Libraries and Social Media

I’m all for social media, don’t get me wrong. Very much. I’m a big fan of and an advocate for things like Twitter and blogs and IM and all that. I follow social media I use social media, I recommend social media to others. However.

I don’t really understand the libraries and social media stuff. I just haven’t seen any compelling reasons why libraries should be all up in the social media, other than it makes us look “with it”.

Here’s why I don’t get it: social media has a pretty broad reach geographically, and allows you to connect to people who use that particular brand of social media. So you can reach, say, lots of people who use Facebook or Twitter (or LinkedIn, or whatever), but there’s no particular reason to presume that those people are your users. Also: does anyone actually like it when companies/institutions use social media for marketing? I certainly don’t. The moment I feel like they’re trying to sell me something I stop following them. I like to follow individuals who have particular professional passions; not institutions who have a corporate agenda. I’m not interested in mixing PR in my authentic social media experiences.

Why do want in on social media so much?

If you can find a way to use social media to narrowcast to your users, even the ones who don’t use that brand of social media, then I think you have a winner. Using technology to engage within your physical/community space with your actual patrons rather than blindly broadcasting to the universe seems like a better use of time and resources. RSS is good this way: being able to push information into other digital spaces that serve your community is invaluable. Having a two-way interaction with your patrons in places other than the digital spaces owned by the library is great too. (From an academic library perspective: IM reference inside courseware, on departmental websites, etc.) Moving your digital presence around, being flexible enough to constantly update all sorts of spaces: useful. This is also where social media meets ubiquitous computing; you shouldn’t require your users to a) find you on their spare time, or b) be as tech savvy as you are. If you can move that same information and interactivity into the physical spaces where your patrons are using social media, that narrowcast is always worth the time and effort.

The research is increasingly showing that it’s people over 25 who make the best use of social media tools; if your audience is 35-45 with no fixed geographic location, Twitter might be a good tool for you. As I recall, there’s already plenty of evidence to suggest that no one wants to add institutions or libraries to their friends list on Facebook, unless they are offering a particularly useful service. People use Facebook to connect with their friends; I think it’s only librarians who are interested in libraries on Facebook. Study groups on Facebook? Sure! If the library were facilitating study groups, then sure, maybe that would serve a good purpose for people who are open to sharing their facebook profiles with their classmates, TAs and instructors. (Is this even a good idea? Are we being responsible when we encourage students to use their personal social media venues for professional/academic activities? Is there a level of information literacy we should be applying and teaching by our own use of social media as professionals? Should we be encouraging them to compromise their privacy in this way?)

Of course I say that as someone who IS using social media for her library, but not in the traditional sense. We’re going to be using Twitter for announcements and news of all varieties. But I’m not going to judge success or failure by how many people follow the account. In fact, as soon as the developer gives me an RSS parser that publishes Twitter feeds properly, the announcements won’t even indicate that they are coming from Twitter. They are designed to show up on the library’s website, which requires no Twitter id or knowledge of Twitter in the slightest, and on the library’s digital signage, which everyone can see the moment they walk into the building. We are not interested in broadcasting our news to the world, though if anyone wants to follow us that way, that’s fine. We will not be RTing, we will not be @replying. The real purpose is to narrowcast to the people who actually need to know what we’re saying in the simplest possible way, without requiring any participation in that particular application. During our last demo to the library staff (our website officially goes live on Monday), our associate chief librarian posted to the twitter account from his Blackberry, demonstrating how easy it will be for us to make quick announcements to the students in our building, even when not in front of a computer.

This is “social media”, but it’s sucked all the “social” of it. I’ve been a bit sheepish about this idea, mostly because I know that as someone who respects and participates in social media, I’m using the technology in ways that removes the interactivity. But this is the only way I can see it being genuinely useful, both to us and to our users. I don’t want to encourage them to use Twitter or Facebook or even AIM or Skype or anything else just because we’re using them. We need to get beyond the locked gardens and focus more on the quality of the communication rather than the branded playground its happening within.

I don’t know that I’ve seen social media yet that I think would make sense for institutions like libraries. Broadcast, yes: interactive…I just don’t know. You can have a Facebook page that everyone (including all the staff) will ignore; you can set up a Twitter account and encourage sharing and conversation with whatever patrons find you, but what happens if you actually get all you patrons asking you questions this way? It’s unsustainable. It’s largely invisible to the real workings of the library.

I’m looking for ways to integrate the business of the library into social media in a way that is inclusive, useful, and sustainable. Social media’s current focus is on individuals with passions communicating with other individuals with passions. It’s great; it’s just not always the right answer for libraries.

14 thoughts on “Libraries and Social Media”

  1. I personally enjoy when companies or non-profits use social media for marketing. I won 2 tickets to the Mozart Festival (a non-profit org here in Burlington, VT) on Twitter, and I also won a $50 gift certificate on Facebook to a local restaurant. I’m a fan of Mashable on Facebook and I get their latest updates in my FB feed.

    There are things I’m passionate about besides only my friends on Social Media and I can be selective about who I choose to “fan” or “follow.” I am sure there are people who are passionate about libraries as well and would want updates from them.

    I think there are fun and engaging ways that libraries and librarians can use social media to engage patrons and increase usage. Like this example of me doing prescient reference via Twitter.

    I’m not saying that we should blindly jump on Social Media because it is the new, cool thing. I think you’re spot on in your last sentence about building something “inclusive, useful, and sustainable.” We should always examine if what we are doing is actually serving our users (as opposed to ourselves). But there’s a lot of potential for libraries in these new social tools.

  2. I think there is a profound difference between what we choose to use and how we justify that set of choices. what we recommend our friends and associates to use and how we justify that, and finally what we recommend to be used as an institution and how that is justified. I don’t think much of the common sense modes of justification that work amongst friends or personally translate to institutions and I do not think that what we use institutionally is necessarily going to translate back to what people use everyday. So the argument that ‘our users use twitter’ as a justification for an institution to use twitter is just a poor justification. The question at the heart is… ‘how do our library users want to communicate with the library?’ and that is not the same as ‘how do i want to communicate with my friends and colleagues?’. Honestly, I wouldn’t recommend twitter to any institution currently, for a wide variety of reasons. However, i might recommend the institution appointing people to watch and respond to certain discussions on twitter as part of their professional use. The two are different recommendations though and they are justified differently.

  3. Andy: your twitter reference example is interesting, but it’s bound to be pretty hit and miss. How do you find users who are at your school? What about the ones who don’t identify themselves that way? How long does it take, weekly, to ensure that you’ve found any new members of your community on Twitter in order to intervene and answer questions/solve problems? Do you also monitor facebook, myspace, blogs?

    I get where you’re going, but I think the way to be truly effective that way is to actually have a class using something like twitter to interact around readings and lectures, and then deliberately monitor that. You’d probably need an institutional twitter clone to do it, but it could be done. The method is good, but in the long run, twitter isn’t capturing much of your community and your ability to respond to their questions is hit and miss. You’re merely giving preference to the people who prefer your favourite social networking tool.

    Additionally: what would you do if something tweeted about cheating? Would you alert the instructor? Or what about a tweet about lying to get an extension? Your knowledge of who they are alters the nature of their ability to remain private: they might not be displaying their location anymore. At what point do you become a sort of spy for the institution, preying on social networks to make sure everyone is toeing the company line?

    I’d rather demonstrate good practice by having an obvious and deliberate professional voice and leave the personal to the personal.

    It would be nice if it were easier to get separate instances of some of these applications to embed and enmesh with existing institutional tools.

  4. If you won’t be replying to your followers, then why use Twitter at all? Your library and your users would be better served by an RSS feed than a Twitter account.

    It sounds snarky (even though I don’t mean it that way) but the operative word in the phrase “social media” is social. That means communication, not broadcasting/narrowcasting. MPOW uses Twitter more than any other social media outlet, and we try to respond to each and every @reply we get, regardless of whether they come from one of our regular users or not. By being willing to engage in these conversations, we are finding that we are reaching people who don’t regularly use the library or those who only use it to check out materials for their children. Because we were willing to have these conversations, our followers are more willing to help us promote events or services by re-tweeting them.

    If you only view social media as an alternative marketing channel for your library, I think you may be missing out on what makes using social media in libraries so rewarding. If you haven’t, look at companies who are doing this well and try to model your plans after theirs. Just like in the real world, you have to make use of those social graces in social media if you want people to become your advocates.

    (Pardon any typos: I’m typing this from my iPhone.)

    1. It’s interesting: twitter was actually designed to be a broadcast medium: the @reply and the RT were both generated by users. Twitter is broadcast in the same way that blogs are broadcast. Twitter is probably one of the least efficient “conversational” social media on the internet. Friendfeed and facebook is far better at that, what with the direct and organized comments. Twitter is designed for broadcast/narrowcast. It handles that task very well.

      As I’ve said, I’m not so sure about the place of libraries in social media in the long term, though I’m sure it’s got some fun elements right now. I don’t know that those are sustainable, but they’re fun and interesting.

      We’re using Twitter because it’s free, it’s easy to feed into the website, and I can get multiple staff to update it from their blackberries. We’re not using the application the way people think we should, but the majority doesn’t get to dictate how the individual employs any medium, I shouldn’t think.

      Our users are not in the age bracket that users Twitter. I have never seen Twitter on any of our library computers; facebook, yes, but not Twitter. I don’t want to exclude any of our users by insisting that they participate in Twitter via the application. That would be a profoundly poor use of our resources.

      Should users actually attempt to communicate with us via Twitter, we would certainly respond, though not with an @reply. I have not indicated any unwillingness to do so, only that I do not expect that it will happen, and we won’t be measuring success in that way. But we have established far easier and less public ways to communicate with us directly and immediately, so I don’t anticipate that Twitter will be many people’s first choice means of communication with us. Our library is heavily used; we have to watch that we don’t go over our fire capacity on a regular basis. Putting lots of energy into Twitter as a global community isn’t as efficient as using all the tools we have available to us to communicate within our own building.

      I’d love to see some research on the power and success of libraries and social media. What I’ve read and heard so far is that a) institutional blogs are often abandoned, and b) institutional presence on social media apps like facebook are resented and ignored. We have a Facebook page; most of the people who are “fans” are staff.

      I think there is quite a stark difference between a public library and an academic library in this arena, however: our population is fairly restricted, and given that the library is the #1 study location on campus, most of our population end up within our walls. It’s more important to us to ratchet up that communication rather than to seek out new populations that don’t employ our services.

  5. Why assume that patrons are the only audience?

    MPOW’s Twitter feed has attracted a lot of good buzz from local media. That’s awesome. But the real use has been to put us front and center among other branches of our own institution using Twitter. The alumni association. The communications arm. Provosts and deans on down.

    We couldn’t BUY that kind of awareness or attention before. We certainly weren’t expecting it… but wow, it’s an unbelievable win for relatively minimal investment.

  6. I’ll note that RSS isn’t that widespread or easy to use outside our techie circles. I was surprised to learn that of about 60 librarians subscribing to our blog, the overwhelming majority of them preferred the email updates via Feedburner to RSS. And this is in Silicon Valley.

  7. “Twitter is probably one of the least efficient “conversational” social media on the internet.”

    I see your point, but actually I disagree with you here. Conversation by posting tweets happens all the time, and many people use twitter in exactly this way. Sure, the posts are broadcast and then archived as a person’s twitterstream, but they are still very much short written contributions to a conversation, not discreet announcements. Twitterstream preservation was never the raison d’etre of these conversational tweets, only a by-product of the conversation to which they belonged (and for this reason they frequently don’t make any sense in their archived format, since you’re usually only seeing a part of the conversation).

    Like you, I happen to prefer Facebook (or — groundbreaking concept here — plain old fashioned e-mail and phonecalls) for this type of conversation, but this type of conversation can still be very much a part of Twitter.

    Beyond that, I do agree that institutional Facebook pages are not worth it, but that should never preclude an individual librarian from using Facebook. I’m on FB every day for professional purposses — discussing research and ideas with colleagues, and following up on news items from within the librarian community. Regularly I receive friend requests from other librarians from out of the blue. I’ve built up an extensive network of colleagues around the world this way (and no, I don’t just accept a request and think ‘yay, great, I’m done.’ I do interact with them). In fact, my professional activities in Facebook far outweigh any use I’ve ever gotten from LinkedIn, even though LinkedIn is supposed to be ‘professional’ and Facebook is supposed to be ‘fun.’

    Sometime somewhere I would be interested in seeing a library experiment with having an individual librarian set up a FB profile for outreach and promotion purposes on behalf of the library — in other words have an individual fill the role typically assigned to an institutional page. Institutional pages are faceless, but an individual person’s profile has a face and personality. I’m curious if that would make a difference in generating patron interest in connecting to the librarian (my guess is it would depend on how much leeway the librarian had to infuse personality into the profile. And of course university policies addressing the rules of student-faculty interaction would come into play as well. But it’s an idea). If any of you have experimented with an individual profile of this nature, I would love to hear about your experiences with it.

    1. Just because conversations break out on Twitter doesn’t mean they hare particularly good at “conversation”. Twitter is really no more conversational than blogs are. You can always write a blog post responding to one you read, that’s pretty much how conversational it gets. Friendfeed and Facebook are far more conversational, meaning that conversation is well-supported by the application. Conversations occur on Twitter IN SPITE of conversation not being well supported by it.

      I agree with you, there is a WORLD of difference between the Library being involved in social media and LIBRARIANS being involved in social media. I sure am, as a librarian! I love talking shop on all kinds of social media. But I don’t do it as a library. I do that as an individual with interests. That’s quite different.

      I agree with you that it would be an interesting experiment to have someone working in those media as themselves first, but with official purpose. I wonder how that would go. It might not be really authentic enough.

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