Monday 27 June 2011

Social media & libraries: keeping an ear to the ground

Recently I’ve been keenly alert to what is happening in social media for professional use. From what I am hearing, I am not alone. Businesses, education, research institutions, to name some, want to find out what their clients want and how they can reach further by using social media. A very good reason behind this interest is that many people worldwide use social media daily. GlobalWebIndex has just released an infographic that visualises the global state of social networking in 2011. In Australia alone, there are 7.5 million active social networkers. According to the statistic, we are mainly a nation of content sharers, and messagers and mailers, but we are less likely to be joiners and creators of groups.
While the number of people using social media is significant, it isn’t always clear how and why online engagement would benefit organisations. Many organisations and their libraries are not sure whether social media is worth the effort at all.
Government & workplace 2.0
Last month the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner released the policy document Principles on open public sector information, which identifies open access to government information as an area of national significance. The second of six principles, Engaging the community, recommends active online engagement with the community and the use of Web 2.0 tools. This policy document is created with an intention to inform and influence information management policies and practices of government agencies. It is not clear at this point how it will be adopted in practice.
Earlier this month, Dr Chen presented a seminar entitled Online engagement or neo-liberal Trojan horse at the Parliamentary Library in Canberra arguing that the Government 2.0 does not serve only the interests of the public. In discussing how to avoid potential pitfalls, Dr Chen emphasises, among other factors, the importance of general information literacy and motivation of government agencies. Libraries clearly have a role to play in identifying and developing critical information skills, which are required for online engagement, but they also may be able to lead the way, as so many times before, in developing motivation of their organisations. However, developing motivation may not be an easy task when government libraries, like many libraries in other sectors, often operate in an environment where openness is not a default position. It is difficult to argue for an online engagement when a librarian cannot access many useful web pages and when Facebook and Twitter are blacklisted with all other social media sites.
Positive examples of online engagement may help in making the use of social media acceptable and even desirable at a workplace. Luckily, libraries provide numerous examples of successful online engagement and ALIA Sydney can certainly point towards some inspiring practices.
Disturbing the dust
Last month I followed the ‘disturb the dust’ campaign, which provided lots of good reading material and an excellent example of online engagement. The University of Sydney Library is planning renovations of its oldest and largest branch, Fisher Library, which houses material in the humanities and social sciences. When it was announced that a large part of the collection will be accessible from a repository rather than in the library, parts of the University community started to express their dissatisfaction, even anger and outrage, protesting against the decision. Funding and staffing cuts also featured prominently in discussions about changes. Since the University Librarian mentioned a ‘dust test’ as a criterion for relocation, the Facebook page Save the books! Disturb the dust! Mass book borrowing & READ IN 18/05 was created.
A week before the event, numerous postings discussing library developments appeared on the page. Witty, angry, emotional and rational posts made for great reading, potential research data for discourse analysis and, most importantly, were a testimony of a committed library community. At the same time, archival library pictures evoked memories and numerous comments were exchanged on related Facebook pages. When the big day of mass dust disturbance came, the library staff greeted users in the foyer, helped them with borrowing and answered their questions. Pictures from the protest were posted on the Flickr by students and further distributed by the Library.
From my online post, it appeared that Facebook exchanges contributed greatly to airing concerns, engaging the community and bringing the cherished library into focus. Rather than hiding from upset customers or trying to have the last word in discussions, the Library did all the right things to engage with its clients and promote open discussion and good will. Informal public exchanges on Facebook gave a new dimension to the event. If the Fisher Library ‘disturb the dust’ case is anything to go by, social media provides powerful tools for libraries to keep an ear to the ground and promote its profile of a responsive and engaged service provider.
By the way, as I was about to finish this blog, I read the following Twitter post: julian0liver Julian Oliver ‘My six month trial of Twitter ends today. Verdict? Perfectly distracting, hopelessly useful, disturbingly interesting. See you tomorrow.’
- Suzana Sukovic
Suzana is Research Associate at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, the University of Sydney and a peripatetic librarian.
Join her on Twitter (@suzanasukovic) and Facebook

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