I’m not on LinkedIn, for a couple of reasons. One of those is that I don’t find my community there. Social professional networks are productivity tools to manage weak networks. My experience is that you can do that yourself with a decent memory and an address book, and avoid the commercial cruft. Last week was a good example of how my weak network works.

I differentiate between weak and strong networks in the same way that people distinguish between friends and acquaintances. The first time I heard about Dunbar’s number was in Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point. Its application to social media resonates with me. At some point the number of people you follow or by whom you’re followed becomes too great to actually interact with any longer.

Dunbar’s number is 150. I’ve also seen suggestions that your strongest network maxes out at about 5 connections (great graphic at that link), and so the space beyond that up to 150 gets increasingly weak. Beyond that – the LinkedIn 500+ space – are the people who you might not even connect with if it weren’t for the social media platform you use.

Last week was interesting because, out of the blue, there were a lot of opportunities to flex my own weak network. It was old school and made me think of some of the skills a new law librarian might need to do the same thing. It’s not magic; it’s courage.

Monday

The previous week, I’d read about a courthouse law library in Ohio acquiring childrens’ books for their self-represented researchers who brought children with them. Vanessa Seeger, Hamilton County’s outreach librarian, responded and clued me in to their source for the idea: Harris County, Texas.

I don’t know Vanessa, although I worked at that library. I also don’t really know Joe Lawson either, a Hoosier transplanted to “a whole other country” and is deputy director at Harris County. He and I have interacted once or twice and he’s always been gracious, since I’m pretty sure I’m always asking him for help. When you are connected, even as superficially as I am sometimes, to a professional world, you see names go by.

I had to scrounge around for an email address for Joe but then poked him for more details. His response was a helpful email and a link to a blog post his library had written describing the process. I was so grateful to Vanessa and Joe for making time to answer my emails, which led to this blog post. I’ll remember that help when they – or another law library colleague – taps me for input.

About half of the emails I send to law librarians get a response. I’ll remember next time that I could have saved myself a couple of minutes checking AALL’s member directory for an email address. I prefer email for most communications because no-one feels put on the spot and they can (and do) ignore it if they want.

Tuesday

Have you ever wondered why you can see what e-books you have checked out from your public library in the Overdrive interface, but not in your circulation account? I was thinking about this over a couple of days. Other than visiting every integrated library system provider – Sirsi Dynix, Innovative, Ex Libris, Aleph, etc. – to see what they offered, I figured there had to be a better way.

I recalled Marshall Breeding, who keeps a web site about library technology and a survey of what ILS libraries use. I don’t know Marshall. But I found his web site and I shot him an email.

In summary: Do any ILS vendors support connections, say through APIs, to e-book providers so that circulation modules can reflect both owned and licensed book borrowing to the patron?

You never know with people who are as well known as Marshall. I once got an email back from someone who was beyond “library famous” telling me what a stupid idea I’d had! Haha. But Marshall graciously replied to clarify my question and then to give me enough information so I could dig in further.

Wednesday

Not all network traffic is outbound. Today I had a call from someone I haven’t spoken to in months. And “spoken” meaning exchanged emails about a library topic of mutual interest. But they were going to be in town and wanted to get together for coffee.

Coffee is my favorite networking tool after email. It’s low cost with lots of options. It’s a public space that removes hierarchy. If you ask someone to join you, it’s not bank-breaking to pay. A coffee connection usually means a slightly stronger network connection, if only because there is that opportunity for face-to-face connections.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to meet up. I actually like the idea of short-notice connections, because it’s reflective of the obligations of both ends of the connection. A weak connection lowers expectations; if it works out, great. If not, no sweat.

Thursday

A courthouse law librarian colleague emailed me with a request. Not a research or operational request, but one of those colleague-of-a-colleague requests. It’s a good example of how two nodes in a network that are not really connected can become connected.

In fact, this librarian and I have interacted probably 3 or 4 times in the past decade. We’re beyond name and face recognition but not much! There are some people you just get a good feeling for, and are happy to pass favors back and forth. I agreed to help out – the deadline was the next day – and moved on with my day.

A law library often assesses whether it is a net borrower or net lender when it comes to document delivery or ILL. In a network environment, I am happy to be a net favor giver than favor asker. It’s no skin off my nose to help someone who is willing to ask, whether it’s to have coffee with a new law librarian or to have my brain picked about library operations by a peer.

I had an email from another colleague who was going to be in town. This time I had the availability. We had not interacted for about 5 years, so it was a good chance to catch up on where we were in our careers. I’d actually kept up on their career moves, since they’d been in courthouse law libraries as well.

At the end of our meeting, and because of a project that had been mentioned, I offered to make a connection to another law librarian. This person has incredibly deep expertise but from a different country and so might not have been on the radar of someone in Canada.

Friday

I was recovering from a bit too much sugar from Halloween, the night before. It’d been a bit of a victory lap, as the foam knight’s costume with wooden sword that I’d created had been used with success. My percentage of the knight’s take was more than acceptable.

Happy Halloween! EVA foam knight costume

But duty calls. I wrote up the information my courthouse law librarian colleague needed. As I was doing so, I realized that I wasn’t the only person who could contribute. But the person who’d asked me didn’t know the person of whom I was thinking.

So I reached out to the law librarian I knew, and asked for their help as well. This connected my courthouse colleague and an academic law librarian, for their own network connection. Whether either of them maintain that connection in the future isn’t any of my business. But it’s nice to help out a colleague.

Courage for Our Friends

One thing I’ve found consistently working in the law library world is the willingness of people who work in this world to help. It’s not universal. People are busy, people may view you as an outsider, people may have other reasons for not helping. But it’s often as easy as asking to get help.

Early on in my career, I may have been more cautious about asking people who I didn’t know a question. Often it’s not even for help beyond sharing a bit of expertise. Some people don’t want to share what they know, but I find most librarians do. It’s almost a DNA thing.

It’s easy to say “you won’t know if you don’t ask.” It’s true but even creating a weak network connection is a relationship building step. And a relationship requires both parties to be a bit vulnerable. I was a little hurt by that email telling me my idea was stupid. It’s made me mindful to watch how I respond, when someone respects me enough to ask for my input.

There’s risk. But I think it’s mostly a feeling, one which through practice I’ve slowly gotten over. A social network doesn’t necessarily help you create the weak network you need for professional and personal development. In some ways, I think it can inhibit you from making connections because you have to invest time in a platform, rather than in the broader world of like minded professionals.