Social Networking

Digital icons floating around hands

Public libraries’ use of social media is up sharply, especially among large libraries

Public libraries’ use of social media has seen a veritable explosion of growth in the past couple of years, according to a study published in November 2013 (PDF)  by the Library Research Service (LRS) at the Colorado State Library. Very few public libraries had ventured into this arena in 2008, when the first NRS survey was conducted. This report for 2012 was based on a survey of 584 public libraries.

From 2008 to 2010, libraries tended to increase their level of adoption for most of the web technologies examined in the study, with larger libraries doing so at the fastest rate. In contrast, from 2010 to 2012, smaller libraries had the most dramatic increases in adoption for many of the web technologies, including websites, online account access, blogs, rich site summary (RSS) feeds, catalog search boxes, sharing interfaces, Facebook, and Twitter.

In 2012, most U.S. public libraries in the sample had websites, according to the LRS survey. These included:

  • All of those serving legal service area populations of 25,000 and more.
  • Virtually all (98%) of those with populations of 10,000 to 24,999.
  • A little more than four in five (83%) of those serving populations smaller than 10,000 (up from 71% in 2010).

Generally, the biggest increases from 2010 to 2012 in terms of adoption of web features that enable interactivity with users (for example, virtual reference, blogs, etc.) occurred in the smallest libraries, the LRS survey found. Online account access went from 45% in 2010 to 70% in 2012, blogs from 6% to 10%, and catalog search boxes from 14% to 25%. Use of RSS feeds doubled, to 20% from 10% in 2010.

In larger libraries, on the other hand, use of many of these features either remained relatively constant or declined from 2010 to 2012. One notable exception was text reference, which increased from 13% to 43% in libraries serving more than 500,000.

More social media accounts at larger libraries

A majority of the surveyed libraries in all the population categories had social media accounts, but the proportions decreased with the size of the population served. Thus, 93% of the largest libraries had social media accounts, 83% in the next category (25,000–499,999), 69% in the next (10,000–24,999), and 54% in the smallest libraries. Nine social networks were analyzed as part of the survey, with Facebook coming in as a runaway winner. (Here again, the smallest libraries had the biggest jump in adoption of this social network, from 18% to 54%.)

“Other common social networks were Twitter (84% of the largest libraries were on this network) and YouTube (60% of the largest libraries),” according to a summary of the survey findings. Flickr was common but had decreased in all population groups from 2010 to 2012. Other social networks in the survey were Foursquare, Pinterest, Google+, Tumblr, and Vimeo.

The largest libraries were on an average of 3.54 social networks out of the nine included in the analysis, whereas the smallest libraries averaged less than one.

Use of mobile apps is on the rise, but use of blogs tapers off

The proportion of libraries that catered to mobile devices also increased dramatically from 2010 to 2012; three-fourths of the largest libraries offered some type of mobile-friendly website access in 2012, and 17% of the smallest libraries did—and none of the libraries serving fewer than 100,000 had done so in 2010.

What types of mobile access?

  • Mobile applications (apps) were used by about 60% of the largest libraries, about half of libraries serving 25,000–499,999, 19% of libraries serving 10,000–24,999, and 2% of the smallest libraries.
  • Mobile versions of the library websites (i.e., the URL redirected to a mobile version of the website when viewed on a mobile device): 41% of the largest libraries, 23%–25% of libraries serving 25,000–499,999, one in five libraries serving 10,000–24,000, and 14% of the smallest libraries.
  • Responsive design: Just nine libraries out of the 584 surveyed.

One of the first Web 2.0 technologies that public libraries used to reach out to patrons was a blog, where library staff could relay information and interact with their communities. In 2008, more than half (57%) of the largest libraries offered blogs, although they were less common in smaller libraries. After peaking in 2010, most libraries have tapered off in offering blogs. The only population group that increased its rate of offering a blog was the smallest: almost twice as many of these libraries offered a blog in 2012 as in 2010. In contrast, this feature declined for the largest libraries, from 71% in 2010 to 65% in 2012.

Email leads the way in virtual reference

Many public libraries are using the web to bring one of the most traditional library services—reference—online.

Virtual reference is embraced in one way or another by the majority of larger libraries and some smaller libraries. As in 2008 and 2010, email continues to be the most popular form of virtual reference, with well over half of libraries in communities of at least 100,000 providing email reference services, and libraries serving 25,000–99,999 nearing this milestone as well.

Chat reference is still offered by many public libraries but appears to have declined since 2010, with substantial drops at the larger libraries: libraries serving 500,000 or more dropped from 71% to 57%, and those serving 100,000–499,999 people fell from 49% to 38%.

Reference by text is one area of virtual reference that has seen extensive growth at the largest libraries and moderate growth across all libraries. Only the largest library population group offered any text reference services in 2008. Just 13% of the largest libraries serving offered text reference in 2010; in 2012, more than three times as many (43%) did. About one in five libraries (19%) serving 100,000–499,999 offered text reference services in 2012, while just 4% did in 2010.

“The 2012 results suggest that social media, text reference, and mobile access will continue to grow, although the ways in which they will be implemented are uncertain,” the LRS report says. The social media landscape continues to expand, as do the methods for mobile accessibility, and libraries would do well to match these evolving options to their users’ technology preferences and information-seeking behaviors so that they can provide an optimal user experience.

More public libraries using video games to lure the young

What? Libraries using video games to entice young patrons? Well, says Ruben Navarrette, “If you want to save souls, first you need to put folks in the pews.”

Libraries without patrons, he says, “are just large and imposing buildings full of dust and unread books, begging to be shut down by local officials the next time budgets are awash in red ink.”

More and more public libraries in the United States are supplementing their supply of books on science, history, and literature with video games and big-screen televisions, Navarrette says, exactly “the types of electronic gadgets that, we have long been told, distract people and prevent them from reading—especially teenagers with short attention spans. So what are they doing inside an increasing number of public libraries in the United States?

“Video games are part of an elaborate attempt to lure teenagers into a library, in the hopes that, before they leave, they might actually crack open a book—or even, dare to dream, check one out,” Navarrette says. He cites a study published last year in Library Journal that said about 15% of libraries in the United States now check out video games to anyone with a library card. And actual gaming within libraries themselves is believed to be far more common.

As another researcher, Susan M. W. Aplin, says: “Libraries that do not effectively serve teens are missing opportunities to reach an important segment of their local population and to help teens become lifelong users of the library system.”

Despite all our technology, the future of technology is unpredictable

But when all is said and done, predicting the future of any kind of technology is nigh impossible, says Keren Mills, digital services development officer, library services, at the Open University of the United Kingdom.

“It’s really difficult to know what someone’s going to invent tomorrow that could change what we mean by ‘handheld devices.’” For example, new indoor navigation aids could allow handheld devices to be used to guide users to a particular shelf or reference desk within the library building, Mills says, citing Google Maps Indoors, Wifarer, and other Wi-Fi–based location services, or IndoorAtlas. Some libraries have also been creating apps that not only search their catalogue and provide information about the library but show how many personal computers are available in the building.

For many libraries, collaboration with their IT department plays an important role in their mobile strategy, Mills says. In some cases the library’s mobile presence is part of a central development; in others, the library may undertake its own development but be dependent on or constrained by central IT systems and policies.

“Collaboration between libraries or consortiums and content providers is growing in importance for enabling both types of organization to innovate fast enough to keep up with increasingly rapid changes in technology and user expectations,” Mills says.

Library email newsletters hold their own, and other random facts

  • Availability of a library email newsletter has remained the same overall from 2010 to 2012, with different population groups experiencing minimal increases or decreases. LRS researchers noted that quite a few libraries offered NextReads, an email readers’ advisory newsletter from NoveList.
  • The Pinal County (Ariz.) Library District posted a compilation of articles and links on how libraries are using Facebook, Twitter, and blogs as tools to reach out to users.
  • In the social media spirit, the East Baton Rouge Parish (La.) Library put a bright graphic up on its blog to display its usage statistics.
  • The staff at LibraryScienceList, a social community for librarians around the world, searched the most popular social media platforms looking for college and university libraries that are actively using their accounts to promote library events, notify students of new materials, or interact with patrons in other ways. LibraryScienceList evaluated and ranked 442 college and university libraries  based on their level of activity on various platforms. Best of the best: University of Texas Libraries–University of Texas at Austin.
  • “Social” has come to mean more than sending a tweet or posting to Facebook. “The social librarian is enmeshed in the fabric of the Internet of Things as curator, educator, filter, and beacon,” says a post on Stephen’s Lighthouse . “In this complex, dynamic and demanding environment, librarians are extending themselves and empowering library users.”
  • In the past year 76% of academic libraries reported using social media, with Facebook, blogs, and Twitter topping the list. The main reasons for using social media were promotion of library services, marketing of events, and community-building, according to the Association of College and Research Libraries. Almost 75% of academic libraries supported some form of virtual reference service, according to National Center for Education Statistics data, including email reference (72.9%), chat reference (26.6%), and/or text messaging (24.3%).

The State of America's Libraries 2014