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Social library says, "I'm baaaack"

If you're reading this blog, you probably know about the social library phenomena and popular courses such as “Five Weeks to a Social Library.” But are social libraries really all that new, or are they being reinvented for a dramatic comeback?

A look back in history reveals the answer. Social libraries were, in fact, the precursor to special libraries, becoming popular in the 19th century. At this time, the social moniker had two key meanings. One, patrons usually paid some sort of fee or subscription to become a member or owner. And two, the library provided a “social good.”

According to the Social Law Library of Boston, becoming a social library was “the legislative method that avoided taxing citizens by incorporating and empowering a private group to collect user fees and to conduct essentially ‘public services.’”

Some social libraries grew into public libraries serving the community as a whole. But many social libraries remained focused on certain areas of interest serving specific communities. This might have included law, medicine, insurance, etc. In fact, at least one SLA charter member, the Insurance Library Association of Boston, was originally established as a social library.

So, why the history lesson? As we contemplate the future of the special library and ponder what role social media will play, we have to remember we have deep roots in providing a “social good” to members.

Social media might open the door to a future where patrons are no longer owners, as they were with early social libraries. Instead, patrons could be on track become crucial contributors of content.

This relationship is Inmagic’s vision of the new social library. Content is sourced, organized, and made accessible by the library, and the community can enhance and add value to that content. This way, the social library becomes an interactive publishing environment. Data moves into the knowledge repository or catalog in a top down, or traditional, manner, while also in a bottom up, or social media, manner.

But for this library of the future to become a reality, librarians and info pros are tasked with taking the helm, and embracing these new technologies and processes. We're already seeing this happen within our customer base. The synergy between vetted content and social media is dramatic and of high value to these organizations.

Remember, vetted content alone can make you book smart. But a 21st century organization is looking for ways to foster global collaboration among its staff, and allow the advice and counsel of more experienced personnel to make everyone in the organization “street smart.” This combination of book and street smarts is powerful. And now, it is possible.

If you do not help your special library become a social one, you risk losing its relevancy, as other collaboration and content management initiatives siphon off increasing amounts of content. That's why important to join the comeback. What’s old is new. The social library is back!

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