Guest post #6 – Social media is becoming vital to real-world relationships, by Mandeep Hothi

Discounting the instances that I have been to my local library to collect parking permits, the last meaningful time I was in a library was about five months ago.

I was there to talk to librarians about social media. Despite lots of digital stuff happening in their neighbourhood, the library weren’t really trying to engage through social media. The staff lacked the skills, confidence and energy to do it.

What they really wanted, they told me, was for a highly visible, large online community to materialise for them to engage with. The thought of cultivating their own online networks was out of the question due to pressures on their time; it wasn’t a priority and they couldn’t see the value in it.

Were they right to dismiss it so readily? They were clearly feeling the strain of increased demands from the council on the services they needed to deliver (including handing out parking permits). But I think that the failure to divert some resources towards the use of social media will turn out to be a mistake.

This is not because social media is a quick fix. Our own research at the Young Foundation shows it requires a lot of work and time to build up an audience and engage in meaningful dialogue. The staff members that use social media need to feel comfortable and confident using it, and operate without excessive control from their superiors. And ultimately the number of local people that you are engaging may only be around ten per cent of the local population.

There are two reasons I think that it was a mistake. Firstly, I think social media could do wonders for the library ‘brand’ and secondly, an engaged audience of around ten per cent of the population will prove to be invaluable.

Whilst the library as a brand is certainly embedded in local life, for many non-users of libraries that brand has become outdated.  Social media can change this by giving libraries a persona that is relevant and energised; one that instigates dialogue amongst varied audiences. If libraries can engage with a sense of humour (dry wit and self-deprecation come to mind), people would really start to question their assumptions about these places they used to go when they were kids.

This re-branding will only work if it reflects people’s experiences of using the service. The best thing about social media is the stuff that it causes offline; namely, the connections with people. Libraries which embrace online engagement will get closer to their physical community, by building upon the online experience – one that is characterised by conversation, expression, personalisation and sharing.

These are characteristics which libraries already possess but are not entirely comfortable with. By 2022 this identity crisis will surely have resolved itself and when it does, social media will be libraries’ new best friend.

Mandeep Hothi is a programme leader at the Young Foundation and is currently researching how the internet can connect local communities and neighbourhoods

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14 Responses to Guest post #6 – Social media is becoming vital to real-world relationships, by Mandeep Hothi

  1. Kate Millin says:

    I agree that this is an important arena for libraries and librarians to develop skills in. Social media are the next step for librarians to engage effectively with a wide range of communities. By 2022 libraries will be actively participating in a range of social media- creating content and communities as well as supporting those that are already existing. Many library service may have social media as their main or only interactive communication route. One of the key roles for libraries even then will be in helping those who are less confident in using the media as even with my most positive hat on I still expect there to be those for whom using electronic communication will be an anathema.

    It is not a good idea, however, for librarians to dive into social media if they are not really clear on why they are doing it or which formats are the appropriate for what they are trying to do. If they jump in too quickly when they are not comfortable they will create a poor experience for themselves and their customers. It is better to pick one or two and have a go until confidence is developed, or get advice from people like Mandeep or others who are already active in ways that you like.

  2. Ian Anstice says:

    I completely agree with the need for social media as part of the promotional/marketing mix for public libraries. It does, however, ignore the vital fact that councils have strict policies on using social media. Often, it is in the hands of the PR department so an individual library, or even a whole library service, is not allowed to have its own Facebook or Twitter account. All communication in these authorities has to go through a central person and, in so doing, loses any chance of being two-way. It is seen as just another advertising media, not as a way of engaging with the public.

    One should also note that “Dry wit and self deprecation” would result in disciplinary action in many authorities which do not allow criticism of anything. Getting on the wrong side of one’s employer is not a good idea at the moment as a lot of the library staff are being made redundant.

    Time is an important factor too. When there are less and less staff – and they are busy doing parking permits – they don’t have a chance to do facebook. This is a basic. There are very few library people where web 2.0 is in their job description and even less at branch level.

    What this means is that, if public libraries are left as they are, many of them are not going to be able to use social media effectively. Some will. There are some excellent public library examples in some authorities. Not in others though. There is a postcode lottery in this as there is in so many different ways in the public library service, as one would expect in a service split into over a hundred organisations with a hands-off government department overseeing it. It is only when this changes that there will be the library social media that Mandeep criticises staff for not having already.

  3. Martyn says:

    While it is important for Libraries to engage with social media, no amount of social media will substitute for books on the shelves, good buildings, quiet study space, carefully selected and publicised online resources including ebooks, and properly trained staff. At present library authorities are cutting staff numbers, closing small libraries or disengaging them from the local authority service, and cutting budgets. The Arts Council has to decide which side of the fence it is on – either it can (like its predecessor the MLA) act as a PR agent for government cuts, or it has to defend and improve services, and act as a vocal supporter for Libraries and their readers.

    As a start, the Arts Council could state quite clearly that it expects all Libraries to expand their Local Studies and Adult Literacy resources and activities, and provide quiet study space in every library. These are three areas where the level of service has been cheese-pared to a dangerous level over the last decade.

  4. the issues of permission to use the technology and skills are certainly two of the main stumbling blocks at the moment. But as libraries begin to break the mould and demonstrate effective use of the technology, others will follow. As Ian says it would take a brave soul to take risks whilst jobs are under threat, but some will. It may be that it happens in libraries where the public are much more involved in delivery.

    And it is happening in other public services; a couple of years ago I came across a police Sergeant who was blogging about his weekly activity, but was doing so without the permission of his superiors or media team. Because his blog was brilliant, when his bosses found out they loved it and the Sergeant’s stock rose quite a lot.

    But the key is in the execution. The Sergeant got it spot on and it worked. I agree with Kate that it requires someone who is really comfortable with social media and has the skill to be informative, engaging and witty. When it’s done well most local authorities will love it and want to replicate it.

    • marcusbelben says:

      That doesn’t leave any room for experimentation, and unless you are a keen blogger/ computer user already, and prepared to risk your job (or at least your reputation and ambitions), unlikely to happen. It needs an organisation to change attitude to decision making generally, together with effective use of social media in particular to unblock communication/sharing problems in councils of which social media is only one. Introducing Social Media would be dealing with symptom, and not the cause – it could only add to the problem – see my blog on ‘silo thinking’ –

  5. Alan Wylie says:

    I attended a ‘library 2.0’ course a few years ago but have never really had the support or the time to put any of it into action also the points raised about the technical restrictions placed by councils and IT depts and the lack of staff are very valid! We have managed to set up a blog, but Facebook and Twitter are a long way off!

  6. One of the aspects about social media that often gets ignored is *listening*. I was working with a public library that had done a number of public consultation exercises but had failed to pick up the subsequent dialogue on Twitter where some challenging views were aired. That Twitter feed was just as much a part of the conversation as the public meeting but it got ignored. Much social media discourse (libraries very much included here) is one way (‘outbound’). For example check out a library Twitter feed and look to see who they are *following* (who are they listening to), rather than who is following them. You don’t have set up a blog yourself. There is value in commenting on other people’s blogs.

    Mandeep’s point about ‘permission’ is a good one. However there is now a number of reports on the importance of social media in local authorities (see for example the Local Governmnet Library Technology (LGLibTech) ‘Social Media’ page ). Armed with these reports librarians can turn the table in the argument with IT departments who block initiatives.

    Martyn is right that social media is not a *substitute* for important library services but it is another way (not the only way of course) of building a ‘community’ to support library services. And of course this takes time. It’s not a quick fix.

    And finally it does feed into face-to-face community relationships. Our town has a monthly ‘Tweetup’ where local ‘Tweeters’ meet in a pub. We get local social entrepreneurs, councillors, artists, journalists and business people. Nobody from the library yet…..

  7. Sue Lawson says:

    There’s going to be a live gig at my library on World Book Night all thanks to Twitter – that’s where we met the band and the idea was born. When our city’s main library closed for refurbishment the public uploaded 700 photos of the building to a Flickr pool created by the library. It was featured in the local paper after a journalist spotted the pictures trending on Twitter. Like many libraries we can’t afford to have brochures printed so create online brochures on instead – the most recent was read 2500 times. We promote events through social media and manage tickets with Eventbrite – our last three library events sold out within an hour after being advertised in an email and via social media sites.

    Social media is about more than marketing though – it’s about communication and customer service. Over 1 million people are registered Facebook users in my area and they expect us to be there too. We use Facebook to answer enquiries, Twitter followers have helped us test new online services and select stock, we chat to reading group members on Google Groups. We get feedback, ideas, criticism and suggestions via these channels. That’s why I find it hard to understand when councils ban libraries or staff from using social media. We don’t ban our staff from emailing customers, using a telephone or talking face-to-face so why would we ban staff from engaging with customers via Twitter, Flickr or Facebook?

    Why not just dive in? I doubt many library staff have ‘web 2.0’ in their job description, but I bet lots are already using Facebook and Twitter, so they’ll be comfortable with the medium. Once your page is set up and admins understand the ‘rules’ it really doesn’t take long to post a Facebook update or answer a comment and there are plenty of tools that automatically schedule tweets. It takes longer to build an online community, but if you don’t ask corporate comms/ICT, by the time they notice you’ll be halfway there. If that’s not an option develop a business case and talk in their language – digital engagement and ROI, channel shift, online customer engagement and audience development.

    Socitm has published a report on the use of social media within local government. One of the report’s conclusions is that social media could be ‘instrumental in shaping organisations as commerce emerges from recession, and the public sector struggles to cope with its severest test in living memory.’ And it’s not all doom and gloom. Not all councils restrict the use of social media. Read about what happened when Monmouthshire Council opened up access to social media to all staff (clue – the world didn’t end).

    • alan wylie says:

      Sue, I wish we could just ‘dive in’ but some of us in local government would be at risk of disciplinary action if we didn’t have permission for such ventures and anyway most directorates and councils like to keep a very tight grip on what is produced and posted under their name!

  8. Many, many library services have excellent well-developed social media presences and enviably
    large online communities. Many of us have also been early adopters of social media and embraced the efficiencies, benefits and free promotion and marketing social media brings.

  9. Some great examples and links, thanks everyone.

    Ken, with regards to listening, I think you’ve highlighted the key activity that most authorities will be interested in! We published a social media framework for local government a few years back, called ‘Listen, Participate, Transform’ :

    Kirklees Council have used it as a basis for their social media guidelines:

    • marcusbelben says:

      Hi Mandeep,

      A number of people have (bravely?) responded to your blog highlighting a lack of permission to develop effective social media. I suggest this might be more than just a ‘social media’ problem. Listening is necessary first step, but a change in management style and org culture to allow people to develop and respond to needs (and feel able to raise their opinions) is next step (and necessary for social media to thrive). I hope the examples you raise highlight not just good social media practice, but the trust management must also place on staff and service users in shaping services. I worry, in a time of fear and cutbacks, councils are exerting more, not less, tight control over its employees and services. Thanks for great blog and debate.

  10. Mike Cavanagh says:

    Although it’s been around for a few years now, social media is still a relatively new phenomenon and it takes time for local authorities to get to grips with new things. They are complex large organisations with a variety of different service areas, a corporate centre, member and officer relationships, public and media scrutiny, differing levels of government intervention or non intervention dependant on the flavour of the government of the day, and much else besides.
    Compared with even large private sector firms, there is a complexity and a range of barriers that makes leading cutting edge change, or even following hot on its heels, somewhat challenging.

    In this context, it will be interesting to see how Trusts and other community managed libraries that are reproducing at a pace right now, may be able to seize the opportunities afforded by social media more readily than directly managed services are able to do. Of course, such models will have their own fair share of challenges and social media may be way down their pecking order, but in the library of the future when this change has settled down they may become the innovators.

    It’s true that many staff are scared right now for their positions, so challenging the way things are done is not always easy. Note for example the requirement for my last sentence in this post. That said, it can be done without risking getting into hot water. It’s about being pursuasive and compelling, using evidence and pointing to areas of best practice, and showing some tenacity. Even this won’t always work but it’s suprising how far passion chanelled in the right direction can get you. At my place of work, we have recently been given permission to have our own web presence, away from the restrictions of the corporate website and this has resulted in some very exciting work. It’s taken over 2 years to get the permission but it was worth it and it paves the way for further flexibility now with Web2.

    It’s also interesting to consider that in 2022, facebook, twitter and the like may be considered as stone-age concepts!

    (Comments are personal and are in no way representative of the views of my local authority).

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