Web Magazine for Information Professionals

Social Media Librarianship in Academic Libraries: Optimizing Trends for Real-Time User Engagement through Digital Billboards

Prince Jacon Igwe discusses the role of a Social Media Librarian in academic libraries, and presents an innovative use of digital billboards to promote the library's and institution's work whilst increasing engagement with students, academics and the public.


Academic libraries across the world are steadily incorporating social media as means to achieving their primary concern of supporting teaching and research in their respective higher institutions. Yet, there appears to be little concern for constant and instant conversation with users on these platforms. As a remedy, this paper makes a case for social media librarianship whereby a dedicated librarian is given the mandate of handling the social media platforms as their primary duty. The paper discusses the need for the social media librarian to take advantage of what is trending on social media as a way of effecting greater user engagement and consequently achieving intellectual stimulation in the campus. As a boost, the author draws on the potentials of digital billboards installed across the campus on which posts from the social media librarian and their conversation with library users are displayed live and publicly to foster interaction among the campus community. The implications of this are also considered, in terms of professionalism, technicality and finance.


Technology is an ever-evolving phenomenon. It changes with time, people and needs. As new technology comes up it becomes apparent to sideline old ones. This is what is attainable in the information technology of the internet which has evolved into what O’Reilly (2005) called Web 2.0 – a platform that enables digital collaboration and sharing. As an institution that constantly seeks out technologies which it can utilize for greater relevance, the library has become some sort of melting point for a variety of Web 2.0 functionalities. We continue to see the librarians’ engagement with these functionalities, the social media being one of them. Hence, this article is a reflection on social media librarianship. The specific objective of the paper is to present the main roles of the social media librarian (SML) as someone who sees a potential to market the academic library and its resources by leveraging on trending topics on social media and incorporating the digital billboard into making the library more visible through the social media.

Conceptual Definitions

Mon (2015) explains that the term ‘social media’ envisions a new type of media that is shared and participatory in nature, involving others in the information lifecycle of creation, organization, sharing, finding, and use. Information being the watchword is shared in such media as audio, image, video or a combination of these, also known as multimedia. It is central to the building of the social media community which a user is a part of. Information might not be the only reason for a user’s participation in social media. The digital content seen on social media is also created and shared for eliciting reactions. Social media tools may differ in utility, interface, and application, but each supports collaboration and sharing where everybody and anybody can share anything, anywhere, anytime (Joosten, 2012). Examples include Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, WeChat, Google+, Reddit, LinkedIn, QZone, etc. The popularity of these social media tools varies from one country to another. For example, Instagram is the most popular social media tool in countries such as Botswana, Namibia, and Iran, but in New Zealand, Australia and Norway Reddit is at the peak (Vincos, 2017). In most social media sites today, information syndication, sharing, reuse, or remixing activities by users (Farkas, 2007) result in the categorization of content into trends.

Trends or trending topics are subjects that experience a surge in popularity on one or more social media platforms for a limited duration of time (Big Commerce, 2015). From politics to celebrity announcements and other newsworthy subjects, trends can be on anything that has found its way into a social media platform and has somehow been talked about repeatedly for some time. Some social media platforms can tailor trends per geographical locations so that trending topics are outlined for a user based on the most popular subjects making the rounds in their area. Other things such as a user’s recent ‘likes’, searches or who the user ‘follows’, contribute to the listing of trending topics. Just as different social media platforms have different interfaces, trends have different ways of appearing on different network sites. Trends on some social media platforms are mostly noted by the prefix of the hash (#) sign and are called hashtags. Users can join the conversation by using the hashtag anywhere within their original post. In this way, trends are always up-to-the-minute, and they often result in greater user engagement.

Engagement is the manner and length of time in which users navigate and react to the information available to them on social media while interacting with each other. User engagement on different social media platforms can be analyzed using different parameters. Facebook will regard engagement as likes, comments, shares, stories, and impressions, while Twitter sees it as mentions, retweets, hashtags and direct messages. Even networks like Instagram give their users the chance to interact through mentions, comments, and hashtags (York, 2015). Though most social networks are accessible through computers and mobile phones, many popular social networks started out as mobile apps and many users are engaged mostly through their smartphone applications. For instance, Statista (2017) reports that for the month of November 2016 mobile Facebook users spent an average of 929 minutes on social media.

Digital billboards are electronic image displays that present multiple static advertisements on a rotating basis (Van Beest, n.d.). Also known as Commercial Electronic Variable Message Signs (CEVMS) and Off–Premise Message Center Displays, digital billboards change advertising content using digital technology. Instead of using paper or vinyl printed advertisements mounted on a billboard face, the technology which drives digital billboards produces static images which are changed via computer, providing a non-manual way to change billboard “copy.” Having existed for decades, digital billboards can be seen in various places – roadways, entertainments hubs, etc. – and from various vantage positions. In the United States alone there are estimated 450,000 billboards faces (OAAA, 2017; Advanced Planning Division, 2012). The use of digital billboards gives the individual or the corporate body the leverage of passing time-sensitive and timely information.

Academic Library of Today and Social Media

Ten years ago, Barsky and Purdon (2006) discovered that social networks which are expanding communication through social media are becoming popular and the costs involved are getting further reduced. Yet, library executives did not see how such a phenomenon could become a part of library and information services. They felt that the users should be left to their social media while the library carried on with its traditional roles (De Rosa et al., 2007). This was also the case when Charnigo and Barnett-Ellis (2007) conducted a survey of 126 academic librarians and concluded that 54% of the librarians surveyed did not believe that there was an academic purpose for Facebook. The rationale behind these librarians’ belief was that the social media was a space where students interact with each other, hence, the librarian was not welcome as their coming in might be viewed as an invasion of space. But time has proved that as the technology of the social media became more popular, users and librarians acquired digitally literacy, and libraries, seeing an explosion of social media around it, were forced to reconsider their stance. In a survey involving 497 international librarians, Taylor & Francis (2014) discovered that over 70% of librarians now feel that the use of social media is important. Though the wave began with public libraries (Mon, 2015), today, libraries of every type either have a social media presence or they are seriously considering it. Hence, the use of social media by libraries has become mainstream (Chu & Nalani-Meulemans, 2008). This is not just because library users are in the social media space and the library is challenged to seek out the users where they are. Social media on its own carries functionalities that open up an endless window of opportunities for libraries. The intersection of the library of today and social media can be wrapped up using Library 2.0 – an innovative way of delivering library services through the web and a translation of the principles of Web 2.0 into the design and delivery of library services (Patridge, 2011).

As knowledge systems situated at the center of teaching and research in higher institutions, academic libraries deal directly with young people who are widely regarded as digital natives. In doing this, the academic library needs technological support which the social media gives by promoting both active learning and collaboration. Sodt and Summey (2009) present evidence in their study that academic libraries are incorporating social media in the library to reach out to the millennial generation. This holds great value for the library, as a 2017 fact sheet released by Pew Research Centre reveals that the number of young adults in the U.S. who use at least one social media site stands at 86%, and Facebook is the most popular among the social media sites (Pew Research Centre, 2017). It is worthy of note that these social media users mentioned are either patrons or potential patrons of academic libraries.

In addition, twenty-first century academic libraries must adapt to a vast world of instant gratification, e-commerce, and competition for resources as it becomes imperative that they extend beyond the walls of their individual institutions to online open access information spaces, dealing with intelligent internet sharing tools and online social communication, and networking technologies (Herman Miller, 2009; Tait, Martzoukou, & Reid, 2016). The academic library user expects to get information services outside the traditional space of the library. Makori (2011) agrees that social media sites have assisted university libraries in the promotion of information services to their patrons. Accordingly, academic libraries can use social media to interact with patrons and community partners online in a bid to offer an almost-immediate service to their users (Levesque, 2016). And, as Mack et al. (2007) claim that there is an apparent willingness of undergraduate students to communicate with librarians by means of social media, this instantaneous interaction between the academic library and its vast number of users rubs off on the image of the library and librarian as omnipotent, reliable and friendly – three things that the library and librarian see themselves constantly trying to achieve in their relationship with clients. It is these evidence-based facts, among many, that led academic libraries to buy into the promise of social media a long time ago.

Apart from offering information services, academic libraries use social media for other kinds of library-user interaction. Mathews (2011) highlights the objectives of university libraries in active social media use as:

These views are consistent with Taylor & Francis who take the stand that through the social media, the library seeks opinion on its self and its services for the sake of self-evaluation. Doing this will better position the library to respond to the needs of the users. In addition, being where the users are means taking advantage of virtual spaces. Hence, the library has to push its events, services, news, etc. to this virtual space, thereby provoking collaboration in such areas as collection development. The library collection is an important feature of the library, and academic libraries are using the social media to promote new and existing content.

As agreed by many studies, academic libraries are using social media in ways that portray the library as both up-to-date in technological trends and relevant, even in the social life of the user. In the Indian state of Odisha, Sahu (2016) surveyed best practices of social media using selected engineering college libraries. He found that the social media platforms mostly used to connect with potential users are WhatsApp, Facebook, and Meebo. The libraries also offered customer services using these platforms in addition to blog and Twitter. Not only did these libraries collect and disseminate information using the social media, librarians were confirmed to communicate among themselves using such platforms as LinkedIn and Pinterest. This evidence points to the interoperability of social media platforms in one library. Library users vary in interest and, as they make varying choices regarding the social media platform to be on the library is expected to be interested in, if not all of them, the ones that are more popular within the locale.

WeChat is the most popular social media platform in China; and academic libraries, such as Shanghai University Library has an official account on this platform. They have over 4,700 subscribers – about 10% of all faculty members and students. Liu et al. (2016) report that through WeChat app subscribers access the library services remotely. On WeChat, the library disseminates information on the following: new digital resources, new books, events, lectures and seminars, posters, holidays, reading reviews, and library highlights. This platform has come to partially replace web online reference services in the library, signaling a movement of technology to something easier and more convenient. Because new information culture is the open and sharing culture, libraries, such as Shanghai University Library, are using social media to spread information concerning the library. This same practice is obtainable in Yale University Science Libraries which announce workshops on library resources, provide links to online archives, and give tips on sending text messages to a librarian, using their social media platforms. Through Twitter, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Libraries provide brief announcements regarding essential academic activities in the libraries such as workshops, classes, and study group information (Kim & Abbas, 2010).

In most of these academic libraries studied, the library websites serve as points through which users can get into their social media platforms. The shortcut icons of these social media platforms are located at conspicuous areas on their homepage and, apart from connecting with the library on social media, library users can share posts published by the library. This trend is evident in such academic libraries as Amelia V. Gallucci-Cirio Library in Massachusetts, USA. LeBlanc and Kay (2014), after analyzing the application of Web 2.0 tools in the library’s homepage, report that two Web 2.0 tools are prominently displayed for patron usage and interaction.

Conceptualizing Social Media Librarianship through its Evolution

The concept of social media librarianship owes its origin to the gradual transformation in information and communications technology in the library, from the use of correspondence mail to teletype and then telephone for selective dissemination of information and communication. This moved from the experimental use of email in the 1980s for reference services to ‘chat reference’ in the mid-2000s (Borgendale & Weise, 1986; Ryan, 1996; Ware, Howe, & Scalese, 2000). Libraries began to own websites in the wake of the 2000s, incorporating such things as digital reference services there. The birth of the first generation of social media (SixDegrees and Friendster) began to draw the users to this participatory technology. And, by the time MySpace and Facebook appeared on the scene in 2003 and 2004 respectively, academic interest began to move towards the potentials of these platforms in boosting library and information services.

As stated before, it dawned on librarians that the social media was a flexible tool which could help the library in so many ways. According to Mon (2015), in about 2005–2007, the first pioneering libraries began to explore possible uses of social media technologies, and MySpace’s popularity with teens gained it a strong early popularity among libraries. With libraries opening social media accounts, a challenge arose as to who should manage these accounts. There was a significant lack of staff members in the library who were familiar with the way social media sites worked. Spending time on their personal social media accounts and taking advantage of Web 2.0 training materials circulating on the internet librarians began to gain the practical and cognitive competencies possessed by users of social media; they began to have the motivation to employ these media effectively and appropriately for social interaction and communication with their ever growing and sophisticated patrons (Ezeani & Igwesi, 2012; Vanwynsberghe & Verdegem, 2013). In 2014, Taylor & Francis reported that over 70% of libraries are using social media tools, and 60% have had a social media account for three years or longer while 30% of librarians are posting at least daily on such social media platforms as Facebook and Twitter. This provides evidence that social media librarianship kicked off at the libraries’ realization of the promise of social media. Furthermore, the status of the SML shows that this library staff member is one who applies their knowledge and experience in librarianship to the day-to-day management of the library’s social media accounts. Hence, the SML makes professionally-sound decisions, knowing the right way to fine tune posts about anything happening in the library.

Since library staff roles have evolved, highlighting the importance of staying current with new media and digital trends, as well as modern approaches to information seeking and use, sharing and communication (Curral & Moss, 2008), library and information schools have incorporated the teaching of social media in their curriculum. Tyner (2010), giving his thoughts on the question, “Is there a Social Media Librarian in Your Library’s Future?” reveals that the School of Library, Archival and Information Studies (SLAIS) at the University of British Columbia (UBC) has been running Social Media for Information Professionals course since Fall of 2009. Highlighting the roles and duties of a Web Services Librarian who was hired from SLAIS to work in Okanagan College Library, he explained that the staff investigates and implements social media.

Considering this, the library would be doing itself tremendous good if it should have a member of staff officially appointed as the SML because the social media has become a cultural force in the world, bridging the gap between traditional library (and its collections) and the new generation of users whose first point of call for information has become Google. In reaching out to students, the SML should transcend the formal academic environment and should reach out to students in more direct and meaningful ways. As Mon (2015) explains, one of these ways is to engage with shared culture and communication styles as there are on social media. She gives an example deciding to regularly use certain appropriate “day of the week” postings like popular “days of the week” hashtags such as #MusicMonday, and #FridayReads to engage with the users.

The Social Media Librarian and Trending Topics

Oh, Ozkaya and LaRose (2014) purported that users who engaged in a certain quality of social media interactivity perceived an enhanced sense of community and life satisfaction. This is clear in the way that heightened communication and collaboration make the social media a rallying point for them. As students and faculty members build communication without barrier the social media practice advances within the framework of the community; it moves from a one-dimensional online broadcast platform to a multidimensional socially connected space that creates value for both the library and library users (Young & Rossman, 2015). It can then be rightly said that since the library’s social media is a community almost in the way that the university community is it needs constant building. Though cyclic communication and collaboration on social media can be a pointer to success, they are not the only conditions to take into consideration when one is looking at building the social media community. It is important to guide the SML through outlined Social Media Goals (SMGs). These SMGs which serve as the building blocks can be monitored over time as the SML informs, interacts and communicates with users. SMGs can contain the following principal components mentioned by Young and Rossman: audience focus, goals, values, activity focus, tone and tenor, posting frequency, posting categories, and posting personnel. All these components touch on the issue of trends or trending topics which can serve to build a stronger and better social media community.

Figure 1: Sample Post on the University of Nigeria Nsukka Library to Promote their Special Collection

At every hour of the day on social media, as users interact using certain words and expressions, trends emerge, jostling for top spot. When one loses its popularity, it is replaced by another. As words (and, sometimes, phrases) that are contained in posts made and shared by social media users, these trends provide real-time insights into ‘the talk of the moment’. As a professional who has their ears to the ground, it falls on the SML to take advantage of these trends to stimulate user engagement on the library’s social media platform. How can this be done?

Figure 2: Steps in Real-Time Trends-Based Social Media Librarianship

One of the duties of the SML is to keep an eye out for items of interest – in fact, that is one of the duties of every librarian. Like the time in the past when users’ popular interests are used to formulate ready reference, trending topics can be added to posts made by the SML. These posts will certainly be content that have to do with what the trends are about.

A SML should be intuitive enough to know that trends are like questions and users are often interested in answers. This is why the trends are there in the first place, and this is why most users click on them to read through posts that are made on that trend and to get information about ‘what’s up’. Hence, at the emergence of any interesting/worthy trend, the SML should quickly collaborate with the different sections that there are in the library to get information on the trending topic from resources that are available in the library. With the information gotten from the resources, the SML should come up with one or a series of striking posts that present information to users on the trending topic while also making it clear that the information shared is contained in a resource that is available for consultation in so-and-so section of the library. It is important to tag relevant faculty members whose area of interest relates to the trend. By doing this, the SML would not only be fulfilling an information need, they would be creating an avenue on the platform for users (mostly students and faculty members) to cyclically communicate and collaborate on the post made. Cyclic communication and collaboration are the chief factors of user engagement.

Synergizing Real-Time Trends-Based Social Media Librarianship and Digital Billboards

There is an overwhelming inclination of social media users toward mobile technology. This has made social media sites develop apps as alternatives to the wide screen of computers. In fact, the primary means of accessing the social media, for most users, has become the mobile app, and computers now serve as alternatives. But for a campus where students and faculty members hardly have the time in the day to take a peep at what the library is posting (the little time they have in between academic activities are devoted to scrolling through the things they can immediately see in their social media feeds) it becomes clear that the library has to devise a way to create another means of display on campus that will focus on its trends-based posts while also serving as a medium for other kinds of communication and announcement. This is where digital billboards come in.

Evidence shows that 90% of people notice messages on digital billboards some or most of the time (Arbitron, 2008), and, with the flexibility and dynamic content such as delivering real-time information which the digital billboard has, academic libraries have to consider them as necessary appendages in social media librarianship whereby students and faculty members can be stopped in their tracks and informed of what is currently happening in the world and where they can get information on the trending topic in the library.

The digital billboards will also serve as flashpoints for the collaboration and communication (in the form of comments, shares, retweets or RTs, replies, etc.) that the library, students, and staff would have on the trending topic. As we live in a world where people want to have their ‘voices’ heard on social media, students and faculty members will be encouraged to air their opinions on the trending topic from their own point of academic/research interest so that they can be heard, at least, by the university community. Those who have not joined the library’s social media will reconsider and join the train out of the excitement that the digital billboards bring, and user engagement will see an exponential growth.

The digital billboards will not only serve as an alternative display for the campus in relation to the social media of the library. It will bridge the gap for students and faculty members who have not connected with the library on social media, or who, for one reason or another, do not have social media accounts. It will give them insight into the working of social media while also providing a means through which they can learn trending topics in real-time that have academic relevance. Ultimately, academics will be stimulated and strengthened through this cycle.

Figure 3: Social Media Librarianship and Digital Billboard Synergy Cycle

Implications of Real-Time Trends-Based Social Media Librarianship and Digital Billboards Synergy

For the inclusion of digital billboards to real-time trends-based social media librarianship to work, there are important implications that the SML and the library at large must consider. These implications touch on a lot of things that might adversely affect user engagement and make the work of the SML seem either too tough or unyielding. Here, they are divided into professional implications, technical implications, and financial implications.

Professional Implications

Social media librarianship involves constant updates on the part of the SML. In the flood of duties and responsibilities such as attending to clientele, research and others which threaten to overwhelm the librarian, librarians believe that social media platforms are time-consuming and too engrossing to use, as they need to be constantly updated (Collins & Quan-Haase, 2012). This might serve as a challenge to the SML if he is given other duties and responsibilities in the library apart from managing the social media platforms. So, it would help to make the SML a member of staff who is solely devoted to the social media of the library alone. This will allow them to focus on updates happening both in the social media and the profession, and follow accordingly by learning and unlearning. This will also allow for perfect accountability as it would seem out of control to give all staff access to posting on the social media on behalf of the library.

The library is an official institution (although posts on its social media might sound informal), and the SML needs to take cognizance of trends that may be perceived as inappropriate by the library community on social media. It is important to know what kinds of trends the SML can wade into and those they should stay away from. In addition, the way trends are approached is also important. These are things that the SMG should make clear on. Hence, deliberations are necessary among a group of staff in the library who are conversant with the way social media works. A proper SMG that will show what the library is about can be drafted and vetted to confirm that it is in accordance with the institution’s social media policy, if any exists. In addition, the library might want to conduct surveys among library users, presenting them with classes of topics and sample posts with trends. This can better inform them in formulating the SMG based on the views of the users.

Studies such as Chu and Nalani-Meulemans (2008) and Connel (2009) proposed that students did not want to connect with the library on the social media. Time has proven that if this was existent, it is no longer attainable as students and faculty members are now in constant communication with their institutions’ libraries on the social media. This being the case, even though the university might have to propose to faculty members and students to give out their social media details so that the library can connect with them there, it is important to find out what they think about the library mentioning or tagging them in posts. Where users give their consent, the SML should not take it as a privilege to use as they please. Indiscriminate mentions and tags to posts might be translated by students and faculty members as disturbance if not an utter invasion of space. The SML must be careful, then, as he tags only relevant faculty members and students. Tagging, say, a Professor of Chemistry on a post about the Nobel Prize for Literature is not proper as the subject of the post is not chemistry. In tagging faculty members and students, discretion should be exercised with caution.

As social media gives people the illusion of not being held responsible, the SML should moderate the communication on the library’s social media platform. Communication can go the wrong way, and the library’s social media must not become a platform for insults or disagreements that are not well presented. The SML should promptly delete any form of comment or reply that is denigrating in any way. If possible, defaulters should be warned discretely through their inbox and told to desist from such. This will foster healthy user engagement and ensure that users are comfortable enough to communicate and collaborate.

Copyright issues come into play too. In sharing any form of information gotten from a resource in the library, the SML is under the mandate of their profession to ensure that it does not contradict copyright law in any way. If not the library might become entangled in a legal issue that could have been avoided.

Technical Implications

The installation of digital billboards is not what the library can handle on its own. Technical hands are needed for proper installation and connection to the central social media unit in the library. Tait, Martzoukou and Reid (2016) rightly pointed out that as academic librarians are called to assert their roles in changing technological and blended learning environments, there is a need for a wider exchange of information and collaboration with other professional groups, both academic and support staff who can provide their expertise on technology and educational/instructional design. Hence, the library should either find qualified help in the engineering departments of the university or hire them from outside to support the installation. Either way, for the potential of the billboards to be realized their locations might be deliberated at the university level with every faculty and the department concerned with the campus environment well represented.

The use of the digital billboards should be according to the regulations that guide them in a country. It becomes the duty of the library and SML to understand these regulations and work with them as posts come up on the digital billboards. As the library is indirectly advertising itself, its resources and services the SML should serve as the mediator in any case where the advertising agency of a country begins to find interest in the library’s use of digital billboards.

Financial Implications

For academic libraries that do not have SMLs yet, it might prove too much to start employing one. Alternatively, two or three staff who are technology-savvy can be selected and trained on the use of social media as it applies to the library. The library administration will find this cheaper compared to the addition of another staff or group of staff on its payroll.

Having a social media that is geared towards taking advantage of trends means that the library must stock up on resources that are up-to-date culturally, politically, scientifically and otherwise. This is to produce contents that are satisfactorily aligned with most trends. Where possible, the SML can anticipate trends per the (political, cultural, scientific) climate of the moment and help the library in deciding what resources it should purchase in the future. It is understood that resources purchase will have a strain on the library’s budget. Libraries across all sectors are known to have battled finance cuts at some point as their host institutions channel money into other areas. However, the library administration must realize that currency of collection is one of the assessment parameters for libraries. The importance of the social media to the library can be used to plan collection budgets accordingly.

On the digital billboards, libraries will be forced to properly consider the pocket of their host institutions and draw up a workable plan for their purchase. Where the host institution can handle it, the library can buy the number of digital billboards it needs at once. Where this is not possible, the library can start with one or two and subsequently acquire more.


Librarianship is a profession that takes from technology to keep being relevant and exciting at the same time. Today’s librarians have an arsenal of technology at their beck and call to step up the library’s visibility to the clientele. This paper has looked at social media and how it can be applied to academic librarianship. The SML is at the center of this as they are the professionals who manage the library’s social media. The promise that social media trends or trending topics have on building the community following on the library on social media has been extensively explored as they can serve as means through which the SML can advertise the resources and services of the library while building the community and stimulating intellectual discourse in the campus. As alternatives to users’ phone and computer screens (since they are engaged in academic activities most of the day) digital billboards have been proposed as means through which the SML’s posts can get out there – a way of sparking a sense of community in the campus and including students and faculty members who are not on social media. The implications of this practice have been properly outlined and discussed so that, in effecting this synergy academic libraries, will know what they are going in for and how they can handle it all.


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