sharing friend codes. Frequently, teens will bring their DS’s to ImaginOn and engage their friends online as well as interest others who are watching them to check out one of our library’s systems and play themselves. Learn to play with them and feel comfortable with them yourself for the next gaming program. Don’t forget that teens are learning how to be a member of a community when they are engaging (or not) in the rules of game play. Sharing strategies and learning through their peers is a great way for them to build collaborative skills. Grab a Wiimote yourself so as not to be left out of all the fun.

* ‑ Blogs, wikis, and forums boards are of course great tools to use to engage in knowledge sharing with others. Even if you don’t have time to start or keep up your own, think about how to support the sites students might already be using, such as integrating using Wikipedia with your information literacy class or friending them online (see where they might think twice about what they post because the library is their friend. Get feedback for programs through a forums board. Our library tried one for last year’s summer gaming tournament regarding how it was going to be played out, and the ideas gleaned were incorporated into our promotion of the tournament.

* ‑ No-cell-phone-use-in-school policies notwithstanding, cell phones are definitely something worth paying attention to. [Even now, there is talk among school library media specialists in discussion groups as broad-based as LM_NET on how to get such policies changed to allow educators to take advantage of ubiquitous technologies such as cell phones—with, for example, their web access for research. —Ed.] In a 2008 study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, teens were indicated as the heaviest data users. Embedding widgets such as meebo on your library’s blog or MySpace is a way to bring the library to where the teens are. meebo is compatible with simple messaging service (SMS) so teens can get answers to their questions on-the-fly. It makes sense to try this, given their prolific use of the technology and the fact that it constitutes a technology-linked community of their own, independent of, say, a library-based computer.

* ‑ Consider virtual worlds. Not every library can own an island in Teen Second Life (, nor should they if it’s not something teens in your community are interested in. But the chances are good that your teen students are accessing some kind of virtual world, whether it’s RuneScape, Gaia Online, or IMVU. Visit the forums related to these sites and see what topics are being discussed that might lend themselves to a program. Perhaps a speaker that visited the online world or recurring questions about strategies and game play will come to your attention. Starting your own thread on a fan-fiction topic might get others interested in creating their own stories. Paying attention to contests that a virtual world is hosting could be a great way to get teens involved. Do they need any kind of special equipment or knowledge they might not have themselves but can come to the library to use? Displaying artwork from their favorite characters at your library is also a great way to support their online communities. At ImaginOn, we scan in teens’ artwork so they can display it online at our virtual art gallery in Teen Second Life. This is similar to libraries using Flickr to showcase teen artwork. Think of all the teens who see these drawings!

* ‑ Music is popular with most teens. Even if it’s only for use after school, make sure at least one of your computers has the latest version of iTunes. Teens at ImaginOn are grateful when they can borrow a USB connector for their iPods and share their latest music with their friends. Enabling the virtual to happen will often increase face-to-face interaction as well when teens in the library are sharing with one another.

The real and the virtual are clearly not mutually exclusive ways of interacting with teens. Try some of these ideas and stand back as you watch the connections that result from them—and congratulate yourself for doing a great job!

Kelly Czarnecki is the technology education librarian for teens and youth, ImaginOn, the Public Library of Charlotte & Mecklenburg County, North Carolina. Contact her at

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