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.

The video has been viewed more than 45,000 times after Harper library officials posted the YouTube clip to the library’s blog at the start of each academic year.

“It is a way of reaching the students where they are,” Ukleja said.

Academics have published studies on the growth of social media use among college librarians, along with the resistance many library officials have faced from other staff members and officials.

In research published in the Journal of the Medical Library Association, the two most common reasons campus libraries did not launch Facebook and Twitter accounts were a lack of time and “the belief that Facebook would be of little or no use in an academic setting.”

The researchers found that instead of using social sites to interact with students, faculty, and alumni, campus libraries used Facebook primarily to market the library, distribute announcements to library users, post photos, and provide chat references.

College students might hesitate to interact with librarians on Facebook because they would consider eMail a more appropriate way to communicate with library staff members, researchers said.

Elizabeth Bagley, director of library services at Agnes Scott College in Georgia, disagreed, saying students rely on the immediacy of social media far more than eMail.

Library officials at Agnes Scott, a women’s college with less than 1,000 students, have used Facebook to promote Trivia Tuesdays on the library’s blog. The first students to answer librarians’ questions receive prizes such as theater tickets and gift cards.

“We’ve gone in this direction … because students don’t use eMail nearly as much anymore,” she said, adding that she can “count on” her college-aged son failing to check his eMail inbox while paying close attention to Facebook notifications.

Casey Long, head of the Agnes Scott College library’s social media effort, said college students might hesitate to post questions to Facebook pages, so library officials should not discount eMail use.

“If they’re willing to put their information out there, that’s fine, but there is potentially a privacy issue with doing that in such a public space,” said Long, who updates the library’s blog when a common research question surfaces at the reference desk, ensuring students can get a quick answer without even logging into Facebook or checking their inbox. “For the most part, [students] understand their electronic world and what they’re getting into when they use social media.”

AnnaLaura Brown, an academic librarian and blogger who tracks library technology trends, predicted in January that college and university libraries would be more apt to create Google+ accounts as the social network slowly builds its user base.

Even with campus library adoption of Google+, the site “will still not be as popular as Facebook,” Brown said.

College libraries – especially research schools with massive library collections — could use Pinterest to display images of its newest and most popular books and volumes, Brown said.

“Boards” created on Pinterest could be shared on campus library Facebook and Twitter accounts as a way to use eye-catching visuals that would stand out among the text of a social media new feed.

Westmont College, a private liberal arts campus in Santa Barbara, Calif., pushed its offer for “research consultations” on Facebook in the first weeks of the spring semester.

Part of Westmont’s library liaison program, research consultations team library staffers with students looking for help on research projects and homework assignments.

On the library’s Facebook page, which has more than 430 fans, Westmont librarians invite students to set up an appointment if they need help “brainstorming” their next research undertaking.

And to lure students to the library, Westmont posts invitations on Facebook, offering coffee, tea, or hot coco to the first 20 students who visit the facility that day.

A wide-ranging research project examining the dos and don’ts of Facebook use for college libraries warned librarians against post “unnecessary” material that wouldn’t draw students’ attention while creating closed online dialogue between library employees.

In his social media research, Michalis Gerolimos, an official from the Alexander Technological Educational Institute in Greece, pointed out instances in which campus library Facebook posts only received “likes” and comments from other library staffers.

Administrators for the Rice University library’s Facebook account once posted a photo of a library employee walking to work. Six of the seven “likes” on that photo were from fellow Rice employees.

“It is unlikely that a library user would consider commenting on a photograph like this, and it is puzzling why a library would upload this photo on its outreach or marketing]… tool,” Gerolimos wrote. “We should … view [Facebook’s] widespread use with some skepticism, not only because its popularity might change but mostly because Facebook is above all a commercial company and its goals, means, expectations, and, ultimately, economic gains are different from the ones that academia and students should serve or aim toward.”

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