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Engaging an Online Community

Submitted by Michelle Boule on July 19, 2011 - 8:47am

Libraries have always been about community. Whether the library serves an elite clientele or is open to all, a library is defined by its community. Librarians fill shelves and populate web pages based on the information needs and desires of their communities.

Serving a communities that now spend more and more of their lives online has shifted they way libraries, and everyone else in the world, serve their communities. As librarians, we have freely acknowledged and embraced the idea that our communities do not always walk through our physical doors and often do not live in our geographical area. We have been searching for ways to serve our expanding communities while utilizing the technology and limited funds we have available.

With the launch of Google+, we have even more tools available with which we can reach out to people. Google+, currently in beta, is only available for individuals and not institutions. As I discussed last month, we as individuals are information nodes that can expand the influence of our institutions.

So how do we cultivate community and the technology tools for a vibrant community? Cultivating a community can be the wall we have to scale between desire and outcome.

During ALA Annual, I went to a session sponsored by PLA entitled What the Library Did for Romance (link goes to a pdf). Admittedly, I mostly attended the session so I could hear Sarah Wendell, one of the Smart Bitches, talk because I love her and Candy Tan, the other, now retired, Smart Bitch. Sarah presented with Jennifer Lohmann, from Durham County Library, and they talked about how to create an authentic and vibrant online community.

Sarah has fostered a very large, opinionated, smart, funny, and well read community around her blog Smart Bitches, Trashy Books on which you can read about mostly the genre of romance but also about publishing, politics, and humorous Internet fiascos.  I have been a lurker and infrequent participant of the community for a very long time now. I keep coming back because I always feel intellectually engaged and I always have a good laugh.

Sarah said that the most important thing about fostering a community is putting yourself out there in an honest way. People respond to honesty and it makes for a more engaging conversation. When libraries start blogs, get on facebook, or Twitter, we sometimes forget that putting ourselves out there means much more than putting announcements online. Our institutions, and the individuals within it, should make honest observations in our online spaces that go beyond the boring and ordinary. People do not pay attention to boring and ordinary. They pay attention to things that are real and interesting.

Sarah Wendell and Jennifer Lohmann gave some good examples of ways that they have fostered community online. While I discuss a few at length here, see the pdf of the program for more suggestions.

Run a Contest - Not only run a contest but make the contest something fun that relates to the group itself. In the early days of the Smart Bitches, Trashy Books blog, Sarah and Candy would run a weekly contest in which they would write up a description of a romance novel and then the first person to leave a comment with the title and author of the book would win a fancy NSFW, but always hilarious, royal title. It was a great way to generate interest and cost them only time.  These days, the contests usually center around book covers, creating covers based on a theme, captioning the truly ridiculous ones, or writing up plot synopsis based on a cover. This is definitely a community that does not take itself or their interests too seriously.  Keep in mind the rewards do not have to be large or wonderful, especially after the community is established. People will often compete for very small prizes because the important reward is recognition within the community itself.

Features that run on a certain day or regularly, add a predictability that can build a following. Sarah frequently runs a feature called Help A Bitch Out or HaBO. Often, readers remember with fondness, nostalgia, and surprisingly random details the first romance they read, but they no longer remember the name of the book or the author. People email Sarah with the details of the plot and characters that they remember, Sarah posts the descriptions on the blog, and then the community chimes in with the title of the book and the author.  These are some of my favorite posts because it is amusing the things people remember, like the herione wore glasses, and the things they do not, major plot points. Amazingly, someone almost always knows the answer.

When I lived in Dallas, I loved to listen to a show produced locally on NPR called the Glenn Mitchell Show. Glenn always had interesting guests, but on Fridays for two hours, he ran a program called “Anything You Ever Wanted To Know” where anyone could call in and ask anything. Literally anything. It was amazing. Often, other callers would call or email in the answer to previous questions which ranged from local trivia to science. Once a month, they aired it live from the Dallas Public Library where you could get your questions answered by “professional smart people.” I even answered a question regarding the history of the rivalry between Texas University and Texas A&M. My geek heart was bursting.

These two examples are important because, running a trivia or Q&A type feature on your website and allowing the community to provide both the questions and the answers is a fabulous way to get people engaged. This type of interaction helps people feel both invested and entertained. It is a no lose situation and you may even learn something yourself.

In the presentation at ALA. Sarah also suggested using Meetup to publicize book clubs. Many people use Meetup to find things going on in their area. You can announce the book on Meetup and then organize the monthly meeting. Sarah did caution that while you may have many people officially in the group, 60, only a portion will show up for the meeting, 15. Meetup could also be used for other groups that are sponsored by the library. If your online community has a f2f aspect, consider using Meetup or Facebook to publicize the meeting to those outside of the normal group.

Sarah also mentioned that she has been using Cover It Live for virtual book clubs that she runs for her website. I have used Cover It Live for unconferences and it would work as a great meeting place for virtual groups in your library. Cover It Live can incorporate a hashtag on Twitter, allowing for the real time integration of Twitter comments. It also will save the conversation in an archive that you can post on your website for people to read later.

There are a lot of choices for people online, so the community you are growing needs to have something to offer people. Allow the community to create content in creative ways and the group will grow. A little fun, consistency, and authenticity go a long way towards drawing people in and keeping them engaged.