Librarians are, in general, often quick to pick up and experiment with new technologies, integrating them into their work to improve the library service. Social media are no exception. This article seeks to show how the adoption of social media by different library sectors in Wales is helping to deliver and promote their library services.
In Wales, the benefits of a small population (some three million people), good cross-library sector links, and the fact that libraries are a devolved issue (ie, the Welsh Government can create its own library policy), mean that it is possible to do things on an all-Wales scale. Welsh library strategies have been in place since 2005, and one feature has been a national marketing strategy for libraries. Led by 1.5 full-time equivalent project officers based at Wrexham County Borough Council, the marketing strategy seeks not only to improve the marketing skills and techniques of library staff in Wales but also to promote libraries and their benefits to the general public, and change people’s perceptions of libraries.
Conscious of the increasing interest in social media, the marketing project officers were keen to explore how they could be used by librarians and library services. But they did not wish to embark on campaigns which use social media if library staff and users are unable to access them. Anecdotal evidence suggested that many librarians were prevented from accessing social media tools in a work setting, and that access varied across the different library sectors. Therefore more objective and reliable evidence was needed to determine whether these indications were true.
As programme manager for the library strategy, I worked with the marketing project officers to design a bilingual survey for the library services in Wales and to analyse the results and produce a report .
The electronic survey was issued in May 2010 to heads of services and had an excellent response rate from the three main library sectors: Further Education (FE) 50%; Higher Education (HE) 75%; public libraries 60%. Some special libraries also replied (health, national and government).
The first, and key question, was to establish if there were barriers in accessing social media, either for librarians or for users. The social media categories used were:
I shall not discuss the problems of generic blocking of access, as it has been done comprehensively elsewhere . The results revealed a mixed picture, but, on analysing by library type, it was noted that whilst university libraries had no barriers, special, Further Education and public libraries all had barriers in place.
This pattern of different access across the sector was repeated for all the other questions: it seems that university librarians have more freedom to experiment with social media. So in Wales this has meant several of the early adopters of blogs, etc were in the HE sector.
Analysis of the free-text comments provided further interesting evidence. Many confirmed that access was blocked for both staff and students. Others said that staff were restricted but the public were able to access most of these sorts of sites (blocks being connected to content not interactivity); whereas FE colleges sometimes had access for staff but restrictions for students. In addition, there were sometimes restrictions for certain hours during the day (e.g. access only during lunch hours, both for staff and students) or a quota of time allowed (e.g. 1 hour) and also restrictions (filtering for content) for children, with restrictions applying at ages 12 and below, alternatively at 14, or 15. Other comments revealed that requests for access could be made:
[Blocked] for all users at specific times, eg between 9.00 & 1.00 and from 2.00 - 4.00pm. (FE library)
Facebook is blocked for staff and students 9am - 12pm and 12.45pm - 3pm. (FE library)
Public access PC's are blocked by age range so most Social network sites are open from age 12 upwards and blocked for anyone below this age range. All administration PC's are blocked from using such sites with the exception of staff that have responsibilities for creating contents for Twitter, Facebook and blogger. (Public library)
Sites blocked automatically - though it is possible to request that blocks be removed if access required for a specific reason e.g. training purposes. (Health library)
The vast majority of responses indicated that the block was the organisation’s decision and some people specifically said it was the IT department’s decision, although sometimes the library made its own policies regarding access to social media Web sites. The main reason for restrictions was listed as security followed by organisation’s policy. There were also references to the safety of children when online, bandwidth, misuse/abuse of work computers during work hours, concerns of inappropriate content (e.g. in blogs written by staff) and distractions from academic work for students.
Librarians were asked whether their library currently used Web 2.0 tools or if they were planning to use them, and to give examples. Almost three quarters of the respondents to the survey said their library either used, or was planning to use, Web 2.0 technologies
Of those who are already using these technologies people cited Twitter (29 mentions) then social networking sites (25 mentions, mainly Facebook), and then blogs (23 mentions) the most frequently. Some of the comments of what people are doing are below.
We currently use twitter for updating on events, new resources and other goings on. We also run a pageflake which supports our HE students and acts as a repository for interesting articles, web links, videos and more. We're working on creating a blog and creating a Facebook group for the student association. (FE library)
The library already has its own blog, we have started some reading groups on-line through Moodle and we also use Delicious for tagging on-line resources (such as e-books). The college also has a youtube channel and twitter accounts which the library can use. (FE library)
Delicious; RSS feeds; flickr; YouTube; textwall (FE library)
Yes - Twitter (for promotion), blogs (for promotion), wikis (sharing information), Facebook (FE)
Our subject teams have blogs. The systems librarian is trying to set up RSS feeds for new books. Our Health team use delicious tags to make web sites available to students. There is a Facebook page about 24 hour access to the library set up by the students union which library staff have put comments on though the students seem to have got tired of it after an initial flurry of messages. (HE library)
Blogs - various ones used for subject support and news. RSS - used on main website. Delicious - trialled by some subject librarians. Video sharing sites - used by one or two librarians, various teaching purposes. Twitter - have a library/IS feed, also used by a number of librarians for news and professional contact. (HE library)
Last year we used a blog to promote the Orange Prize for Fiction and will be doing that again this year. (Public library)
We are currently establishing Facebook pages for our teenage libraries. We currently only have one of these for our e-teens section. Others are planned. (Public library)
Yes - currently use Facebook, Blogger and Twitter. Most of them are used in a promotional capacity and/or to advertise events. (Public library)
These quotations show the typical scope of what librarians were doing a year ago – they are probably experimenting with even more tools by now.
Respondents also indicated what sort of things they wanted to do with social media, and there is certainly a lot of enthusiasm among library staff to use these tools, particularly in marketing, communications and service-delivery capacities.
Given the importance of libraries' use of social media technologies in their work, do library staff have the necessary skills to exploit them? Predictably enough, the majority of respondents said that 'some staff' have the necessary skills. Frequently those who used social media in a personal capacity were early adopters in work as well. Certainly training and awareness about social media is an important staff development issue that needs to be addressed.
Staff who have an interest in the technologies are usually very keen to exploit them. Forcing staff who are less confident or lack interest to make use of them is unlikely to be beneficial. If staff are not keen the end product (e.g. blog) may be of poor quality and could be counter productive, creating a negative image of the library service
Several respondents link being able to operate in a social media environment to the overall image and reputation of a library service, with obvious negative connotations if there isn’t a presence. However, that presence must be relevant and up to date, or is conceivably worse than no presence at all.
Having good quality content is essential. There is no point having a blog just for the sake of it; it must have a purpose and an audience.
We will get left behind and been seen as old fashioned and out of touch if we don't make use of the available technology.
In summer 2011, the Society of Chief Librarians (Wales) decided to conduct their own internal survey of access to social media in public libraries in order to update the findings from the cross-sector report of the previous year. They achieved a 100% response rate and I am grateful to them for sharing with me a copy of the results. It appears that in the last 12 months slightly more local authorities now allow public library staff to have access to social media Web sites, and all but two allow users social media access. However there are still many examples of restrictions preventing library staff from accessing social media Web sites, even though their use is work-related.
For staff in all library sectors, it is important that even if they do not wish to engage with social media in their personal life, or in a professional sphere, they still need to know what they are, why they might be useful for their work and their readers, and be able to answer questions about them from users where appropriate. (Just as library staff may dislike Westerns, they still need to know enough to advise patrons who want to read Westerns.) The online training course 23 Things could be a good place to start to familiarise oneself with the multitude of new tools .
For Further Education and public libraries, the results show that other libraries in their sector are able to integrate social media applications into their professional world without either the IT system being hacked or the organisation being brought into disrepute (security and fear of what might be said being two of the main reasons given for preventing access). Librarians in these sectors who do face access problems could therefore put together a business case for being allowed access (see below).
Responses to the survey indicate that there is considerable amount of experience and enthusiasm among Welsh library staff to engage with social media in order to deliver their library service in different ways, or reach different audiences, or try new communication methods.
The report intentionally did not try to list all the social media library examples in Wales or to produce a list of 'all the Welsh library blogs' as any list would be out of date within in a week. If readers would like to see some examples of what different Welsh libraries are doing, please contact me and I can email some links. If librarians are thinking of creating an online presence for their library service, then looking at what others in their field are doing is very useful.
Reflecting what the survey’s findings mean for Welsh libraries and librarians has led to several outcomes. The marketing project officers are planning training for library staff in Wales on how to develop and enhance social media tools for libraries. Furthermore, I have created a sample business case that librarians can edit for their own use to request access to have a social media presence in their organisation.
With regards to seeking a social media presence, the first thing librarians can do is check if their organisation has a social media/networking policy. If it does, it is useful to investigate if there is a method for seeking approval for having a social networking presence. After being inspired by various speakers during a string of conferences to try blogging and micro-blogging, I put together the business case that my workplace required. Permission was sought and given for a blog and for a Twitter account. Because I know many librarians and library service staff are frustrated by being unable to become content creators on social media Web sites, I adapted my personal business case into a generic template that can be edited by librarians in any sector for their own workplace. It is available on my Slideshare account  but because I know some librarians cannot access Slideshare in work, please email me for a copy.
If you are seeking approval for a social media presence, some of the important things to consider are:
Thinking about these issues beforehand is important before you jump in and start blogging or tweeting. With blogging, for example, you may want to write up a few blog posts beforehand, so that you have several ready when you launch the blog to give plenty for followers to read at the start. Thinking about your content in advance is important. As one respondent in the survey said:
Having good quality content is essential. There is no point having a blog just for the sake of it; it must have a purpose and an audience.
Different social media tools do different things, and appeal to different people. If you want to engage with teenagers, you need to decide which is the most appropriate medium (where are they hanging out online?). Internet expert Phil Bradley has written three blog posts reflecting on different social networks and which ones are useful for librarians, depending on what you like or want you want to do .
For myself, I started my blog about Welsh libraries as two separate Web sites (one English, one Welsh) and maintained these for almost six months. However, because I am still a Welsh learner (although a relatively competent one) the resource implications of duplicating my posts became too much. I found that I was only writing short posts because I was conscious I would need to translate, edit and have them checked by a kind colleague, and then add all the links and photos again. It led to my only blogging about once a fortnight. But blogging is generally seen as a relatively spontaneous activity that one does fairly regularly; I had anticipated I would write blog posts every week or more often as the occasion arose. After taking the decision to continue just in English, I wrote several blog posts in one week as I had quite a bit to say! I have decided to keep the Welsh blog live for the time being, and will write posts which are on Welsh-language library issues and so not seek to make the two blogs replicate one another.
There are also legal issues to consider before starting a social media presence, for example, Freedom of Information requests can come by Twitter and you should make sure you are aware of your organisation’s policy on handing FOI requests so that you can deal with them appropriately. As it is also a written medium, the content creator should always abide by the law and not write anything defamatory. Librarians are generally very aware of these issues and as long as they observe their usual code of ethics, they should not encounter major difficulties. The Welsh report does not go into these topics and those interested in learning more about social media in the library world could look at the UKOLN Cultural Heritage guides on this topic . You may also like to look at a recent publication on museums and social media produced by Sound Delivery which is very informative .
Despite all the whizzy technologies, social media Web sites are ultimately just communication channels. My Twitter account (@libalyson) was called 'chatter for anoraks' by a very senior colleague in his regular staff bulletin. (He reassured me this was a compliment.) You may not see your online audience as anoraks, but these tools are just different ways for you to talk to your users. And nobody, I hope, wants to ban talking.
To end, possibly the most nonsensical example of where corporate policies have not been thought out and create laughable situations:
It [the council] advertises some things on Facebook, but these can't be accessed in the library. [Public library]
Dr Alyson Tyler
Libraries Development Adviser
CyMAL: Museums Archives and Libraries Wales (Welsh Government)
Web site: http://www.wales.gov.uk/cymal and http://libalyson.wordpress.com
Alyson Tyler is the Libraries Development Adviser for CyMAL: Museums Archives and Libraries Wales, a division of the Welsh Government. Her role includes providing advice and support to librarians and libraries in Wales, overseeing the library grant programme, ministerial work and programme manager for the library strategy, among other things. She has an interest in all things library. And yoga.