Saturday, April 5, 2014

Interview: Instagram and Academic Libraries

For my interview, I decided to speak to a professor I know who makes a point of exploring new ways to adapt her course to the changing attitudes of new classes, such as including things like memes and webcomics in her lectures to better engage her students, who are mostly freshmen making the difficult transition to college education. She has received multiple awards both as a professor and an advisor, many by student choice. I thought she would be a good interviewee for my project on Instagram and academic libraries because she could give me a reasonably reliable view from outside the library community of student and faculty participation in library events and campus life.

            This professor teaches only students in Biology, Chemistry, or hybrid majors, and says that her students don’t seem particularly interested in the main campus library or the department’s smaller library, except in terms of computer use and study-room space. They aren’t generally asked to use the library’s collection, at least not as freshmen, except for one introductory English course and the few scavenger hunts some of her colleagues send them on to introduce them to the campus. The university itself does not have much of a social media presence; the university administration has a Twitter and a Facebook account, but insists that all posts be cleared by several levels within its higher offices, a lengthy and complicated process which flies in the face of some of the greatest benefits of social media, such as ever-changing content and rapid response times. The result is that most of the social media coming out of the university becomes little more than heavily scripted self-advertising, which the professor I spoke to said is off-putting for both staff and students; specifically, she said that she in particular was so tired of seeing such blatant marketing of the campus in the place of what could have been actual community involvement and pride in the students already enrolled was enough to make her stop paying attention to any of the official tweets and posts.

            Neither the university nor its library currently have an Instagram account of their own, but students frequently post pictures to their own accounts and hashtag them with the name of the university, its mascot, or other identifying features. During the interview, the professor said that students seem to enjoy the campus, and often take pictures of themselves, various events on campus, or even just the buildings and post them online. When I asked her about the library, she mentioned that her students were fond of the movie and video collection, but didn’t seem terribly interested otherwise; she countered that she remembered being an undergraduate herself and loving her campus library for its unique architecture, welcoming environment, and fun events, and was sad to see the same lack of enthusiasm in current students of the same major.

            These two things sparked my interest especially; if an academic library has students who are already interested in photo-sharing, as they do seem to be in this case, then why not try to get them involved in their campus community with things like photo contests, conducted through a library Instagram account? Separating the account from the university as a whole might make even nervous administrators more likely to allow unfettered posting, and students would also be able to browse photos shared by the library of study spaces, behind-the-scenes moments in collection building, and of successful and fun events hosted by the library, all of which might help the library better communicate with its student users, as well as foster a sense of community among students with the library and the campus as a whole. When I put this idea forward to the professor, she was enthusiastic about the possibilities of such a program, and suggested some similar ideas, such as having student submit entries through Instagram of proposed seasonal or themed events for the library, or even a “best photo” contest that would invite students to post photos from their experiences on campus or in the library to Instagram throughout the semester, tagged with an official entry hashtag. The winning photo would then be chosen by its “likes” on Instagram and incorporated into the library’s official homepage, or some similar reward. She believed that using Instagram in ways like this would be something that would easily capture students’ interest and get them more involved in the library on a normal basis.

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