When my research project into social media and public libraries began, there were no iPads, no Android phones and no Instagram, Myspace had more members than Facebook and Google’s Gmail was still in beta. This was six years ago, and the social media services are continuously changing along with the way we are utilizing them.
During the years 2007–2008, Library 2.0 was a popular theme in most blog posts, discussion boards, conferences and journal articles related to the library field. Today the concept is seldom used among library professionals. Still, the essential building blocks remain and the joint social media and public library context provides an interesting research area with new insights.
This was one of the key ideas behind my doctoral dissertation Social Media and Public Libraries: Exploring information activities of library professionals and users, which I defended at Åbo Akademi University earlier this year.
Social media provide opportunity
Libraries quickly adopted social media services and extended their meaning by creating Library 2.0. It even turned into a hype before its popularity faded. Library 2.0 did not become the revolution many advocators spoke of and, in most cases, it did not lead to a large increase of user interactivity.
The increase of interactivity among library professionals is, however, another story. Social media services alone do not save libraries from becoming obsolete, but they do still provide opportunities for libraries to develop.
Outline of the study
My motivation for researching such a varying topic is that social media and public libraries share a number of principal ideas. Both social media and libraries are about openness, accessibility, creating user experiences, reaching out to diverse populations, and being social spaces. In my study, I also found information to be one of the key elements of libraries as well as social media: they are both important for the flow of information in our society and they influence how we deal with information.
The aim of my study was to investigate the interface between public libraries, social media and users, putting the main focus on information activities. I started out with a questionnaire for library users and library professionals in the South-West region of Finland. The questionnaires were followed up by a content analysis of 25 library Facebook pages.
Interactivity does not occur automatically
I found that the use of social media in Finnish libraries is not something that permeates every aspect of daily library work. Instead, social media is treated as an addition to existing services often managed by a specific staff member or team.
The library professionals’ interest and skills are high enough to manage the more technical aspects of social media services, but they report lack of time as the greatest barrier. I found that the professionals are ambivalent towards engaging more interactively with the library users, for example by being active in and leading discussions pertaining to social media.
At the same time, the results clearly show that interactivity does not occur automatically; it requires a conscious effort and the users need encouragement and inspiration to interact with the library on the Web. Social media services in libraries interested most of the surveyed library users, a majority of which were keen social media users in general. However, few knew that these types of services existed and the library users were uncertain as to whether they could actually improve library services.
The library users maintain their traditional perceptions of the library and its services, also in a social media context. They basically want the look and feel of the physical library online as well as offline. Here lies the challenge for the library’s social media presence: to remain true to their trusted principles while still developing and allowing library users to discover new aspects of the library.
The role of information activities
Interactivity is shaped by activities, and in my study I was able to recognize and map seven information activities present in the social media and public library context. Four of these activities can be categorized as more traditional: read, seek, inform, and mediate.
The other three are often emphasized in the social media context: communicate, create, and contribute. The users are more prone to engage in reading, seeking, communicating and contributing. The library professionals are, on the other hand, more engaged in informing, mediating and creating.
This categorization of information activities can aid libraries in (re-)evaluating their presence in different social media services. We can ask ourselves whether we are merely informing in our blog, Twitter feed, Facebook page.
More than likes matter
Is this our purpose when utilizing social media services? What kinds of activities are our users engaging in as a response to our activities? Are there any activities we would like to engage in more or increase the library users’ engagement in?
Recognizing your library’s information activities brings more value to your work in managing social media services. Success in social media is often measured in numbers: numbers of likes, comments, views, and times shared. It was, however, evident in my content analysis of library Facebook pages that every post, every activity shapes the libraries’ identities – even the ones that did not receive any likes.
Our libraries are continuously changing. Library 2.0 is still present in every little information activity in the social media and library context, but we no longer need this particular concept to put its meaning into action.
Social media is an opportunity for libraries to market themselves, to develop and to interact with users. Each library is still challenged to shape their own strategies, find the right level of priority for social media among all the other provided services, and reach out to their own library users.