Online communities are the places Internet users go for information gathering, camaraderie, and belonging. These online communities are the places where individuals are able to express their interests, debate topics, and make professional and personal collections. Online communities play a vital role within information sharing and creation on the Web.
This is partially why online communities should be perceived as of paramount importance to libraries. As Meredith Farkas discusses in her book Social Software in Libraries, libraries are already acting as a hub in many ways for their communities. Many of the physical community functions libraries already provide could be provided via their Web presence. This would make the library more valuable to their community for a number of reasons.
Mainly it would allow individuals within the physical community to connect with others online on subjects of mutual interests, which instantly adds value to a library. Also, it shows the community, physical and virtual, the library is interested in the community’s needs by allowing them an area for discussion and dialogue online.
However, as Dion Hinchcliff alludes to in his article Twelve Best Practices for Online Customer Communities, creating and maintaining a successful online community is no task to be accomplished overnight or instantly. The development of a community around the services a library provides takes time, patience, and a solid strategy.
If libraries are willing to start down this road, they will need a clear path, know specifically what the need is they will be fulfilling for users, and then make time to reasonably maintain the community. Andrew Cohen also discusses the successful aspects of online communities in his article Characteristics of Successful online Communities. He touches on what the building blocks of a strategy should be and briefly discusses the elements needed for carefully maintain the delicate balance.
The additional work created by maintaining an online community is no small undertaking, policies regarding acceptable behavior and postings by users need to be developed and consistently applied. Within the same thought, the policies will need to address how users will gain access to the community. Will there be required membership for participants, and will there be anonymity or pseudonymity?
These considerations and others pose formidable barriers to the implementation of online communities for libraries.