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the library as a brand is certainly embedded in local life, for many non-users of libraries that brand has become outdated.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