Librarians and researchers network online

It is still early days for librarians networking with users online, but there are plenty of potential benefits if librarians and their organisations get it right, writes David Stuart

The library and information science community have been quick to recognise the potential of social network sites to engage with both customers and other library and information professionals. Sites such as Twitter and Facebook, which allow users to build profiles, publicly connect with other users, and share content, are currently some of the biggest online properties.

Whenever a new social network site appears, librarians are often amongst the first to be found putting it through its paces, testing its suitability for their community of users. Books and articles abound on how libraries and information services can, and are, making use of such social network sites to share their content and have conversations with their users.

However, if you delve below the surface, you quickly discover a far more complex information landscape. There are vast differences in the extent to which libraries are making use of the social network site opportunities, from the academic libraries that have been quick to embrace the potential of social network sites, to the corporate sector, which has been more circumspect. What’s more, just because a library takes the lead, it does not mean that its users will follow.

Academic libraries

Academic libraries are ideally placed amongst the library community to take advantage of the opportunities offered by the latest web technologies. The annual influx of new students provides the academic librarian with a large number of users for whom traditional communication channels within the institution have not already become entrenched, and who are already regularly using social network sites in their personal lives. In addition, the importance of openness to the innovation process has been recognised and encouraged within the academic community for a long time. There are also signs of increasing openness through open access and open data.

The public embracing of social media by academic libraries is clearly visible. Visit any academic library’s web pages today and you are likely to find a number of links to social network sites alongside the more traditional opening times and online catalogue. Where there are no links to social network sites to be found it is as likely to be a reflection of the rigmarole of dealing with the institution’s content management system as the non-adoption of any social network sites.

Generally, however, these links are to the official organisational presence, which all too often fails to engage the conversational potential of the technologies. Gareth Johnson, document supply and research archive manager at the University of Leicester, UK, described his university library’s repository and news page Twitter feeds as ‘more of a web 1.0 broadcast approach and less of an interactive one.’

The web 1.0 attitude is also carried over into his library’s Facebook groups, which, despite being used considerably to interact with the library’s users, fail to offer a truly open conversational forum. ‘As an organisation, the ethos in using these sites is more directed at controlling the conversation than engendering one,’ he observed.

The potential of social network sites in libraries is beginning to emerge less in the official streams, and more through the librarians making use of their own accounts for engaging with library users. Johnson explained how he has been using Twitter as an additional route for engaging with the local academics and PhD students, and the positive experiences he’s had. ‘It allows the interchange of comments, questions and concerns in an ongoing and semi-formal environment,’ he said.

This Twitter approach is great for answering short queries. However, Johnson also pointed out its potential for getting rapid informal feedback, and for having debates around professional issues over long periods of time. It is these uses that are less appropriate, or at least more interruptive, through more traditional forms of communication. These interactions build an important level of understanding between users that can carry over into face-to-face meetings: ‘As a librarian it is a comforting thought that at least one or more of the people in the room will actually be aware of my work, and my department’s approaches, at a more realistic level than would otherwise have been achieved through a few blanket emails.’

Corporate libraries

In comparison, formal adoption of social network sites within the corporate world is less widespread. A corporate library is more likely to have a number of well-established communication channels for engaging with its users, and be more adverse to the risk of public engagement.

There is a lot of discussion about the potential use of social networking within the corporate world, and a few tentative excursions. However, within many organisations it continues to play a minor role. As Sara Batts, senior research librarian at international law firm Reed Smith LLP, pointed out, in some areas, such as the legal world, facts are important, but opinions are less so. Fully embracing the potential of social network sites risks losing the authority of information.

Although Batts uses social networks extensively in her personal life, her corporate use of social networks is fairly limited. LinkedIn and Facebook are mainly used to find information on people. And the Facebook group that the organisation set up to communicate with a new group of trainees did not get a big response.

Part of the reason for this may be the relatively-small in-house groups with which many organisations are trying to communicate. Where there are relatively small groups social network sites are unlikely to have sufficient numbers to reach a critical mass of commentators. It is normal for the vast majority of users to be ‘lurkers’ – people who read the comments and posts, but do not contribute themselves. As Batts also highlighted, there is the problem that other methods of communication, such as email and the phone, are already well established within many organisations. According to the principle of least effort, if the established methods of communication are ‘good enough’, most users won’t make the effort to try something new.

The potential of social network sites in libraries is not only about engaging with users, but also professional development. As Batts pointed out, even where there is little internal organisational use of social network sites, they still have an important role to play in cross-institutional communication. If anything, such uses can be seen as more important than internal organisational use. Cross-institutional links are weaker ties that are less obvious or easy to exploit in traditional interactions, but are recognised as important to the spread of new ideas.

For some corporate organisations there are even greater obstacles to overcome than a lack of user adoption. Some industries, such as the banking sector, are extremely risk adverse. Even talking amongst staff from different sections of an organisation may require a compliance officer to be present to make sure they don’t breach prohibitions against the passing of confidential information from one department to another. As such, it is unsurprising to find these, as well as many other organisations that have concerns about the use of social media sites being a waste of time, blocking social networking sites and functionality. Even commenting or providing feedback on external sites may be problematic within some organisations.

The future

Whatever the obstacles to social network site adoption today, it is clear that social network sites will have an increasingly important role within many organisations in the future. As Sara Batts sees it, it is still early days for social network sites within many work places. However, as things settle down and it is no longer seen as a fad, the ground rules will become established regarding issues such as confidentiality. As this happens, social networking will become an increasingly important means of communication.

The move towards social networking as a mainstream activity will not only require change from those who are not currently using the technologies, but also from those who are currently enjoying the freedom that is offered by it being a niche activity. Organisations are likely to expect a clearer distinction between professional and personal use of these social network sites. As Gareth Johnson puts it: ‘It would mean for me a need to disambiguate my various social networking personae…If anything this might make it harder for me, given the need to maintain multiple identities.’

The challenge for libraries is to find ways to embrace social network sites and technologies without killing their potential. To do this they need to strike a balance between the risks of an open system and the lack of communication in a closed system. They must also balance strict rules that protect an organisation from potentially damaging staff behaviour with giving staff the room to innovate.

Change is inevitable. The majority of researchers are or soon will be able to access websites on their personal mobile devices that their organisations might be currently choosing to block on the laptops and desktops in the office. The successful organisations will be those that recognise the opportunities that social network sites offer rather than merely reacting to the way their staff are using them.