The Role of Social Media for Libraries, Part I

I first encountered Heather Backman while tweeting about my personal experience with the Howe Library. Heather is the Programming, Public Relations and Outreach Coordinator for Howe Library in Hanover, NH. She was hired by Howe in October 2010 and part of her job entails handling the library’s publicity and social media outreach activities. Prior to her arrival at Howe, she earned a B.A. and M.A. in English literature from Stanford University and a M.S. in Information from the University of Michigan. She blogs– and you should read it.

LG: I first encountered the @howelibrary Twitter account in response to my praise of the librarians’ handling a recent power outage. Do you engage with a lot of people via social media?

HB: I’m working on increasing our reach through social media channels. As I write this, we have 210 followers and follow 137 accounts on Twitter, and 142 likes and 47 check-ins on Facebook. We usually get a few clicks on the links we post, and a couple of times per month someone will retweet one of our tweets or like one of our Facebook posts.

What I would ultimately like to see is people treating our social media presence as another natural avenue of communication with us, like e-mail or phone. Right now, I instigate almost all of our social media interactions. I monitor local hashtags like #upval and #uppervalley, and I have a variety of searches set up for tweets that mention relevant terms and that are posted by people close to Hanover. If a tweet comes up for any of these searches and I think the library could add something to the conversation by replying, I’ll reply. The responses vary between trying to give the library some “personality” and offering information. In the past couple of months, for instance, I’ve commiserated with someone about having to get up early, replied to a tweet complaining about not being able to find a good space to work in, and suggested some additional books for someone who enjoyed The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. No one has yet to directly tweet at the library requesting information, but I hold out hope that it will happen one day!

LG: How do you choose what to post on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Flickr?

HB: For YouTube it’s fairly simple– if we make a video, we post it. (We aren’t creating lots of videos right now, so we don’t upload to YouTube often.) Our use of Flickr is similar, though a bit more sporadic, probably partly because we don’t always manage to get photo releases for everyone in an image (so we can’t distribute the photo) and partly because staff don’t remember that we have a Flickr account. We also put photos on Facebook if we think that our patrons would be particularly interested in seeing them.

Announcements of upcoming events and other library news always go out on Facebook and Twitter. Other than that, my primary consideration for what I post is whether it is likely to be interesting or useful to our followers. This is a highly subjective determination; I try to make note of which links get clicked on and/or which posts get a response and use that information to guide future decisions. Book-, library-, and information-related content predominates, although I’ve also shared things like Lifehacker articles and electronics reviews. It’s vital that libraries be perceived as unbiased sources of information, so I try very hard to keep our feeds viewpoint-neutral and to avoid politically-charged topics (unless I’m linking to a neutral explanation of a current political issue).

LG: What is the role of social media for libraries? Isn’t someone either a library patron or not? Can you convert him/her into becoming a library visitor?

HB: The purpose of a library is to educate, inform, and enrich the lives of its users, and social media provides a way for libraries to achieve these ends in a new medium that is becoming a major channel for communication and interpersonal interaction. Through social media, I try to inform people of library events and services in hopes that they will take advantage of whatever meets their needs or interests.

One of the best parts of social media is that I can do all of this proactively. I don’t have to wait for someone to come in and ask me a question at the reference desk. I can monitor the public stream for people who are already talking about things relevant to the library, and then I can join the conversation. It permits the library to add value to people’s lives when they may not have even been aware that we could help to begin with. And it enables us to do so in a way that feels personal. Howe places a premium on excellent customer service and on building relationships with our patrons.

There are certainly people who just don’t use the library, as well as people who may pop in occasionally but who are not regular visitors. But I absolutely believe that non-library-users can become library users if they’re given a good reason to do so – after all, turning non-users into patrons is part of my job!

If I make contact with someone who hasn’t used the library before, I’ve created an opportunity for that person to learn more about us, and hopefully to come to perceive us as valuable and start using the library in other ways. I don’t care whether this first contact occurs because someone wanders in to use the bathroom; to sit at a computer for five minutes or they encounter us on social media.

I’ve had successes in this area both in person and via social media. I’ve answered questions about what the library has to offer from people who had never been to Howe before and came in to attend a non-library meeting held in our building. In the online realm, I had one interaction with a local Twitter user complaining that the college library was too quiet for him to get work done over winter break. I found his tweet through a search, replied to let him know that Howe might be a suitable work location (after school gets out, it’s bustling here!), and he tweeted back to ask whether we had WiFi and to say that he’d think about checking us out. Whatever the medium, I’m just trying to put the thought in possible patrons’ heads that we are a useful resource.

Lisa Chau has been involved  with Web 2.0 since graduate school at Dartmouth College, where she completed an independent study on blogging. She was subsequently highlighted as a woman blogger in Wellesley Magazine, published by her alma mater. Since 2009, Lisa has worked as an Assistant Director at the Tuck School of Business. In 2012, she launched GothamGreen212 to pursue social media strategy projects. You can follow her on Twitter.