Social Networking

Digital icons floating around hands

Technology marches on, and so do libraries

Facebook. Flickr. Google+. Pinterest. Tumblr. Twitter. Yelp.

The list of social networking sites is almost endless, bringing huge potential (and some headaches) to librarians nationwide. Will libraries continue to be able to keep up with the rapid— almost instantaneous—changes in technology and social networking?

The consensus is: Yes.

“Libraries have been technology leaders for decades—not in being first adopters, but in being early users of effective technologies,” said Walt Crawford, longtime library writer, researcher, systems analyst, and author of the forthcoming “Successful Social Networking in Public Libraries” (ALA Editions, 2013). “Good public libraries stay in touch with their communities; as their communities use new technologies and networks. . . . I believe most public libraries will manage.”

Even as technology marches relentlessly on, and communications and marketing managers rely more and more on social media, “library programs continue to matter, not only for the cultural health of communities but for children gaining literacy, adults finding literacy, adults finding work, etc.,” Crawford said.

“Good libraries provide good service,” Crawford added, and “better-funded libraries pretty consistently put that funding to good use, continuing to provide superb returns for money spent: Four to one [return on investment] is a very conservative figure.”


From 140 characters to 133 terabytes (and counting)

The Library of Congress is busy archiving the sprawling and frenetic Twitter archive dating back to the site’s 2006 launch. That means saving for posterity more than 170 billion tweets and counting, with an average of more than 400 million new tweets sent each day. As of January 1, the Library of Congress had not started the daunting task of sorting or filtering its 133 terabytes of Twitter data. 


Your library is not going away

And the physical library seems not to be an endangered species.

Crawford examined data from the Institute of Museum and Library Services to figure out how many libraries have closed in the past decade or so. His conclusion: “At most, 36 libraries (not branches) actually closed and stayed closed over the past 11 years—that’s 36 out of over 9,000. During the same period, some 200 new libraries opened.”

“The physical library serves as the heart of any healthy community,” he said. “Of the 36 apparent closures, one was in a bankrupt suburb; most of the rest were in towns that were either disappearing or were simply too small to manage a library. My research says that healthy communities have healthy public libraries—it works both ways.”

Crawford concluded: “Libraries need to stay in touch with all aspects of their communities, be welcome to new users and new ideas, and serve the local needs of local users.”

2011–2012 changes in usage, Craighead County Jonesboro (Ark.) Public Library
Measure: 2011 2012 Increase
New library cards 7,196 8,456 17.5%
Door count 480,440 557,148 16%
Mobile site visits 11,529 25,162 118%
OverDrive downloads 11,955 30,807 158%
Freegal downloads 11,135 22,705 104%
Facebook fans 3,578 8,548 139%
Source: Craighead County Jonesboro (Ark.) Public Library


“Just because it’s new doesn’t mean it’s right for libraries”

The Craighead County Jonesboro (Ark.) Public Library has made active use of technology and social networking in its patron services and marketing.

But Ben Bizzle, director of information technology at the Craighead library, said that “the challenge for libraries isn’t keeping up with changing technologies. It’s making the correct decisions about the technologies in which to invest their resources. Just because it’s new doesn’t mean it’s right for libraries. In fact, most trends aren’t.”

“We don’t have to be everywhere,” Bizzle said. “It actually dilutes our brand and message if we try to be. Successful libraries will determine what platforms most effectively reach their target audience and aggressively build sustainable presences there. Successful libraries will be platform builders, not trend spotters.”

Technology is vital to today’s libraries but should not be an end in itself, Bizzle said.

“We have to make sure that we continue to strive to lower the barrier to entry to library resources and increase public awareness of the value the library has to the community it serves,” he said. “These are technology-independent goals. Technology simply provides us a better means by which to accomplish them.”

The new technologies will, however, lead to “significant consolidation of physical locations as it becomes less and less cost-effective to deliver materials physically, rather than electronically. The new library will be one of community services, creative spaces, technology access, and training, in addition to physical resources and the reference assistance for which libraries have always been known.”

And saying what new services the library might be offering in five years “is like asking where everything’s going to land while we’re still in the middle of a tornado,” Bizzle said. “If we continue to focus on tearing down barriers to access, making our resources available to our patrons as simply as possible, providing the media they want in the mediums they desire, making maximum usage of our space, and allowing our communities to define us based on their needs, then we will continue to thrive as valuable institutions of information and entertainment.”

Targeting teens as lifelong users of libraries

Teens are often at the forefront of today’s technology. They are, arguably, doing more surfing, texting, chatting, tweeting, liking, and pinning than their parents, and libraries underestimate the importance of this demographic and its interests at their own risk. If libraries are not effectively serving teens, they are not only failing to reach an important segment of their local population, but missing opportunities to help teens become lifelong users of libraries.

Susan M. W. Aplin, an English teacher and teacher technology leader at Dutch Fork High School in Irmo, South Carolina, noted in a literature review in the SLIS Student Research Journal that “public libraries should make it a priority to reach out to teens and connect their services to these patrons.” It is imperative that today’s library services go beyond the physical library and try to reach teens through technology, including websites, social networking sites, mobile devices, and e-reading. By using technology in a variety of ways, Aplin says, libraries can better connect with and successfully serve today’s teens.

Physically, the ideal young-adult area will probably bend some ancient shibboleths. It will be a place where teens and young adults can be themselves and work together—but also where they can eat and socialize. It goes without saying that spaces for teens and young adults should be well equipped with computers and with the new technology that appeals to them, making them places where they go not only to read and research but also to create and share.

Many teens link to their library electronically

But in fact, many teens are more likely to be online than at the physical library. If librarians want to connect with youngsters who were born into a digital world, they have to be prepared to keep up with—and find effective ways to use—the latest technology and social networking tools.

“It only makes sense that if you want to reach out to this community and forge relationships that foster cooperation, collaboration, understanding, and lifelong learning between the generations, the way to do it is through the internet,” Laura Peowski, director of information and teen services at the Farmington (Conn.) Libraries, wrote in Young Adult Library Services in 2010. If a library wants to serve its teen patrons, it must be available electronically 24/7. Websites have moved from information-giving pages to collaborative Web 2.0 sites where both librarians and patrons participate.

The interactive nature of these sites makes it easier for librarians to connect with their teen patrons, but librarians have to take care to consider the interests of the teens in their own communities, Peowski wrote. Involving them in the planning of any online options will dramatically increase the success of those programs.

Young-adult librarians may even work with their library administrators to determine if it is possible to have teens help with details such as site maintenance and posting content, Sandra Hughes-Hassell and Erika Thickman Miller wrote. For some libraries this is not feasible due to security concerns, but librarians should still be able to get teens’ input on choice of platform and type of content.

Perhaps as a result of this kind of collaboration, the Craighead County Jonesboro (Ark.) Public Library’s website has a teen section with topics that might raise eyebrows—or hackles—in the community. “Homework Help” and “HS Reading List” are conventional enough. But “Events” includes an ongoing discussion group that focuses on “the graphic novel of the month,” and “Teen Clubs” include anime and manga, which give teens “a chance to view new anime and preview upcoming episodes” (though they have to sign a waiver “out of recognition of certain elements shown, particularly violence”).

Gaming is more than—well, a game

Another way libraries can connect with teens is through gaming, an extremely popular form of technology. A 2009 Pew Internet and American Life study found that 97% of teens play video games, and the games themselves have become more varied and more social in recent years.

The School of Information Studies at Syracuse University maintains a website dedicated to gaming and called, appropriately, Because Play Matters. Its mission is to “create transformative games and play for informal learning environments, such as libraries, museums, and other community-based learning spaces,” to “use elements of games and play in real-world settings,” and to “facilitate games and play for learning, training, engaging, and exploring real-world spaces.”

“Including gaming in the public library has benefits for both the library and the teens who participate,” Aplin wrote. Gaming events get teens into the building and may allow them to see the value of libraries. Once there, teens may be drawn to other library services as well. “Also, research has shown that the video games themselves can ‘promote literacy, critical thinking, [and] problem solving skills,’” Aplin wrote, citing research by Rebecca Hill. “If librarians want to connect with teens through activities the teens enjoy, then gaming is a must.”

But gaming can also yield dividends in unexpected areas.

“Game experiences help to address diversity by providing opportunities for individuals to interact and engage with others in an environment that often encourages dialogue and teamwork,” said Brian Mayer, a gaming and library technology specialist for Genesee Valley Educational Partnership, an educational services agency that supports the libraries of 22 rural districts in Western New York, and the coauthor of “Libraries Got Game” (ALA Editions, 2010).

“This is where tabletop and other nondigital games really play a strong role,” Mayer said. “They provide a vehicle for interaction that is genuine and meaningful, often building respect for other individuals’ approaches and ideas. Digital gaming continues to allow for the global community to share the interests and pursuits in a participatory way, helping to highlight commonalities among cultures while allowing unique cultural perspectives to add to group experiences.”

In public libraries, games are valuable because they provide opportunities that are unavailable or hard for an individual to come by, and they create social spaces for game clubs or large group games or tournaments, Mayer said. And in schools, educators and librarians “need to continue to showcase how games connect students to curriculum and create learning spaces that are dynamic and rich.” It’s important, he said, for educators to get past the idea that “there is little value in gaming.”

OCLC lists competencies for social networking in libraries

Libraries always respond to changes in the world they serve, so it is no surprise that social networking has come to play a key role in many library services. In fact, the Online Computer Library Center (OCLC), a worldwide library cooperative, now lists competencies for social networking in libraries (PDF)—the skills, knowledge, and attitudes that will help library staff stay abreast of developments in this rapidly evolving area. Social networking as it relates to young adult services, for example, requires, at its core:

  • Understanding the importance of engaging with young adults in nontraditional ways that extend beyond the physical library.
  • Involving them in determining which tools are most applicable to the library’s YA services (blogs, wikis, widgets and toolbars, social networks, other emerging online tools).
  • Exploring the potential of social networking to connect and interact with young adults and meet their information needs.
  • Understanding the opportunities, norms, and limitations of online engagement with young adults and establishing guidelines for the use of social networking tools in ways that are appropriate in a library setting.
  • Helping young adults set up and use web tools and participate in social networking communities.

The OCLC document details competencies in a number of other areas as well, noting that librarians must also keep up with emerging tools and techniques geared to a more general audience and connect with professional communities to seek and share best practices.

Case in point: Pinterest, a website for sharing photos—and much more

Libraries (and library associations, including ALA) have made increasing use of the social media tool Pinterest, a pinboard-style, photo-sharing website that allows users to create and manage theme-based image collections such as events, interests, and hobbies. Pinterest was developed in 2009, launched as a closed beta site in 2010, and by March 2012 had become the third largest social network in the United States, exceeded only by Facebook and Twitter, according to market research firm Experian Hitwise. The ALA itself provides a good example of Pinterest curation with its American Libraries set of boards.

Libraries generally use Pinterest to publicize the resources and services they offer, by, for example:

  • Pinning book covers. Many librarians use the visual power of Pinterest to display book covers, especially those from new books, special collections, and child-friendly material.
  • Creating reading lists on a wide range of topics.
  • Getting the word out on recent acquisitions.
  • Fostering research. Much Pinterest material is on the light side, but some librarians and academics see potential in the site for much more serious applications.
  • Promoting library activities, showcasing everything from lectures to job help and author visits.
  • Offering access to digital collections. With ebooks gaining popularity, some libraries are using Pinterest to share links to new digital materials.


Libraries also use Pinterest as a tool for developing community with other libraries online and to interact with members of the community, for example by creating collaborative boards with patrons.


The State of America's Libraries 2013