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Before social media, there was Pamela O’Donnell

September 13, 2011 By Stacy Forster

Academic librarian Pam O’Donnell

Photo: Jeff Miller

Pamela O’Donnell has transformed what could have been an out-of-the-way bulletin board on the first floor of College Library into an essential stop for many of the library’s thousands of visitors each year.

Since 2005, O’Donnell, an academic librarian in College Library, has been the voice of the library in Helen C. White Hall, responding to students’ comments, concerns and suggestions for the library.

Her responses are pithy yet graceful, humorous yet gentle, packed with personality and delivered in handwriting so neat and distinctive one commenter said it should be turned into a computer font.

(Text transcript of these comment cards.)

The interaction gives students a sense of ownership in the library while giving her an opportunity to interact with students. O’Donnell also manages the College Library Facebook page and Twitter account. But even with the rise of social media, the bulletin board, which receives about 120 comments a year, will continue, O’Donnell says.

“There’s something nice about the tangible, too,” she says. “Tweets are great but they’re ephemeral and if you miss them, they’re gone. “

O’Donnell talked with Inside UW–Madison about the comment board and how she approaches her responses.

Inside UW–Madison: How did the board get started?
Pamela O’Donnell: I first started with the comment/suggestion board before all of the social media. Before we had Twitter and Facebook, this was our way of creating dialogue with the students. They’d make a comment, and often times you’d write a response and they’d write a note on the card and follow up on it. It was an interesting way to develop a relationship. I feel a lot of responsibility to make sure I’m entertaining. Students really like the fact they can make a comment, it’s acknowledged, we hear them and even if we can’t put in an electrical outlet every foot of the library, they understand our wish to accommodate them. It’s their chance to express themselves and have a little fun.

IUW: Most people think of a library as a serious place.
O’Donnell: College Library does have a reputation for being more of a social library, so we do try to make the transition to college learning as painless as possible. There are libraries on campus that are definitely more serious but we have a very liberal food policy, we’re open 24/5 during the academic year, so in the midnight hours, people need to vent a little bit. I often come in in the morning, check the box and think, “It must have been an interesting night here.”

IUW: What approach do you take in responding to questions and comments?
O’Donnell: The thought was that the voice of Helen C. would be accessible — I would say almost snarky but not in any way that would make people feel bad, but enough to be slightly funny with a tinge of irony. That’s the goal: not to be terribly earnest but very approachable.

If they’re being funny — asking “How strong is a monkey?” — that gives you a chance to be a little more funny. If someone has a heartfelt issue about accessibility or something that went wrong — it’s way to also complain — we take it very seriously, we encourage people to leave a name and we follow up with a private response.

IUW: What types of questions do you enjoy most?
O’Donnell: I’m game for pretty much everything. I like the cards where I can do a little bit of teaching, so that it can inform the students but in an entertaining way. People remember information that amuses them as they ingest it. It’s nice to be able to do that in a lighthearted way. Those are my most favorite cards.

It’s fun when you’re able to facilitate a little bit of discussion on semi controversial topics. I always enjoy those when I get one that I think, “This will really engage people.”

Then there’s a whole subgroup of people who are like, who are you? I try to play up this whole era of mystery. I’ll occasionally get a card that says, “I saw you checking the box.” I feel like I have this persona and I like having a secret identity — it gives me a little more freedom.

IUW: It seems like electrical outlets are a big issue for commenters.
O’Donnell: There’s nothing more I can say about electrical outlets. The library has added hundreds over the years, but there never seem to be enough. I always think if we could figure out a way to have wireless electricity that would be perfect.

IUW: What’s the all-time favorite comment or suggestion you’ve received?


Tags: libraries