Schoch and Shooshan examine use statistics for the listserv MEDLIB-L to determine both how the listserv is being used and who is most often using it. According to the authors (and as of the mid- to late-1990s, when the article was written), electronic communications are quickly becoming an important means for individuals to communicate across social, economic, and geographical boundaries (among others). Listservs provide an advantage over traditional email communications in that they allow for rapid dissemination of messages to a wide range of individuals (often with a specific topical focus), creating the potential for conversations among groups rather than the one-to-one interactions provided by email. The authors compare participation in listservs to attending “traditional conferences”, where participants are able to benefit from discussing ideas, asking questions of experts, answering questions, and staying current in their field. However, potential issues with verifying the competence of participants and the large number of incoming messages.
MEDLIB-L is a listserv for health information specialists, managed by the Medical Library Association. A random sample of MEDLIB-L subscribers were asked to respond to a survey that would illuminate who was using the listserv (with questions concerning “organizational affiliation, primary occupation, number of professional staff at the institution, years of experience, and country of employment”) and how (with questions concerning how long individuals had subscribed to MEDLIB-L, how much time they spent on the listserv, and what activities they participated in).
Results showed that the majority of subscribers were from academic institutions with large staffs in the United States. A majority had subscribed to the listserv for more than a year (indicating their perceived value), but many had used a feature that would halt email delivery of messages (indicating a potential problem with the large number of messages per day – an average of 50/weekday in 1995). Most subscribers reported reading more than 40% of the messages, but less than 20% reported reading all of the messages, further supporting an abundance of material that was not valued. Most subscribers rarely actively participated (i.e. posted directly to the site), and most activities (posting questions, answering questions, discussing topics) were participated in equally often by those new to or experience in the field.
Some thoughts: I would be interested to see what has changed since 1995, as online communication has become more and more the “norm” for so many people. This article was interesting, but the authors seem to have some bold assumptions about how universally accessible online communication was (or even is today) – maybe I am too sensitive to those types of statements, but while listservs may seem to open the door to discussions among all the nooks and crannies of the world, and to break down a lot of barriers, there are still a lot of people who don’t have the funding, time, or know-how to benefit from an online forum. It is interesting that a large percentage of the respondents reported accessing the listserv from work – but what about those who don’t have that option? It would be interesting to me to also have studied those who do not participate in the listserv (or any others), to see how their methods compare (e.g., how “current” they are compared to those who subscribe to MEDLIB-L among others). Similarly, the article mentioned that most people reported spending 1-3 hours per week on MEDLIB-L, and also subscribing to 3-5 other listservs. If a similar amount of time is spent on each, a full work day (or more!) is spent online looking at listservs alone. The potential for wasted time is tremendous. One thing I definitely locked in to was the mention of how listservs can make it easier for younger or less experienced individuals, or those from less prestigious institutions, to gain access to the “invisible college” within their field. I feel like that is a tremendous benefit that shouldn’t be undervalued. Being able to participate in conversations that you would otherwise have been excluded from is a big perk.
Schoch NA, Shooshan SE. Communication on a listserv for health information professionals: uses and users of MEDLIB-L. Bull Med Libr Assoc. 1997; 85(1): 23-32.