ELT Day 2: Everyone is talking but is anyone listening?

At the Online Information Conference held in London last week, SLA Europe ran the European Librarians Theatre (ELT): three lunchtime sessions discussing various aspects of information management in Europe. The ELT was sponsored by EBSCO. Laura Woods reports on the discussion at the ELT on Wednesday November 30th.

Jo Alcock, Evidence Based Researcher, Evidence Base at Birmingham City University, UK
Dennie Heye, Global Knowledge Manager HR IT, Shell Information Technology International B.V., Netherlands
Katrin Weller, Scientific Assistant, Heinrich-Heine-University, Germany
Sara Batts, President, SLA Europe


Sara Batts led this very enjoyable, enlightening discussion on the social media landscape in the UK, Germany and the Netherlands.

What is the use of social media in the libraries from your country?

Dennie opened the discussion, talking about use of social media at Shell. The IT department at Shell introduced Yammer to encourage people to connect with each other. This was a particularly effective tool as Shell is a massive global company: someone has nearly always looked at the same problem you’re dealing with! Yammer allowed connections to be made across teams and offices that may not have made connections in person. Dennie shared the opinion that person to person connections are social glue holding an organisation together, both in terms of solving work problems and strengthening relationships.

In preparation for the panel, Jo had asked UK librarians how they used social media. Her informal survey found that libraries were using various networks both for talking to users and encouraging communication among staff. She found a trend towards consolidating social media accounts, combining tools to bring all to one place, using tools such as Netvibes and Yahoo Pipes.

Katrin spoke last, giving and overview of trends in German libraries. Although use is varied, the social web is generally heavily used for promotion, marketing, community building and user feedback.

What are the difficulties about implementing social media in your country?

Jo began on this question, listing one of the main problems she’d found in her survey as manager resistance. Social media is a new, experimental communication style, so managers are understandably cautious. Other problems listed were staff seeing social media as trivial, and not an important work area. Too often, this leads to social media management being left to one person. Lack of time was also a common issue, and there is still a massive problem with social media being blocked in many libraries.

Katrin and Dennie largely agreed with the list of issues Jo presented, indicating that these are all common problems across countries. Katrin also added most organisations’ lack of a strategy as an issue, as well as concern over lack of control, e.g. with allowing social tagging and other user generated content. She also noted that there is a serious debate in Germany at the moment over privacy and data protection. She mentioned some institutions blocking library use of Facebook pages due to data protection concerns.

Dennie added that in an enterprise situation, the main problem was to prove how social media could solve business problems. Yammer was introduced as an IT problem solving tool. They managed to make the business case for Yammer to be rolled out across the firm because they could show that encouraging users to post IT problems to Yammer had meant they started helping each other with common problems, thus freeing up IT staff time from common problems and encourage connections to be made across deptartments.

What are the qualities a librarian should have in order to successfully use social media in their libraries?

Katrin’s first suggestion was curiosity: librarians must be willing to experiment and learn. Social media tools do not come with instruction manuals. Part of our job is to work out how to use them and what they’re best for.

Dennie suggested that openness to new ideas was critical. People still argue that social media won’t last, but many said same about email! We need to accept that things will always change, and there will always be new tools to learn and experiment with. As a side note: I got into a Twitter conversation shortly after this about how many libraries had wasted time and effort into building up their presence on platforms that actually didn’t really go anywhere, like Second Life. The person I was speaking to felt that this was proof that we shouldn’t dive into every new tool or network that comes along. I can see the sense in this, but I think there’s a balance between dismissing everything out of hand, and jumping on every new service regardless. I think a key issue for any organisation is knowing what and what not to invest in, but I don’t think that’s a reason to never try anything new. Judgment on how much time to spend on new technologies is very important, and I think that librarians have an obvious role to play here. As Dennie pointed out, social media is fundamentally about connecting people to people and people to information, and this is what we’ve always done!

Jo finished this question by agreeing with her fellow panellists’ previous point, and adding that one key skill is knowing how to target different audiences. For example, public libraries will communicate with their users in a very different way to corporate libraries; and corporate libraries will communicate internally very differently to externally. Librarians will need to exercise professional judgment in using the right tool for the right purpose, and getting the tone right in messages to different audiences.

What are the reasons that can make a social media strategy successful or unsuccessful?

Dennie’s answer to this question was active participation: don’t wait for users to come to you! He also advised being yourself: people respond better to an account with a human voice. Jo said that your social media strategy shouldn’t be too rigid, so you are able to adapt to changing expectations. Finally, Katrin argued that it is a bad idea to jump on every service without thinking how you will use it. She suggested defining what success will look like before you start, so you have something to measure later.