Final Reflections

This journey has reminded me that social media tools are as useful as you choose to make them. Sometimes they offer immense, but underutilized possibilities while at other times too much functionality–or fluff–can lead to utter distraction. Through this 23 Things exercise I have explored new ways to use old standbys and encountered creative solutions that incorporate emerging or unfamiliar resources. I have at times been excited by the breadth of available networks and at other times overwhelmed while trying to think about how to incorporate every possible resource into my life and into an information literacy context.

This latter point has perhaps been the best learning experience of all. Thinking about the available Web 2.0 tools and selecting those that most conveniently deliver the content to meet my needs in different situations closely mirrors the selection that is necessary in information literacy endeavors. Some resources meet needs better than others; some are better designed or written, more authoritative, or more in-depth; others have brevity and simple language in their favor. What works best depends on the particular need and context. More isn’t always better, nor is complexity. The key is in the proper assessment and selection of tools, just as of information resources. This has been my own lesson in evaluation and selection and is one that I will try to carry forward when deciding which Web 2.0 tools to use, to teach, and to discard.

Of course, when I began this blog I also noted that the 23 Things for Archivists program was interesting precisely because it looked to the future. The program has many more stages that the Reference, Access, and Outreach Section of the Society of American Archivists has yet to expand and I look forward to seeing the remainder of the intermediate and advanced lists when they are completed. The latter has been left open to the evolving nature of Web resources, indicating with the caption 47-∞ that indeed this project is a living, growing process. I am summarizing my thoughts on my experiences here, but this in no way indicates that the learning process is done. As the list indicates, change is constant with technological tools and staying connected requires constant awareness and exploration.

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Thing # 26: LibraryThing

You may remember that in an earlier post I used my LibraryThing account to create a customized widget for this blog, so I am obviously already familiar with this social network. In the spirit of how I began this blog, however, I am ending it with a deeper look into a web resource that I have only used in a minimal capacity. There are clearly more sophisticated uses for LibraryThing, and learning more about them has transformed a mildly entertaining platform into a potentially useful tool. In the spirit of deeper exploration, this is what I have found.

LibraryThing Basics
Ease of use is the first notable component of LibraryThing because it allows books to be cataloged simply by adding titles to a list. Once a user adds a book the remainder of the cataloging metadata is added automatically when LibraryThing imports records information from library catalogs. MARC and Dublin Core metadata can be imported from a number of prestigious sources such as the Library of Congress, British Library, and Yale University. Given this capability, the suggestion in the 23 Things article that small libraries are using LibraryThing as a cataloging tool makes sense. Since users can specify the source of the metadata, libraries can ensure that the records they create are the highest quality possible. An additional perk is that LibraryThing allows social functions, including tagging, so it is possible to use both formalized data such as authorized subject headings and folksonomies, which can increase the return rate when users search. These tags also offer a way for people to easily browse resources on similar subjects.

The scale and scope of LibraryThing is also notable. The site statistics indicate that there are 1,321,097 members, with 61,555,555 books cataloged, 74,860,118 tags added, 6,029,197 unique works, and 1,370,340 reviews; chances are, if your library owns it, it’s already cataloged in here. This makes the site a wealth of information about books, which could be extremely useful to libraries or archives as a research tool, regardless of whether an institutional account is maintained. Also, the price is certainly right–at free up to 200 books, $10 a year for more, or $25 for a lifetime unlimited membership, it should be an easy expenditure for any library to justify.

LibraryThing for Libraries is an additional resource that can integrate LibraryThing into an existing OPAC, providing popular features such as cloud tags, recommendations, the ability to write reviews, etc. This adds a much-needed social dimension to library catalogs, which run the risk of seeming opaque and dated when users are accustomed to retrieving extra metadata from places like Amazon.com. The ACRL blog provides a description of how this has been incorporated into the Claremont College Library OPAC. In short, the features include similar book recommendations, user tags, and reviews, all of which make it easier for users to find resources. These are good tools for information literacy instruction because educating users as to how tags can help identify resources in easy-to-understand language is important. So too is explaining the differences between authority headings and natural language, both which have retrieval strengths and come together in this system. Using the widget feature is also a good way to showcase favorite or new books in the collections.

Social Aspects
In addition to library accounts and plugins for an OPAC system, individual user accounts on LibraryThing offer research possibilities. For starters, organizing titles that you have read gives a good review of what you have already covered in your research. This is especially true since titles can be organized in different ways, including lists of books already, books you’d like to read, books you’ve shared with others, etc. More importantly, just like resources such as CiteULike, it is possible to identify quality users and learn from their library selections. Simply clicking a book in my collection reveals other users that have selected the same book. I can then check out their selections to see if they have identified resources that I might find helpful; using the “similar library” feature can function in the same way. Once I identify a great user I can follow them to see additional recommendations as they are added.

It is also possible to identify additional resources by following tag links. I tried this out by searching the topic art conservation, which revealed 106 books. I clicked on The Conservation of Antiquities and Works of Art and got a user list, LibraryThing similar book recommendations, and a tag cloud. Clicking on conservation broadened my resource list, which was both useful and overwhelming. This action returned over 6,000 titles, many of which were focused on natural resources and animals; sifting through, however revealed that some titles not returned in my initial search were useful. This is a key feature of tagging since narrowing and broadening searches can reveal different types of resources, and clicking tags offers some direction for users that can’t think of additional search terms.

Applications for Information Literacy
LibraryThing is a more powerful search tool than I had previously realized. For information literacy instruction it would be useful to have students create an account and follow a class library list, with collections dedicated to information literacy, research, and related topics. Students could in turn collect titles related to their own research project and follow appropriate users to identify additional sources; they could also be assigned to follow the lists of classmates covering similar topics. The groups feature could be utilized as well as a means of instituting a mandatory discussion forum centered around books.

This community of classroom users could post responses and share resources. Of course, I noticed many of the groups on LibraryThing are dormant while others are quite active. That’s how it goes with social networks. In order to make a LibraryThing group related to a class successful, it would need to take the place of other possible social network group tools (too much of a good thing) and be mandatory. The fact is that students get busy and often forget about voluntary participation. Even so, incorporating a public group organized around a class could leave a quality record of insightful discussion. This could then be continued or shared with later classes.

So what did I learn here?
First, I have learned that I am not using even a quarter of the potential that LibraryThing offers in terms of research and instructional possibilities. However, this is a broader issue with social networking tools. Over the course of working through the 23 Things list I have realized the importance of using a variety of tools that Web 2.0 technologies have made available and have explored ways to enhance those that I am already using. These networks and programs really do offer sophisticated solutions for acquiring resources and creating content. However, as exciting as any new resource may be, I have had to remind myself that there is a limit to the time I can spend participating. Some resources are simply better for some tasks, and wise selection is the key to avoiding information overload.