10 ways library schools should be teaching social media

A few days ago I came across a wonderful article on Mashable entitled “10 Ways Journalism Schools are teaching social media.” The thought struck me about 30 seconds in: all these concepts should apply to library school, but why aren’t they being pushed and taught in the same way?

I thought since I wasn’t being explicitly instructed on how social media can increase the quality and relevance of the library school curriculum, that I would break them down for us and attempt to explain the urgency with which librarians (and our schools’ faculty) need to be catching up in this area.

1. Promoting Content

Social media tools bring traffic, and they connect with users who aren’t physically able or necessarily willing to come into the library. We already do a lot of passive web advertising on library home pages, and of course some form of virtual reference services is available almost everywhere. We also talk a lot in library school about reaching users, but so often social media doesn’t even make the discussion–being considered by so many as trivial or merely concerned with the banal updates of someone eating a sandwich. But I leave it to you to discern the difference:


Not helpful, I grant you. But:


If you can cut the noise and spend the time constructing a useful and relevant network of users with whom to share your library’s content (and, as is the case here, reviews of your library’s work), the benefit to your users is palpable. It’s time to start discussing how to effectively using social media, instead of assuming everyone on Twitter has nothing more to offer than THE_REAL_SHAQ.

2. Interviewing

The concept of the journalist’s interview perhaps translates most directly to librarianship into the reference transaction. We are already here as I mentioned briefly above. Services like AskAway, here in BC, exist all over North America and being knowledgeable about the social media tools that make a service like that possible is absolutely necessary. Meebo is common and easy enough to figure out on one’s own, perhaps, but what about the many other channels through which reference could take place? Skype, for instance? If one of the challenges of the virtual reference interview is missing out on non-verbal cues from patrons, then what is stopping the library from implementing webcam reference? A unique, personal touch is always good for business.

3. News Gathering and Research

Hello. This seems like a no-brainer, but the challenge I always hear is how can a social media tool like Twitter or Delicious possibly be good for real research? The key to leveraging social media for quality information retrieval is identifying a network of positive and valuable information sharers, not one filled with the noise and minutiae of everyday life. For me, Twitter can be just as powerful an information gathering tool as the most robust RSS feed, but it requires maintenance and diligence to find the right people to listen to. The point is this: diligent and educated use of social media, just as in proprietary database research, can yield fruitful and valuable results.

AskAway on Delicious

4. Crowdsourcing

Gaining your users’ perspectives on your initiative can often make or break the success of that program in your library. Social media tools provide unprecedented ways to interact with a large user base with very little effort. Once you have established an online community, be it on Facebook or Twitter or Ning or wherever else your users are, it is not only useful to you, but fun and engaging for them, to be included in the programming process.

5. Publishing with Social Tools

Publishing in the library community is perhaps most often encountered in the academic library community, but this is an applicable point to the field in general as well. As open access publishing gains steam, and the free availability of quality, peer-reviewed articles grows, it will become increasingly important to share these sources via social media, if only to offset that signal-to-noise ratio that we so often lament in our Twitter community. Pushing your openly accessible research out through social media only provides further benefit to those who are following your web presence.


6. Blog and Website Integration

So often I come across library websites that have blogs and even Twitter feeds, but don’t integrate the content into the page thereby forcing users to add another click to see the content. Couple that with yet another two or three to subscribe to the RSS, and we are looking at several unnecessary steps between your patrons and your live content. Learning to integrate social or syndicated content into websites is extremely valuable and there are a number of free tools out there, like feed2js, that will help you to do exactly that. Often times, social media services themselves will even offer pre-made widgets (Facebook and Twitter both do this, for example) that you can place on your home page.

Facebook Widget

7. Building Community and Rich Content

For me, this point goes beyond the simple signal-to-noise ratio. Community has long been an essential part of the library’s function, and it only follows that your library should be doing everything it can to encourage the growth of its user base, both physical and virtual. And rich content? By providing social media tools and the opportunity for your users to provide commentary and feedback on library programming and services–especially if those comments are acknowledged or even acted upon–is an easy and unbelievably effective way to increase appreciation and support for your organization.

8. Personal Brand

“Students can’t stay in school forever.” Good point, and speaking from a personal perspective, having a portfolio, blog and Twitter feed has done a world of good for me both as a student (it has allowed me to prove my usefulness to the student organizations with which I am involved) and professionally (I have been given many opportunities thus far to provide expertise in web tools to my employers and my research projects). And moving further than that, the ability to create an online identity for anything, be it for yourself or your library, provides a way for your users to easily identify and connect with you. Personalization of your web presence is a great thing, and the increased inclusivity it brings is a great boon to prospective employee or library.

9. Ethics: Remember, You're Still a Journalist Librarian

Lavrusik cautions the journalists to whom he is writing against being perceived as involved with certain organizations (like political parties), and this is a particularly salient point especially considering the “personalization” that I encourage above. There comes a point at which we all have to decide whether we are broadcasting our personal brand, or our professional one, and it is of the utmost importance to encourage all users to access library services, not just those who perceive that they have similar facebook interests.

My Facebook Fan Page

Encouraging social media use in the library can often feel like pulling teeth because of the intensity of privacy concerns that are at the forefront of many librarian’s thoughts. I represent myself and can be proud of the things that I support on facebook (like Alec Baldwin’s genius on 30 Rock), but I am also aware of what message this sends, and how it might need to change if this were a professional or organizational profile. This is yet another reason why educating library students (or any students!) on responsible and effective social media use is so important. Without an understanding of how to separate personal and professional or public and private identities online, it is far too easy to end up excluding or alienating users that normally could have found a home in your library’s online community. Social media is too exposed, and too exposing, to ignore in our education any longer.

10. Experiment, Experiment, Experiment

This final point is something that I feel is grossly underlooked in our education as librarians today. There are a number of people that I know in library school who are experimenting with social media, but not necessarily due to much encouragement from faculty or practicing librarians. Personal interest can indeed take you far in the world of free social media tools, but having the go-ahead from the people who are making you work and who are the de facto providers of your education is much more appreciated, and, potentially, much more powerful.

So: the tools are out there and so are our future users, but it is time to talk about them, together, meaningfully–and in the mainstream courses that we take, not just relegated to specific electives or as an aside in a reference service lecture–to increase our working knowledge and be able finally to start understanding the benefits of social media in the library.

A big thanks to Vadim Lavrusik and Mashable for the inspiration (and, frankly, the structure) of this post.


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