Monthly Archives: August 2009

Libraries and Social Media

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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.