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D-Lib Magazine

July/August 2011
Volume 17, Number 7/8
Table of Contents

Digital Librarianship & Social Media: the Digital Library as

Conversation Facilitator
Robert A. Schrier
Syracuse University

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Digital collections marketing is an important, yet often ignored aspect of digital
collection management. While many collections are laudable for the quality of their
pictures, metadata, and preservation techniques, they often remain obscure, unknown,
and therefore inaccessible to their intended user populations. One of the ways digital
librarians can cultivate a broader awareness of their collections is through social
networking. More importantly, digital librarians who participate in conversations with
users through the use of social media become inextricably intertwined with the
knowledge creation processes relevant to their collections. This paper presents a set of
five general principles (listening, participation, transparency, policy, and strategy) that
provide digital librarians with straightforward, concrete strategies for successfully
integrating social media into a digital library's overall strategic plan. In addition to these
concrete strategies, I also explain the theoretical importance of each principle and its
relevance for establishing a rapport with current and potential users of a digital

In recent years, librarians have become increasingly aware that their digital collections
are too often underutilized by their intended user base. For example, Erway & Schaffer
(2007, pg. 7) charge that "our intricate attempts to describe and present a few choice

collections have resulted in expensive, but little-used websites. And the rest of our
collections remain largely invisible ... discovery happens elsewhere". Buczynski (2007,
pg. 196) agrees: "there is an awareness gap between the holdings of digital libraries and
the communities they serve". A 2005 survey conducted by OCLC supported this idea,
showing that 58% of respondents did not know that their library held electronically
accessible full-text materials (Buczynski, 2007). Additionally, 84% of respondents used
a web-based search engine as their first choice for search versus only 1% who said they
went to a library search engine first (ibid). This is confirmed by the fact that the
literature on building digital collections is vast, while literature about how to market
those collections is comparatively thin (Henderson, 2005). As a result, many digital
collections suffer not only from a lack of general public awareness, but also from a lack
of funding in response to their perceived unimportance (Erway & Schaffner, 2007 and
Madsen, 2009).
Madsen (2009, pg. 1) confirms that "there seems to be a disconnect when it comes to
online collections, and often a 'build it and they will come' attitude prevails".
Unfortunately, it seems that the typical assumption held by many brick and mortar
libraries that the success of a library rests on the quality of its physical materials
(i.e., the collection) also applies to many, if not most, digital library collections as
well. This model of librarianship leaves librarians at the periphery, puts collections in
the center, and does not ascribe appropriate weight to the essential role librarians play in
facilitating the usefulness of those collections through conversations and knowledge
creation (Lankes, et al., 2007).
This is especially true for digital librarians, who appear disembodied from their
collections because they exist solely in the online environment. One of the best ways to
promote a collection online therefore, would be for digital librarians to participate in
relevant online conversations using social media tools such as blogging, Twitter,
Facebook, and YouTube. Using social media not only allows digital librarians to
advertise and encourage the use of their collections, it places the digital librarians back
in the center as chief negotiators of the knowledge creation and education that occurs as
a result of user-user and user-library interactions.
Although some digital librarians are beginning to take advantage of online social
networking tools in order to create online conversations about their digital holdings
(e.g., see the Springer, et al., 2008, regarding the Library of Congress Flickr Commons
project), many do not adequately think through the necessary requirements of doing so.
Even worse, many often use social media as a way of blithely promoting their content
instead of as a way to establish trusted relationships with users. As such, the goal of this
paper is to provide digital librarians with a simple framework for implementing a social
networking plan in the digital library context. In what follows, I present a set of five
general principles (listening, participation, transparency, policy, and strategy) that
provide the digital librarian with straightforward, concrete strategies for successfully
integrating social media into a digital library's overall strategic plan. In addition to these
concrete strategies, I also explain the theoretical importance of each principle and its
relevance for establishing a rapport with current or potential users of a digital

Principle #1: Listening

As digital librarians, we want to meet our users where they are. But where are they?
The first step toward developing a successful social media program is to find out
where the conversations are happening and begin listening to the things people are
saying. This first principle is especially important because the ease of setting up a
social media account for the library, and immediately putting it to use, often obscures
the greater need for the librarian to first identify topics that will be relevant to
conversations already taking place in the online environment. Listening also allows the
librarian to identify those people who are particularly central to those conversations and
engage with them. It is not enough to simply create a social media account and start
talking about all the great things the digital library does. Updates to the library social
media page must be carefully targeted both in terms of the content (i.e., it should have
relevance to pre-existing conversations) and in terms of the people who will see the
update (i.e., those people in the online space who demonstrate a passion for the
While each social media site may require a different strategy, there are some general
strategies a digital librarian can implement in order to begin listening.
a. Google Alerts and Other RSS Search Feeds
Google Alerts is a Google feature that informs users when the Google search engine
indexes web pages with search terms that have been specified by the user. To use it, go
to the Google Alerts website and enter in relevant search queries for your digital
collections. Take the Peace and War in the 20th Century collection by McMaster
University of Ontario, for example. If they wanted to know more about online
conversations relevant to one of their collections, let's say the British Military Forces in
the Middle East collection, they could put those search terms into Google Alerts and be
notified via RSS or email every time a new page with those terms was indexed. During
a recent project with the Jewish Federation of Central New York, we followed a feed for
the query "Syracuse Jewish". Figure 1 illustrates what the feed looked like in Google

Figure 1: Google Alert for Google query "Syracuse Jewish".

b. Twitter Search, Delicious, Technorati
Google Alerts is not the only place to listen. Using Twitter Search (a site that allows
you to search for Tweets and user updates that contain the search terms specified by the
user) to query "British Military" and "war" would give the librarians at McMaster a
sense of what people were saying about a subject related to their collection. While none
of the Tweets seem to be specifically related to the British Military actions in the
Middle East, there are a couple references to the British Military and its war actions in
the 20th century. Tweets with those search terms may still be relevant for the librarian
to watch and will give her/him a better sense of the kinds of topics that people are
currently discussing. Once a relevant feed is discovered, the library can click on the
RSS feed link (see Figure 2 below) and follow that feed to keep abreast of new content
containing those search terms. The same is true of sites like Delicious (a site where
users place their online bookmarks); Technorati (a site where people vote up their
favorite blogposts); and Google's BlogSearch (a place to search for blogposts relevant
to the digital library's specific subject). RSS feeds for searches related to peace and war
in the 20th century in any or all of these places would allow the library to acquire a
better understanding of where peoples' interests lay and how the library's digital
holdings might play a role in facilitating conversations about those interests.

Figure 2: Search in TwitterSearch for "British Military" and "war".

c. Understanding Language & Cultural Norms
Listening can also help librarians to become better acquainted with the language and
cultural norms used in social media interactions. It can be difficult not to sound stiff
when one is unfamiliar with how people interact through social media sites. Following
feeds and watching as a silent participant acculturates the listener to the appropriate
kinds of interactions and discussions for his/her particular subject area.

Principle #2: Participation

One important benefit that social networking provides to digital librarians is that it
allows them to put a human face on their collection. Many librarians think that using
social media is a good way to "get their library's name out there." These so-called brand
evangelists do not accomplish much besides showing their customers that they are
egotistic, interested only in promoting the things that the library thinks are worthwhile
(Brogan & Smith, 2009). Additionally, it happens all too often that users reach out to
talk to a library and receive no response because the library did not invest the required
effort into monitoring their social media pages. A library that talks only to itself and
about itself fails to provide users with a valuable service and reinforces the idea that

users do not matter enough to warrant engaging in a discussion with them.

A good social media program, on the other hand, allows the digital librarian to establish
trust with users. The library does not prove its authoritativeness solely through the
quality of its holdings; it must also prove it through the quality of the librarians'
interactions with users. It's surprising therefore, that the majority of digital libraries
seem to contain no more than a single way of contacting the librarians associated with
their collections, usually through the Contact Us page on their website. Even the oftcited OCLC paper Trusted Digital Repositories makes little or no mention of
developing trust through relationships and conversations with users (Research Libraries
Group, 2002). Participation in conversations through social media not only bolsters
awareness of a digital library program, but also provides evidence that the curators of
that collection are knowledgeable and capable of providing dependable information to
their users.
Although participation in conversations with users (or potential users) through social
media can serve as a way of promoting a digital library's collection, it should be noted
that this cannot be, and should not be, the aim of social media conversations.
Developing trust means answering people's questions out of a desire to help, not a
desire to promote the library. Fine & Kanter (2010, pg. 95) sum this up well in The
Networked Nonprofit: "...building a network of supporters who will help some time in
the future in myriad and unexpected ways means spending time in conversations that
may not have any immediate outcomes".
As such, a social media plan should occupy a pivotal role as part of a long term strategy
that positions the digital library to become a central arbiter of information for its subject
area. Through developing relationships with important social media personalities within
a particular knowledge community, the library eventually establishes itself as a reliable
part of that community. The importance of this cannot be understated. As recently as
this past February, an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education stated that
"Librarians ought to be especially concerned by what's coming out in these discussions
of social-media use ... because 'nobody is talking about librarians' being involved at all
in this.' The academic use of such tools may leave libraries out in the cold ... 'There's a
lot of soul-searching that needs to be done on the part of librarians, because this is their
constituency'." (Howard, 2011)
Establishing the digital library as an important participant in the knowledge community
not only heightens the level of trustworthiness of the collection, it also builds a base of
dedicated users that are able to talk to each other. This can be especially useful when
convincing stakeholders of the value of a digital collection and its impact on users. If
done properly, the library's social media contacts will likely come to their aid in a time
of need, whether that be through funding, advocacy, or some other method of support.
Suggestions for ways to interact
Participation is a natural outgrowth of the first principle, listening. Once a digital
librarian becomes familiar with the tone of conversation online, the kinds of

information people need, and the most important online personalities, he or she can
begin to participate. The following list provides some methods of building rapport with
others through the use of social media:

Post comments on relevant blogs.

Follow people on Twitter and retweet valuable content. Promote others, not
yourself (Brogan & Smith, 2009).

Use Facebook/Twitter to post pertinent information about the digital collection

only when it becomes clear from listening to conversations that the resource will
be useful to users.

Write a blog about the collection. Highlight aspects of the collection that will be
particularly useful given the knowledge-community's interests that you've
identified through listening, but make sure to talk about what others are doing as

Use word of mouth to share your excitement about the digital collections
offline, at conferences for example, and in other places. Invite people to become
part of the conversation online.

Allow people to ask questions through Facebook and Twitter and make sure to
respond promptly.

Principle #3: Transparency

One of the aspects of social media that frightens people most is its perceived ability to
give the library bad press. The librarian is afraid of losing control over the library's
public image and does not want to acknowledge the fact that it may be failing in its
mission. But this attitude, rooted in the public relations paradigms of previous decades,
assumes that such exposure is inherently harmful. To the contrary, many organizations
now find that as they open up their business processes and their budgets to public
scrutiny, they receive more support, not less. At minimum, it positively reinforces the
trusted relationships developed with users. At best, opening up the library to public
scrutiny allows users to offer their insight and ideas about how to improve the
collection by making it more efficient and user friendly.
For an example of this, take a look at Perseus Digital Library's Facebook page, where
some of the most recent comments are about the website not working properly.

Figure 3: Digital Library Response to Criticism.

Many librarians cringe at the thought that the first thing a user will see when he or she
visits the digital library's Facebook page is criticism of the library. However, as you can
see above, the library's prompt response and subsequent short conversation shows users
the exact opposite, namely, that the library cares about its users and will go out of its
way to ensure that they get the services they need.

Principle #4: Policy

While transparency is quickly becoming the order of the day for organizations of all
types, this does not mean that employees and affiliates of those organizations should
discard common sense when considering what they will post to social media sites and
how it will be viewed by the world at large. A digital library that is fully engaged in a
social media program, therefore, needs to think about developing a social media policy
for its employees in order to ensure that employees do not publicize things about
themselves or the organization that would be offensive or embarrassing. Ultimately, the
social media plan should be a simple, clearly written document that states what is
expected of employees when it comes to their online behavior:
"Developing a social media policy does not require a committee. It can even be an
informal document that all staff agree to adhere to. If you do decide to make it official,
again, it doesn't require a crack team of scientists to come up with some common sense
guidelines for how people should expect each other to behave as professionals online.
Most places can use the existing communications and employee conduct policies
already in place and modify them to incorporate social media interactions. As social
media occupies an increasingly significant portion of people's communications,
libraries and other organizations will find that writing a social media policy is
unavoidable and inevitable. Even in workplaces that are not currently engaged in social
media, remember that individuals still are when they are not at work, and this is why it's
worth thinking about a policy in advance". (Schrier, 2011)

Principle #5: Planning

Many institutions suffer from lack of follow through when it comes to creating a social
networking presence. Creating an account on a social media site is so simple and novel

that it often obscures the reality of having to tend to the account daily in order to reap
any benefits from it. For this reason, the capital and labor requirements for
implementing a social media plan need to be included in the larger marketing and
strategic plans. In fact, any new program or service that a library wants to implement
requires developing a plan for integrating new business processes into its current work
flows, marketing the program, and assessing it. Attempting to create a social
networking program for a digital library without forethought is like uploading a new
catalog record with only one category of metadata: the record exists but it's not very
useful, nor is it likely to be found. If digital libraries truly want to create a lasting and
rewarding social media program, they need to think ahead about who will be
responsible for creating content, maintaining the site, and responding to users when

Digital librarians stand to gain a lot from engaging their users in conversations through
the use of social media. Since digital librarians typically direct their energy toward the
more traditional aspects of managing digital collections (e.g., curation, preservation,
acquisitions, cataloging), they often lose sight of a fundamental concept of building a
successful digital collection, namely, that the collection is only a means to an end.
Specifically, that "end" is the knowledge creation and ideating that occurs through
conversations facilitated by the librarian.
When done properly, a social networking program provides a way for digital
librarians to develop rapport with users, extend general awareness of the digital
collection, and establish the librarian as a knowledgeable, helpful, and easily
accessible source of authoritative information regarding a given subject area.
When done poorly, however, it reinforces the idea that the library is disconnected from
the most important conversations and discussions and contains little of relevance to the
vast majority of potential users. Funders may trim a collection's budget when they see a
lack of real impact on users. When social networking, or some sort of marketing, is not
engaged in at all the library risks becoming isolated and needing to rely upon the good
will and interest of a chosen few to ensure its continued existence. By drawing on the
concepts and concrete strategies described in the five principles above, digital librarians
will be able to implement a successful social media program, and ultimately prove the
value of their collections by establishing themselves as essential participants in relevant
knowledge-creating conversations.

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28, 2011 from

[3] Dempsey, K (May 20, 2009) Marketing for Digital Libraries: Kathy's Magazine
[4] Erway, R. & Schaffner, J. (2007). Shifting gears: gearing up to get in the flow.
OCLC Programs and Research. Retrieved from Blackboard ILMS, on January 24,
[5] Fine, A., Kanter, B (2010). The Networked Nonprofit: Connecting with social media
to drive change. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley and Sons.
[6] Henderson, K. (2005). Marketing strategies for digital library services: digital
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[7] Howard, J (Feb 20, 2011). Social Media Lure Academics Frustrated by Journals.
The Chronicle of Higher Education (Technology). Retrieved on April 24, 2011.
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networks: The library as conversation. Information Research. Retrieved on February 13,
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[9] Madsen, C. M. (2009). The importance of 'marketing' digital collections: Including a
case study from Harvard's open collections program. ALISS Quarterly, 5(1), 2-9.
[10] Research Libraries Group (2002). Trusted Digital Repositories: Attributes and
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April 24, 2011.
[11] Schrier, R (2011). Your mother is watching: develop your social media policy
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[12] Solomon, L. (2011). Doing social media so it matters: A librarian's guide.
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[13] Springer, M., Dulabahn, B., Michel, P., Natanson, B., Reser, D., Woodward, D., &
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[14] Starr, J. (2010). California Digital Library in Twitter-land. Computers in Libraries,

30(7), 23-27.

About the Author

Robert Schrier is currently finishing his MLSIS at Syracuse
University after working the last two years as a librarian at
Plymouth Regional High School. He now works as a one of a group
of researchers for the Public Safety Network Study exploring fuzzy
set logic applications to survey data. Most recently, he has begun
writing software specifications as a product analyst intern for
Polaris Library Systems in Liverpool.