Getting the Most Out of Graduate School: Building Communities Online

by John M. Jackson

Before I started the SLIS program at San Jose State, I was a graduate student in the English Department at the University of Virginia. It was a traditional program in the sense that all my courses were held in physical locations at specific times during the week. Despite all the hours I spent in the classroom, the most beneficial learning experiences rarely occurred in front of a blackboard or behind a computer terminal. No, the most innovative ideas, the most compelling discussions, and the most exploratory debates always took place in casual settings: a friend’s home, a local pub, or on a walk between campus buildings. The mind can discover some remarkable things when moved beyond the pressures of the classroom and the compulsion to perform. All it requires is space in which to play and other minds with which to engage. As students in an online program that favors asynchronous communication and lacks a physical, communal space, how can we recreate these experiences?

Online communities offer surrogate spaces for these interstitial moments by providing some of the benefits of physical information commons (or “information grounds” as they are sometimes called) , but in digital form: a shared space (the software or platform), a shared culture (interests, hobbies, or in our case, LIS studies), and a shared language (netiquette). Just as a physical campus has predefined pathways between buildings that can facilitate chance meetings and conversations, online communities provide various opportunities for serendipitous discovery through shared links, shared digital interfaces, and common connections (e.g. friends of friends). For example, when you enter Facebook, you first navigate past your news stream where you could encounter a classmate commenting on another SLIS student’s blog or a shared link relating to a current issue facing state librarians. This is analogous to entering the main lobby of a campus building or walking into a local coffee shop where you could easily meet another classmate.

We can encounter these communities anywhere online: social networks (Facebook), micro-blogging and life-streaming sites (Twitter, Friendfeed, Posterous), Q&A forums (Quora,  AskMetafilter, Radical Reference), blogs, wikis, and online periodicals. Each provides a unique, social atmosphere and knowing the difference between them can affect the quality of your experience interacting with its members. Facebook tends to be more casual and personal, while LinkedIn is more professional. Twitter generally focuses on current events and new knowledge, whereas Wikipedia tends to focus on the past and established knowledge. Friendfeed focuses on the conversations surrounding topics. Getting the most out of the communal experience requires knowing what users expect and what types of information they find valuable in that setting.

It is important for us as LIS students to build and enrich these communities, not only for our own professional development but for the benefit of the communities as well. While we cannot predict what the internet will look like in 20 years, the intellectual foundation we build today will determine its future. Moreover, as the internet becomes increasingly central to the everyday life information seeking habits of citizens around the world, we want to ensure that librarians as information professionals have a place in shaping its future landscape.

There are two challenges I have for you this semester as a SLIS student. The first: find your classmates beyond the digital classroom and start a conversation. Find them on Facebook, subscribe to their blogs, or follow them on Twitter. Don’t be shy. The internet lowers the barrier to entry and it is perfectly acceptable to seek out and connect to your classmates, especially if you do so honestly and professionally.

My  second challenge: start building a community. After you connect to one classmate, start connecting to others. Create groups on Facebook around shared topics of interest. Build bundled RSS feeds from library-related blogs and share them with other classmates. Find out where the conversations about librarianship are happening online, go there, participate, and bring your friends. If you cannot find a conversation that sparks your interest, create your own. As easy as it is to set up a blog or a personal website, there is no reason why anyone cannot build their own communal space online.

Once you have established your online community, you will immediately see the benefits. You will have the ability to stay engaged in real-time discussions about libraries and issues affecting librarians around the world; you will have access to a network of human resources that can be tapped for information at any time; and you will develop an ever-deepening understanding of how people interact and share information online. Granted, it requires significant effort on your part to participate in these communities and to surround yourself with more than just an echo-chamber to your own ideas and opinions, but given that there are thousands of librarians online every day, you should have no trouble finding diverse and even contrary viewpoints.

John M. Jackson is in his final year at SJSU SLIS. He is a lapsed humanities grad student who lives in Hermosa Beach, CA and works as a cataloging supervisor at the University of Southern California. He blogs at and you can find him on Twitter as “johnxlibris”.