Wednesday, April 29, 2009

On Abraham Verghese and Facebook

I was fortunate enough to meet Abraham Verghese during the last year of my creative writing MFA at Texas State. Verghese gave two readings, one an excerpt from his excellent memoir The Tennis Partner, the other a selection from the novel he was in the process of completing, which turned out to be the recently-released Cutting for Stone. Verghese was what several of the MFA faculty referred to, in great admiration, as a "writer's writer," but I think what fascinated many of the creative writing students was Verghese's background as a doctor. At the time, Verghese was the director of the Center for Medical Ethics at the University of Texas Medical Branch in San Antonio, TX, and many of my peers--who were struggling to teach two sections of freshman composition a semester while endlessly revising our master's theses--were fascinated that Verghese could so successfully balance his writing with his duties as an educator and a practicing physician. His answer referred to a concept he called "pockets of time," which really boiled down to was setting out what you needed to do and then doing it. It was impossible to come away from those encounters with him and not feel inspired.

Late last week, I learned (via KevinMD) that Verghese--and his employer Stanford University--is using Facebook to hold online "open office hours," soliciting student questions and providing (as always) thoughtful, detailed answers. But what really struck me was the fact that users were actively participating in the process, writing lengthy questions about a wide variety of medical topics, continuing the conversation. This enterprise got me thinking about how academic libraries are using (or at least, attempting to use) Facebook and other social networking sites to reach out to their students. It's one thing to have a presence, but as many librarians know, it's quite another to have your target users actively engaged with that presence. Frankly, those academic libraries that do have Facebook pages are lucky if we can persuade our students to "friend" or "fan" us. In all likelihood, that's about the extent of our users' involvement.

Are Abraham Verghese's students impressed that he's on Facebook? Possibly. But it's also possible that they're grateful for the forum he's providing them. That's an important distinction, because I think that academic librarians tend to advocate for a social networking presence in order to impress their students, not to satisfy some crying need. I'm not saying that a crying need doesn't exist, nor that we should give up on Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, or any other popular social network as a means of marketing and advocating our services. But making our students grateful to have us there, as opposed to just being impressed, will take a concerted effort by librarians to reach people in the real world, as Dr. Verghese has done so successfully, not just in the digital one.

That's what we need to do. Why can't we just do it?