I've been suspiciously silent on the topic of social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook, as well as blogs and their potential for library marketing. Why? Well, I'm still trying to sort out what I think about the libraries promoting themselves in these forums. There's been a lot of debate amongst librarians on both side of the issue. On the one hand, many people stick to the view that librarians should go where the patrons are, virtually and physically, and since so many people are using sites like MySpace, we should have a presence there too. On the other hand, others say that the purpose of these communities is socialization, and libraries would be unwelcomed guests in this environment and it’s not the place to "sell" our services. While I'm still not stuck to any one opinion, my current view tends to fall somewhere in the middle: yes, we should be there, and no, we shouldn't use it to overtly promote.
At my school, the community tool of choice tends to be Facebook, although I've seen some people using MySpace too. At first, I was wary of inserting ourselves there, but I've been talking quite a bit the students in my advisory group (I highly recommend this, by the way), and they tell me that students are accustomed to some level of promotion in Facebook and it's easy enough to ignore if one wants, so intrusiveness isn't much of an issue. I've also seen many student organizations advertise themselves and their events there, and there are even a few groups (actually, 6 at last count) that have organized themselves around the library because they spend so much time here. Many libraries too have dipped a toe into these services.
Now that I don't consider intrusiveness a barrier, I'm more concerned about other issues, namely, value. When we choose to have a presence in these communities, what are we offering that's of value to us and our patrons? If the point is to just "be there," I'm not confident that will do much good, even though it probably won't hurt anything. What can we offer that would be a good fit in a social setting and that might lead to some meaningful interactions?
There are some positive steps in the right direction on this front. The Hennepin County Library's MySpace profile has a great design as you'd expect from them, but also links to resources that seem appropriate for teens in this environment such as college, dating and health advice as well as homework help. I was also impressed with Aaron's recent Walking Paper post about Denver Public Library's MySpace, a site that features great music in keeping with the spirit of MySpace, and also relevant services. What I like best is that they also refer to their guides that link to excellent, teen-specific sites like a local teen music studio, and music reviews by teens. DPL seems to have found how to mesh well and respect the MySpace culture without being pushy. Even the marketers seem to think that obvious advertising doesn't fly here, but offering relevant products/services and information that are appropriate to the environment are most effective.
The greatest potential for library marketing purposes may be market research. My hero in this arena is Brian Mathews, AltRef author, who had the guts to do what I've only been thinking about, which he outlines in his Intuitive Revelations white paper (must-read material!). Basically, he set up a keyword search in student blogs to find instances of words like “assignments,” etc. and then offered his help if it seemed relevant to the conversation. In the comments of his post, one librarian expressed concerns about students feeling as though this was an invasion of privacy, to which Brian responded, "I have found that if I stay on topic, that is, commenting only on academic/research related postings, that the students don’t seem to mind my 'intrusive' behavior. I think this whole point of social software is to interact and communicate. As long as I can add value they welcome the assistance." I agree wholeheartedly, particularly with the focus on value from the patron’s point of view. I'd also like to see patrons offering us help through these mediums. I keep thinking about those 6 student groups in Facebook whose members say they "live in the library" and I can't help but wonder what great insights they may have to share on our facilities and services. Why not ask? I admit that I haven't jumped full-force into Facebook yet, but I'm going to be looking at this over the summer. I'm especially interested in our advisory group being there and opening it up to any student who has thoughts or ideas to share, sort of like an ongoing focus group.
Done right, I think librarians can be a welcome addition to blogs and social networks by:
- Adding value to our services from our patrons' perspective
- Being respectful of the social environment we're a part of (no library-ese, no sales pitches)
- Inserting our expertise and resources in a relevant way (such as in response to an expressed need, as Brian's initiative does)
- Monitoring discussions to assess needs and improve our services
- Having fun and engaging patrons!