First, let me make something very clear. Both Greenville and Spartanburg Counties have outstanding library systems. The services both of these systems provide are vital to the education and health of our communities, and we would be much poorer without them. That being said, I have noticed some distinct differences in how each system addresses information in the digital age, and specifically social media applications.
Spartanburg County Library is embracing social media. From their main website one finds links to their YouTube channel, their Twitter stream, their Flickr account, and their Facebook group page. All of these accounts are very active, and appear to be updated regularly. I was most impressed with their YouTube channel, which features a video podcast twice a week. The one for this week is embedded below:
The message this sends is that Spartanburg County Library is interested in building communities by reaching out through new media options.
Contrast that with the Greenville County Library. Greenville has a YouTube channel, but there are only two videos on it, and it doesn’t look like it’s been updated in months. Not only does Greenville not have a presence on Facebook or Twitter, but those resources are actively blocked by their network.
I did a quick check at the main branch of the Greenville Library last night and found the following:
- Twitter – blocked
- YouTube – open
- Flickr – open
- Facebook – blocked
- MySpace – blocked
- Blogs – open, in general
- Google applications – open, including Wave, Voice, etc.
- Ning – blocked, sort of. Individual Ning sites may have some content available, but no formatting or CSS comes through.
As the image above indicates, anything that fits within the “Online Communities” category on their filtering system is blocked. But this doesn’t seem to be carried out consistently. The library’s Acceptable Use Policy states that users “may not participate in online chat.” However, some Google (Google Wave, for instance) and Yahoo applications serve the same purpose. Also, is instant messaging considered “chat?” Access to individual e-mail is not blocked. Note that the library’s AUP says nothing about online communities.
Like the school districts, all libraries are bound by the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) to provide some level of filtering if those organizations are to receive any federal funds for Internet access. Clearly obscene or illegal material should be blocked, but beyond that organizations have some leeway. Greenville chooses a stricter regulation of access, whereas Spartanburg does allow access to these resources through its network.
I’m not saying that Greenville Libraries should jump on the latest bandwagon and start up a Twitter account, Flickr, YouTube, etc., etc. I am saying that it doesn’t make sense to block these resources if your primary mission is the transfer of information. This especially makes no sense when these blocks and be easily circumvented with other applications that don’t fit into that “online communities” category.
Greenville County Library has a history of being innovative with technology. In the early 1990’s they provided free dial-up service to the Internet through their GREMLIN (GREenville MetropolitanLINk) system. This was before most households had any kind of Internet access, including dial-up services such as AOL or CompuServe. When monies were made available through the state K12 Initiative, and later through E-Rate for connections, part of the agreement was that services such as Gremlin had to be discontinued so that they wouldn’t be in competition with the telecoms like Bellsouth. Greenville also moved quickly to put their catalog online. Like Spartanburg, they have made accessible a variety of digital resources such as online audio books and videos. This makes it even more puzzling to me as to why they block access to social media resources.
I think this is just a matter of not thinking things through. I had another example of not thinking things through over the summer when I was doing some research in the library. I found a DVD in the South Carolina Room, but was not allowed to remove it from that room. However, they made no provisions for viewing the DVD there. There were no players, and the DVD function had been disabled on the computers in that area. It was like being given a book, but being told that you couldn’t open it. Fortunately, I was given special permission to check out the DVD for one night, as they realized the dilemma this created.
With rapidly changing technology it can be hard to keep up. Something will come along in a year or so that will supplant Twitter and Facebook. It’s not necessarily the application itself, but the learning community it helps foster that matters. Blocking these online communities sends the wrong message. Opening access and embracing them will just enhance all of the other wonderful things that the Greenville County Library is doing.