A regular guest blog post at the start of every month aims to provide an fresh insight into issues which are covered in the UK Web Focus blog.

The month’s guest blog post comes from Kara Jones, Research Publications Librarian at the University of Bath. Kara explores the idea of ‘a sense of community’.

Futurelab made the observation, in a report last year that learning is moving towards the three Cs – community, collaboration and communication. These are concepts that go further than just learning – particularly building communities, which has become central to our professional interactions online with blogs, wikis and social networks keeping us up to date and involved in conversations with peers. In light of this, I see two important issues: (1) how to build a community and (2) how to find and join a community. Let’s take a look at these two sides.

Building a Community

How does a community evolve? They develop for many reasons – to share research thoughts, to work collaboratively, or to create social networks. How each of these communities grows can depend on the intention of its developers. Here are a few examples:

The Serendipitous Community

Craig Laughton’s Gooseania is a maths blog that grew into a community sharing experiences of undertaking a PhD. This community developed organically as Craig used his blog as a reflective journal to chronicle his studies, and apparently found himself answering questions and engaging in conversations with others undergoing the same process.

Communities of Interest

Developing a community around a subject or topic, such as this blog from Brian takes a concerted effort, and there’s been some discussion (and will be more discussion at a session to be held at the Internet Librarian International (ILI) 2007 conference on the struggles building a blog community, and measuring success and return on investment.

The Extension Community

Other times a physical group of people will create an online community to broaden their communication efforts. Take for example, the team at SHERPA who are developing a community of institutional repository managers. This is a concerted effort to pull a formal group together for the purposes of sharing experiences, and to add weight to statements with a collective voice. They are in the process of developing a wiki for members to add their details in a central location to share with others.

The Socially Networked Community

Often like the extension community, but also including online only contacts, this type includes not just Facebook or Myspace, but social networking sites such as Academici (for finding researchers with similar interests), Ning (with the Library 2.0 network of clued-in librarians) and most recently Nature Networks for scientists.

Finding a Community

So developing a community using blogs, wikis and social networking sites is one half of the story. Recently I delivered a training session for post-graduates about keeping up-to-date, expounding the value of social technologies for efficient and effective information management. I had the question asked of me, ‘How do I find a good blog or develop a list of useful feeds in my subject area?‘, and as a librarian it presents a bit of a dilemma. Mechanisms for exploring and joining new communities aren’t particularly sophisticated. Where do you start to look for the conversations of your community of practice?

To actively seek out web 2.0 communities in new subject areas is an exercise in learning how much you take for granted. I have a set of blogs, RSS feeds and social network sites that I’ve collected over the years. It’s an organic, evolving thing, which is quite personal with familiar voices and occasionally a new face/avatar/etc.

To purposefully seek to join or create a new community is a time-consuming process. How to find out what’s out there? What do I expect to be discussed? What am I missing? And of course, how do I evaluate what I find, on what authority does the author write, do they have a particular bias and what are their sources?

I’ve tried this both ways – the traditional structured way of literature searching, joining mailing lists, and so on. On the other hand I’ve just plunged in, searching Google, Technorati, following links and blogrolls.

At the end of the day, it’s recommendation and reputation, with a heavy dose of evaluation that helps in finding a community, such as the following:

  • Take refereed literature and track back for authors who might blog – D-Lib and Ariadne are great examples of this for information topics.
  • Looking the old-fashioned way – following reference lists and citation searching.
  • Personal recommendation from other experts.
  • Sites which are valued by others – blogrolls, trackbacks.
  • Reviews, social bookmarks, favourites (Slideshare has been great as a resource discovery tool).

I’ve thought about setting up an OPML file of useful feeds, or a collection of blogs on the subject specific resources pages for the departments I liaise with at the university but I’d like to get away from this idea of lists to constantly maintain. With folksonomies, tagging and social bookmarking we’re personalising resource discovery and I would suggest this is a skill to be developed using the approaches above.

Perhaps understanding why communities are developed, how they evolve and how to use a good community to discover others is the key. What do you think?

Kara Jones, Research Publications Librarian, University of Bath

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