College libraries gravitate to social media in fight for relevancy

Researchers warn that Facebook might not suit college libraries' mission.

Campus library administrators have found that while they can’t force students come to the reference desk with questions and suggestions, they can bank on students scanning their Twitter and Facebook feeds.

What once was designated for the most technologically experimental and progressive college libraries is now commonplace: creating social media accounts; updating pages several times a day; taking questions via tweet, text, and instant message; and creating videos that answer students’ most-asked questions.

And while not every library technology initiative has thrived on college campuses, officials said they’ll keep trying new strategies, knowing that without some social networking presence, campus libraries could fade from relevancy.

College librarians are even exploring the potential of Pinterest, a social photo-sharing site that has gained international attention in recent months, and Google+, a growing social site that in January staked out a stronger position in higher education when it lowered its age for account holders.

Fielding questions on Facebook and Twitter has helped college students find reliable research material for class projects and the quick and easy way left them scrambling, said Michele Ukleja, coordinator of user services at Harper College, a community college in Palatine, Ill.

“I view [social media] as another step in helping students find the information they need,” Ukleja said. “Most students think they know how to do research because they can plug some words into a Google search. You find out really fast that you are not getting the information you really need. We want to show them how to research. There’s just too much unreliable information out there, and we want to help them avoid that.”

College students, Ukleja said, were once much more likely to approach a library staffer and ask for help tracking down a single book or article.

But the advent of digital communication has led to a precipitous drop in the frequency of face-to-face library interaction, forcing library decision makers to embrace social media.

“Staying relevant is a matter of changing with the times and keeping up with what’s new and what students are using the most,” she said, adding that discretion has been welcomed in choosing which social sites Harper College’s library would focus on. “Of course, that doesn’t mean you have to use every [social networking site] out there.”

Harper College librarians made a YouTube video in 2009 that combines a witty, fast-talking host showing incoming Harper students the ins and outs of the campus’s library and how to best use the facility for homework, studying, and research.

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