By Katie O'Connor
Social media use by libraries is well-documented. Many libraries have figured out concrete ways to market themselves, provide outreach, and reach library patrons in new ways. However, a challenge still exists for libraries to actively engage with their users, instead of simply using social media sites to send out information. A great deal of literature exists on social media use in libraries. This article is not meant to offer new research or provide a review of any existing literature; rather, I simply offer my experience with social media over the course of one year to encourage libraries to consider their own strategies and participation in social media sites.
In my last year of graduate school (2013-2014), I received an assistantship at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG) in the Reference department of Jackson Library. I worked at the reference desk for twenty hours a week and gained experience providing reference services to UNCG's students. However, my duties went beyond staffing the reference desk. One main focus of the year-long assistantship was social media. I was placed in charge of the library's Facebook page, Twitter account, and several Pinterest boards.
Before this project began, I had somewhat limited experience with social media. I have had a personal Facebook account for about eight years, but considered myself only moderately active on the site. I had also been updating Facebook and Twitter for another job I held in the Special Collections and Archives department of UNCG's library. However, this assignment in the Reference department represented a much larger project.
My assistantship supervisors and I set a project timeline for the academic year. I began posting to Facebook and Twitter in September, and posted for several months before conducting a literature review to better understand social media in academic libraries. The second semester of the project involved assessing social media use and effectiveness, as well as creating a plan for future social media account management.
I have to admit that the first few months of this assistantship were spent simply becoming familiar with each social media platform and posting on each. I was the least familiar with Twitter, and it took some time to adjust to the 140 character limit set for each tweet. There was also a learning curve involved in understanding Twitter's unique features such as hashtags and retweeting. Once I became more comfortable with actually posting and tweeting, several realizations occurred:
- It was not enough to tweet, post, or pin whenever a spare moment arose. I found that I easily lost track of how long it had been since I updated our library's page. Often, it seemed that I just sent out a tweet the day before, when in reality it had been almost a week. Setting a schedule of posting or tweeting was a much more effective way to ensure I was consistently posting on each site. Of course, this is not always possible with platforms like Pinterest. I only pinned to our Pinterest boards when we had new DVD's coming into the library or when there were new fiction books we could highlight. But setting a schedule for Facebook and Twitter was definitely useful.
- Creating original content on social media sites is harder than it looks. Sure, I could simply share what another library had posted, or perhaps just retweet something from the university's main Twitter account. And if I didn't have any library events to promote, or if I couldn't come up with anything interesting to share, I could always rely on recycling material from someone else. But I felt compelled to send out original material more often than not. We want users to engage with their library and to encourage patron participation, and constantly using previously posted material is not really an effective way to accomplish this goal.
- It's important to post for your audience, not for yourself. Several times throughout the course of the academic year, I considered posting links to articles or websites dealing with topics in librarianship: ACRL's new information literacy standards, trends in library budgets, etc. The average college student who followed us on Twitter would probably not find this information interesting. Because the majority of our audience consisted of college students, I needed to focus on content that they would find interesting and be more willing to engage with. Pictures were one way to encourage participation, and I found that any post on Facebook accompanied by a picture had many more likes and comments.
- Building relationships with our existing users proved a more effective use of time than focusing on attracting new users. In the beginning of this project, I set a personal goal for myself to increase our Facebook and Twitter followers. I tried to spread the word to everyone in my network that they should friend or follow us. However, over the course of the fall semester, it became clear that the numbers didn't really carry as much weight as I'd originally thought. In November 2013, our library's Facebook page had 1,129 friends. That number fluctuated and went as high as 1,140. But by April 2014, we were down to 1,124 friends. There was a small growth in our Twitter followers: we began November 2013 with 495 followers, and ended April 2014 with 516. Of course, more followers are always better, and I don't want to say that the numbers don't matter at all. But my experience showed that fluctuations are normal. After realizing this, I decided to spend more time focusing on providing great content to our existing audience.
In my current position, I no longer update social media accounts for the library. However, my experience led me to create a personal Twitter account last summer. I've found really inspiring content from other librarians, and it helps me stay current on library-related news.
To any librarians who are struggling with social media use, or perhaps aren't sure what to post, I would emphasize the importance of a posting schedule. Social media should never be an afterthought; rather, it should be a regular part of your library's duties and should be incorporated into a designated person's work schedule. I would also encourage libraries to examine what others are doing. I don't recommend blatantly copying content from another library's page, but I would encourage gaining ideas from other institutions and then tailoring those ideas to fit your own library. Inspiration can be found anywhere, as long as you remember to look for it!
Katie O'Connor is a Visiting Reference & Instruction Librarian at the College of Charleston. You can follow her on Twitter @katie_oc5.