The case for libraries’ use of social media: a how-to

Alyson Tyler is the Libraries Development Adviser in CyMAL, the museums, archives and libraries division of the Welsh Government. She has a doctorate in library and information studies from the Aberystwyth University, and occasionally conducts small pieces of research in her job. Working with external colleagues who lead on the marketing programme for libraries in Wales, she created a survey to assess the current situation with Web 2.0 in libraries. This has helped inform social media strategies for marketing, communications and workforce development in Wales.

A recent report based on a survey of librarians in Wales revealed interesting sector differences in relation to access to, and creation of, social media/networking technologies. Wales is small enough to be able to survey the academic and public libraries in one go, and as a result the findings are illuminating for revealing differences and similarities.

Most respondents saw this area as vital:

“This is a huge trend which we are missing out on and puts us back to where we started from with regards to our image and reputation.”

“We will get left behind and been seen as old fashioned and out of touch if we don’t make use of the available technology.”

But are all libraries in the same position? One of the key findings is that there is a difference between what higher education (HE) libraries can do on/with social networking, and what further education (FE) and public libraries can do. Without exception, the HE library staff do not face barriers in accessing social networking tools as creators or end-users and neither do their customers face any barriers. In contrast, FE colleges tend to restrict the type of social networking possible on the library computers (mainly to keep computers free for studying). Similarly, in public libraries at the time of the survey, about 50% of the respondents faced barriers in accessing social networking tools, for themselves as staff and also for users. (Restrictions for users were mainly based on age restrictions.) Often the decision to block access was not a library one, but a generic corporate IT one. Yet what annoyed librarians was that there may be a ‘corporate’ presence but they weren’t allowed to provide access in the library:

“It advertises some things on Facebook, but these can’t be accessed in the library.” [Public library]

(As an aside, the Society of Chief Librarians Wales are currently conducting their own internal survey of access to social media to update the findings from last year. Early indications are that slightly more do now have access to social media sites.)

I’m not going to discuss the problems of generic blocking of access, as it’s been done comprehensively elsewhere. There is a lot of enthusiasm among librarians across all sectors in Wales to become content creators, to advance their social networking skills and to use these skills for marketing and communication purpose to support the library service. One respondent to the survey gave this list of what they wanted to do if they had access:

“Interactive library pages e.g. catalogue gadgets for the desktop, Facebook groups interlinked with twitter, IM – ask a librarian as an enquiry tool, blogging software for current awareness”

But what can enthusiastic librarians do if they want to communicate with their audiences and potential users in an online medium but are currently unable to do so?

The first thing librarians can do is see if their organisation has a social media/networking policy and if it does, investigate if there is a method for seeking approval for having a social networking presence. After being inspired to try blogging and micro-blogging by various speakers during a string of conferences I did this for my workplace and put together the business case they required. Permission was sought and given for a blog and for a Twitter account – which I had actually had clandestinely for a year through not mentioning my workplace in my profile.

Because I know many librarians and library services in Wales are frustrated at the lack of access to social media websites I decided adapt my personal business case into a generic template that can be edited by any librarian in any sector for their own workplace. It is available here.

If you are seeking approval for a social media presence, some of the important things to consider are:

  • The aim(s) of your presence (be it a blog, a social networking site like Facebook, sharing photos etc)
  • How the site/tool will enable you to achieve those aims
  • What audience you will be targeting
  • How you will evaluate the presence
  • Resource implications (although low-cost there is a time and skill requirement)
  • Managing potential risks
  • How it fits into your library service/larger organisation’s general communications and marketing plans.

As one respondent said:

“Having good quality content is essential. There is no point having a blog just for the sake of it; it must have a purpose and an audience.”

Different social media tools do different things, and appeal to different people. If you want to engage with teenagers, you need to decide which is the most appropriate medium (where are they hanging out online?). Phil Bradley has just written three blog posts musing on different social networks and which one are useful for librarians, depending on what you like or want to do.

In Wales an additional consideration is the language and several public library services in Wales have bilingual Facebook pages (see Cardiff Central Library, Carmarthenshire and Gwynedd).

Despite all the whizzy technologies these tools are ultimately just communication channels. My Twitter account (@libalyson) was called “chatter for anoraks” by a very senior colleague in his regular staff bulletin. He reassured me this was a compliment. You may not see your online audience as anoraks but these tools are just different ways for you to talk to your customers. And hopefully nobody wants to ban talking.