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Social Media at the Libraries

On Tuesday several Libraries staff met to discuss use of social media with the aim to discuss why and how we were currently using social media, what our goals were, and how we could best meet those goals. Below is my summary of what we discussed, and my take on some of the things that were said—please weigh in, and those who were at this meeting, please comment below, add in what I forgot, and correct any mistakes I may have made.

To bound the discussion somewhat, we focused on three major social media tools: blogging (this here blog!), twitter, and facebook. From the beginning our biggest unknown has been who is our target audience? We would usually say 'the public' but that is much too vague an audience to target. Public includes Libraries staff, Smithsonian Institution staff … researchers, people who stumble across us via a Google search … so, perhaps focusing on who our audience is might not be the most productive way to evaluate what we're doing. Instead let's just think about what content we are creating, and what we are putting out there.

Right now, the majority of our participation in social media is on the blog (if you can call this participating in social media—I might argue it's really just publishing.) Though staff may also be on facebook, there is not a lot of staff activity on the Libraries' facebook page. Twitter is in limited use by select staff (most of whom were in the room or on the phone for this discussion!) or in heavy use by one staff (you know who you are.) So what are we doing on the blog? What "brand identity" has the Libraries created, or are we trying to create? From the beginning, aside from publicizing events, most posts focus on our collections so the brand is firmly "book". Is there anything that sets the Libraries apart from any other library who is also rocking the "book" brand? What do we have that no one else has? Are we only about collections? Suggestions were made that we could shift and include more posts that highlight the services we offer. Recent surveys of library users often highlight that we are valued for the individual services branch librarians provide. How can we communicate better about our services? Should we devote more time and effort to doing instruction and outreach via social media?

Looking back on the genesis of the Libraries' involvement in social media, much of it was done as an experiment, to try to get staff to learn more about various social media platforms (this is particularly true of twitter) and to get folks to see the possibilities for using social media at work—for professional development, for outreach to users, and of course to flog our awesome collections. If we are only going by number of staff participating, this has been a mixed success. (I am not going to say "hasn't been a success," because one can't seriously expect to convince everyone of the value of using something like twitter—for one, it isn't valuable for everyone.) The time has come, though, to get out of the "experimental" phase and into the strategic use phase. Again the questions are: what goals are we trying to achieve, who are we trying to connecting with, and how can we best do both?

Keri Thompson


  1. I completely agree here with Keri’s view and the extremely important questions that have been raised. Before a media strategy has to be devised, it is important to realize the goals we are aiming to accomplish using the media. Before today’s meeting, my impression totally was that the aim of using social media will be to promote SIL to the outer world. But after this meeting, my perception has changed and I think the goal we are want to accomplish is involve internal staff in social media and promote use of social media among SIL employees. Now in my opinion it is more of a social media awareness plan. But a very intricate part of this process that still remains a bit fuzzy is “What to do with Social Media for SIL?”.
    I think more light on this can be thrown by people who are already involved or trying to get involved in this effort, as to what their perceived goals are OR what do they have in mind before they share any piece of information on any social media. This can further be enriched with the kind of response and learnings that followed the execution.

  2. Grace Costantino

    Great summary of our discussion, Keri! My personal opinion for the direction of our social media efforts is a combination of highlighting the unique content in our collection (which we already do well) while also focusing on highlighting those things which make us stand out from other libraries – the great librarians that we have and the services they offer to users. As mentioned, our user surveys constantly show that users value most our librarians, and thus I view this as our greatest asset. We need to find a way to highlight that in our social media efforts.
    As was discussed in the meeting today, this aspect of our social media connectivity with users might best be handled via twitter or facebook, and I agree with that. I think we should use the blog to highlight our collections or various exhibitions or special events, and use twitter and facebook to highlight our libarians/services (unless we want to do something like librarian profiles on the blog where we feature a different librarian on staff in different posts, highlighting their areas of expertise and doing some knowledge management for users so that thet can know where to go for certain expertise in the future).
    I would like to see us use twitter for a short comment from a librarian about a user they helped, or a direction to a particular service we offer (say SRO). Gil mentioned also using social media to train staff or users on how to do things. I think this is an excellent idea, and that blog posts can be used to explain how to use some of the services that we offer that might require more than 160 characters or what can fit into a Facebook post.
    I also think it would definitely be helpful to assign certain staff the moderator role for different social media (eg. a facebook moderator and a twitter moderator). From our experience with social media and BHL, it has been very important to give boundaries (as Richard was saying) and make it easy for people to communicate via social media because they don’t have to worry about stepping on toes/invading territory/etc.
    Also, I think if we want to get more staff to participate, we need to find what areas of librarianship they are particularly interested in and allow them to create a sort of “series” via a social media tool about it. For instance, this has worked well for BHL and Twitter – we started a series called “page of the day,” where we highlight a specific page of interest each day. Communicating via social media can be tricky, especially when you’re trying to come up with something to say. If there is a pre-set topic for someone, such as page of the day, and it is a topic of interest for them, I think it will make it much easier for people not involved now to participate and, more importantly, know how to participate by removing the initial writer’s block of finding a single topic out of thin air.
    My two cents. Not really formulating a concise strategy, but just some thoughts on future direction/steps.

  3. bianca

    one of the things i liked from the discussion was the point i heard about how you can approach your social media goals via personas or via a brand profile. i think this was how we stated that defining those personas would be harder than branding ourselves and “highlighting the services that we offer” because SI has always taken such a broad approach to its users. in my opinion, we might just be able to tease out who are users are with a real concerted effort but it is quite a lot of work so let’s focus on the brand profile approach for starters. so what does SIL do really well that sets us apart from other libraries?
    a) world-class collections: vast in scope spanning a plethora of subjects; unique in content (we have stuff that no one else has); mostly scholarly materials?
    b) we are likely seen as the penultimate keeper’s of US (global?) knowledge & treasures – folks want to donate stuff to us a lot
    c) our librarians know their stuff and can help you get the resources you need; highly specialized; seasoned veterans who know the value of librarianship and its role in forwarding serious research.
    d) proponents of free and open access to information; as SI is a free institution i think this idea of disseminating knowledge without boundaries is a defining principle for the SIL MO, no?
    e) we facilitate information exchange across SI; i know that this happens from personal experience in my Botany days and i’ve seen how this is true elsewhere – we try to have librarians at the table for a variety of SI-wide discussions; c’mon, i know you can help me think of examples…
    and ??? well this is a start anyway…
    so what does this have to do with social media? well maybe if we can structure our posts to our blog, twitter, fb about these themes we can get some better ROI from our current users and drum up exchanges with other users. seems like a lot of our posts have been about a) but we want to try and expand that to b)-e) (and others), yes? perhaps we can assign various folks a theme and have them work with Elizabeth to compose blog and fb posts.
    who’s our SIL twitterer(s) again?…sorry i missed this. do we have someone? if not we need to appoint someone or two. Grace and I are doing well splitting the task for BHL b/w the 2 of us.

  4. Keri Thompson

    Follow up to yesterday’s meeting: Discussion with Martin Ityam and I talked with Martin to get his perspective on where we should be focusing our efforts. He agreed with many of our points (above), but essentially steered the focus back to some of the things we are already doing, primarily promoting awareness of SIL and our collections, news/events, and support of SIL through financial or time (volunteer) donation or other engagement such as participation in user-tagging of images, games/contests, &tc. Much of this we are already doing, particularly on the blog, but we need to try to take better advantage of some of the content that staff may already be generating, and find a way to funnel that into social media outlets, such as the blog or fb. Example: exhibition loan reports from Preservation so we could highlight where our collections are travelling OR RB descriptions generated for show-and-tell events that could be repurposed for the blog. While our earlier discussion led us in the direction of focusing on staff participation and staff development as a primary goal, through talking with Martin I feel like we’ve come full circle again, and should really continue to focus on collections and general awareness as the goal of social media use. The happy side benefit, if we implement our strategy correctly, can be to get more staff participation. We also don’t need to discard some of the other ideas we had, like using sm for instruction, or highlighting services – I think this might just end up being part 2 of our strategy, after we get part 1 working smoothly. It might take us a while to figure out which tools will be appropriate for which types of content. The key things we are missing in our current social media use is more coordination for our use of twitter and facebook, and getting staff to help us use content they are already generating. I mentioned to Martin one of the ideas we had in our earlier discussion, about encouraging supervisors to add social media participation to employee’s performance plans, possibly as one of the “outstanding” elements, and he thought this was a good idea and will discuss with other members of EC. I think we all felt pretty strongly that it would be easier to get staff participation if they knew they were getting credit for that participation. Also, if we articulate our goals of social media use (I’m going to shorthand this as ‘creating broader awareness of SIL and our collections to encourage collection use/activity participation/financial support’) and can measure that we are meeting those goals maybe it will be clearer to staff that participation in SIL social media is not only fun, it is useful.

  5. Elizabeth Periale

    SO many good ideas here. I would like to highlight something Grace said, “I think if we want to get more staff to participate, we need to find what areas of librarianship they are particularly interested in …” I think this might be the key towards getting not only more staff participation in our social media efforts, but also to diversify the content we’re sharing. Encourage staff to tweet, blog, share on facebook what they are specifically interested in, think we need to share, need more of. For me, that will always be highlighting collections. For someone else that might be creating some training video or instructions. For someone else maybe sharing the latest acquisition in the museum where they are working.
    I also think we need to do a little strong-arming. Our goal should be that at minimum, every single member of staff reads the blog daily in one way or another – via email, facebbook or twitter. It’s not enough that they say they check it on the web from time to time. They may not jump right in and start tweeting and posting(most likely won’t), but I have found that frequent exposure does increase participation. Social media is part of the Libraries’ strategic plan. Participating in SIL’s social media shouldn’t be a choice. It should be part of someone’s job, just like using email. Even if, at the start, it’s just lurking. That’s still more participation than we are currently asking from staff.
    I also like Bianca’s example of how she and Grace are managing twitter for BHL. I do think you need someone to oversee each activity. I edit the blog. How about a twitter editor and a facebook editor? Or a few folks sharing those duties? Anyone on staff could post links, but it would be nice for an editor to maybe take those links and prompt some discussion via comments or somehow draw discussion back to the libraries in a meaningful way.
    I just wanted to add that I am also pretty invested in the Libraries flickr as well as the blog. I use as many images from there as I do Galaxy of Images and I have been slowly trying to add catalog info to bring our flickr up to Creative Commons standards. It may not be an area to reach out as much, but it is another social media thing we’re doing.

  6. Diane Shaw

    Over the past couple of years I’ve contributed a few entries to the SIL blog, and I also try to blog once a month on behalf of SIL at the Smithsonian Collections Blog. My blog entries focus on things I’ve found in working at SIL that I think a general audience would enjoy (both within SI and the wider public). I use these blogs as an opportunity to say what is unique or remarkable about our collections, and to show the inter-relatedness of the various parts of the Smithsonian. I have also blogged a bit about what it’s like to work here and my duties as a special collections (rare materials) cataloger. I’ve gotten into some great discussions as a result of my blogging (particularly on What It’s Like to Be a Cataloger). Recently, with the encouragement of SIL’s Digital Services Division, I’ve started using Twitter (I’m @Museocat)as a way to communicate with other librarians and archivists and to help raise awareness of SIL’s collections. Previously, I had thought Twitter was a frivolous activity, but I’m finding it’s an amazing way to become better informed about developments in areas I’m interested in (not only librarianship, but also government 2.0 efforts, and data visualization, for instance). Twitter has given me an informal connection to other museum, library, and archives folks across the country and the world. Ironically, sometimes I feel like it’s easier to communicate about library and museum work with this broader audience on Twitter, because few SI employees seem to have embraced Twitter yet. We have an in-house equivalent at SI called Yammer, but so far few staff members use it. I think social media like the SIL and Smithsonian Collections blogs, Twitter, Flickr, etc. have a lot of potential for promoting our collections, educating other staff members and the public about the work we do, and even helping to foster collaboration both inside and outside of SI. However, these activities are very time consuming to learn, and it’s hard to keep up the conversation when there are so many things to do at work and there aren’t enough hours in the day or staff to do them all. I like being an SIL pioneer in social media, but as my colleagues have said, we’re all still wondering where this will lead, is it worth the time we put into it, and when will it become a more mainstream part of everyone’s work.

  7. Chris

    Sorry to have missed the meeting kids, but thought I should throw in my two cents here. I started a Twitter account last summer, but saw it as too personal a tool to treat seriously. I went back to it in December and have not stopped using it since. As a reference librarian, it is an outstanding tool to feature news and and reviews on a host of subjects related to museums, libraries, new media tools and toys, and an array of subjects that can reach a broad audience. The audience has increased slightly (53) but my goal is to re-connect (re-tweet)what I find to other folks who may not be aware of some interesting information or news that is available. As Martin K said to me earlier about this “tool,” we have to use it first and then see if we can make it work more effectively as an outreach tool and a means to communicate what we do here at SIL and what we have to offer. What I had hope to do is make this and the SIL Blog a means to publicize our collection (trade lit of course) and make inroads to audiences that other means may not have achieved. Like Grace mentioned, it’s not a concise strategy but a process of learning and refining.

  8. Stefanie

    I think libraries using social media can only enhance the services it provides to their patrons. The library I work for currently uses a twitter account. On the account library staff will post new books that we have received as well as any events occurring in the library.

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