Using Social Media in a Major Library System

@Kevin | Strategy

Since the launch of this site I have wanted to interview people that are using social media in an interesting way. Not the same social media people that other social media people interview over and over but people that are applying technology and strategy in their day to day jobs. This week I have Emily Clasper whom I have known since I was four and faces the challenges of deploying social media at work. Emily is the  Systems Operations Manager for a large public library consortium in New York State. When she is not contemplating the possibilities for social media in libraries, she is usually stirring up trouble amongst her fellow librarians.

Here are five questions with Emily:

1) One of the most powerful things about social media is the concept of making collaboration and information easier to share. On an organizational level you have done some interesting things with tools to accomplish this, can you share what you have done?

Libraries are really all about organizing information and making it available to people, so we really find social media tools to be a natural fit. Our whole business is about connecting people with information, which is what social media is really all about. More and more, we’re finding that social media tools are really ideal for reaching out to our communities, engaging them, and providing them with the information that they need in a very accessible way.

In my particular position, I have to provide training for and communication between 48 libraries, so I find an added level of benefit in engaging in social media in order to provide the staff in our member libraries with the information that they need to better serve their communities. Our organization has recently developed a community portal for our member libraries, where they can get and exchange information via a number of social media components.

We’ve also recently instituted a system notification system using Twitter updates that have been strategically embedded into the online resources the library staff already use, such as the staff online catalog. So far, this has been very successful in facilitating communication between our central site and the member libraries in a way that is very flexible to the needs of the individual library, or even the individual staff member.

2) As someone working in the library system you have been tracking what other institutions are doing. What are some examples of social media deployment that you have been really impressed by?

I have been really impressed by the way that many libraries out there are using social media to engage their communities in a way that enhances the resources they have to offer. For instance, there are a number of libraries who have used Wikis, Flickr, or Blogs to publish historical photos and ask the community to help identify people, places, or events pictured. Efforts like those can really create a collaborative relationship between the library and the community they serve, while adding to the information libraries have to offer. Projects like these (and there are many more examples I could cite) really position the library as a facilitator for content creation, which I find really exciting.

I also love the efforts I see many libraries making to reach out and engage their patrons on the patron’s own terms. Libraries are answering questions for people via IM, SMS, Twitter, email, you name it – whatever mode of communication the patron is comfortable with and has integrated into other aspects of their lives. This is not to say that the libraries providing these services are ignoring the needs of their non tech-savvy patrons – they are just widening the net to accommodate the information needs of a larger cross section of their communities. This can only be a good thing.

3) What are some of the difficulties about trying to deploy social media in an industry that has continually straddled a line between old media and embracing (albeit usually a little later) newer forms of media?

Libraries definitely have a number of hurdles to overcome in deploying social media efforts. One major one, which is a huge hurdle in just about everything we do, is a lack of funding. Staff find themselves spread so thin in a library situation that it is very hard for them to find the time to really cultivate the social media efforts they’d like to engage in. The major investment most social media efforts require is a time investment, which is not easy for libraries with limited staffing and budgets that are already stretched way too thin.

I also see most libraries tackling social media in a very disjointed way, which leads to a whole lot of disparate parts that aren’t really joined together. It’s great that your library has a couple of  blogs, a wiki, a Twitter account, Delicious links, a mobile site, IM reference, and social bookmarking on your Web site, but how does that all fit together to further the overall mission of your institution? How do you integrate all of these components to create a really cohesive community information resource? I think we’re starting to see this question coming to the forefront more and more. Our institution is trying to address this by providing our member libraries with an information portal based on a hub-and-spoke model, where all of the resources we offer to library staff are brought together in a very useable way. Easier said than done, though.

But the biggest hurdle I see in the libraries is a real manifestation of a digital divide among staff. In my position, where I deal with a real cross-section of information professionals, I see a widening gap between librarians who use social media and related technologies and those who do not. It is not unusual for me to field a call from an enthusiastic librarian who wants to brainstorm ideas for integrating social media components in really unique ways… and the next call is from someone completely overwhelmed by social media because they often don’t have the background or experience necessary to take those next steps into the world of social media. This causes a lot of tension in our profession, and is something that many of us struggle with every day.

The interesting part, though, is that I think this is a knowledge divide that is reflected in our communities as well. We have patrons who understand and use social media and want more, but we also must meet the needs of those who have no idea what we’re talking about. I really think of it as an emerging literacy issue. Libraries have forever engaged in literacy efforts – not only providing the books, but also providing help and expertise in accessing and using the information within those resources. Now instead of books, we have a vital role in assisting our patrons not only by providing the tools for accessing social media resources, but also expertise in learning to use them effectively. But that’s hard to do when we are struggling with the same issues ourselves.

I think that in the end we need to do a lot of work towards combating the fear many librarians have about social media and in some cases, technology in general. We need to cultivate a culture of excitement where our staff feel free to experiment, take risks, and play with these new tools, and be imaginative about how they can be used to further the missions of our profession. We need to create a collaborative environment where our staff open themselves up to the contributions of others and welcome the community as potential collaborators as well. It’s a real philosophical and cultural shift for some, which is why it will come neither easily nor quickly. But I’m very optimistic.

4) Ultimately where do you see social media going in regards to library systems and how libraries interact with each other and how they interact with the public?

Social media is here to stay when it comes to libraries. In fact, I think we have such a natural partnership, that it wouldn’t surprise me at all if social media eventually became a real central part of the way in which we engage with our communities, one another, and with the information we provide access to.

There is already a thriving online community of librarians who regularly use various social media tools to communicate with one another, which is something I have come to see as an invaluable professional tool. The more we can encourage librarians to explore social media as a way to engage in these sorts of communities, the better.

When it comes to the public, I can really see ourselves taking a more active role in promoting collaboration and content creation by and with our patrons. I also think that we have an invaluable role in promoting social media and information literacy within our communities, not only providing the public with the computers and software to access information, collaborate, and communicate, but also assisting them to become more knowledgeable about how to use these resources in an effective and safe way.

5) Here is just a for fun question: What is one of your favorite social media tools to use professionally or personally?

I think my favorite social media tool these days is Twitter. When I first tried using it in 2007, I really didn’t get the appeal and dropped out after a short time. Now, I am an addict. I think the difference is that I now approach Twitter as a tool that I can use to a particular professional purpose, rather than as just something to type random thoughts into (although I still do that, too). For me, I have an almost exclusively professional network on Twitter, and I use it to throw out ideas about libraries… and see what responses I get. Sort of an open forum for brainstorming. And it works wonders to come up with new ideas for training, using social media tools, even answering the little questions that cross my mind during the day. Plus, it’s a great way to get a bunch of folks together for coffee at short notice.

You can read Emily’s blog at Library Revolutions and follow her on Twitter here.