Dear CEOs and senior managers, it’s no longer ok not to know how Social Media works

Imagine if Canadian library managers decided not only that they were uninterested in hiring French-speaking staff, but actually banned their staff from speaking French, making signage in French or providing materials in French. Imagine speaking French was dismissed as a frivolous waste of time when people could be productively communicating in English. Imagine they did all this whilst millions of English-speaking Canadians were learning French and starting to speak to other information service providers in French. There would be outrage and bewilderment in the community and among other librarians. Yet this is exactly the scenario in which many library services (and libraries within larger organisations such as Universities) find themselves in relation to social media and mobile online communication more generally.

I’m attending VALA 2012 this week and so far the unifying theme has been social media and making library services mobile-friendly. I hope to absorb many interesting ideas that will find their way to becoming future blog posts, but today’s is really a frustrated plea. Already I have had several conversations with colleagues in the industry who understand where we need to going, but have been stymied by more senior managers or boards who simply don’t or won’t understand what the rise of social media and mobile computing generally means for information service delivery.

The inertia and complacency displayed by the managers of these organisations is mind boggling. Do they honestly think that social computing is a niche fad that is just going to go away? Facebook is about to launch its Initial Public Offering of shares - in the middle of a recession. Documents filed as part of the IPO show that Facebook’s net income last year was US$1 Billion, with 483 million daily active users in December globally. Facebook alone has over 10 million users in Australia - a nation with a total population of only 22 million. And you think it’s just for kids? Of Twitter’s 106 million users worldwide in 2010-11, more than half were 35 years or older. That membership has already doubled in the months since. Some fad.

Veronika the Librarian prepares to die

Librarians are ‘Information Professionals’ - if you don’t think social media is relevant to you and your job, you need to retire or leave the industry. Librarians are in the business, as Felicity Gilbert put it so well yesterday, of finding contextually relevant information for people. More and more, that context is online using a social media channel. If you aren’t interacting with your patrons on Twitter, Facebook and whatever else becomes huge next, you are doing several things:

  1. Telling your community that you don’t want to help them.
  2. Telling your community implicitly that you don’t understand them and the way they interact with interesting people, and by extension that you don’t care about them and their interests.
  3. Telling the world you are marginal and irrelevant to their daily lives.

Social media and the associated instant, personalised mobile information solutions are where libraries must go to ensure we are fulfilling our mandate. This is no longer something than can be allowed to remain with ‘the young ones’ or ‘the techies’. This is fast becoming core knowledge - just as I’m expected to be able to assist a 5 year old to find dinosaur picture books, a 72 year old find a new crime author and a 45 year old find information about writing resumes all on the same desk shift, every librarian needs to understand the dynamics of social and mobile computing and our place, as information professionals, in that world.

VALA 2012 has thrown up all sorts of challenges to the librarians attending: Do you actually understand the back-end of your library management system? Do you know what people are saying about your library service on social media sites? Do you know what keywords your patrons are using on search engines to find your website? How can members communicate with your library when they are waiting for a bus, walking down the street, in a cafe...? Can they do so at all? Is your online presence mobile-optimised? And if the answer to any of these is ‘no’, what are you going to do about it?

Talking about eating your lunch

Libraries that don’t strongly enter the mobile social computing space will soon find themselves having their own ‘Kodak moment’ - having invested heavily in a once-important service they will wake up one day to find that nobody is interested in what they are providing. For the lucky senior managers this might not come until after they retire, but for the rest of us there are no options. Whomever is ultimately responsible - Boards of management, Communications departments or IT departments - need to either get with the program or get out of the way. Not having a social media presence is, for a library service, the same as refusing to have telephones. Possibly, it's worse. People aren’t talking about what they ate for lunch on social media - if you’re not around, they’re talking about eating your lunch. They’re talking about what they know and what they want to know. They’re talking about their information needs and wants. They’re talking about your organisation. Are you talking to them?

*in case you were wondering, today's title is inspired by this article on SOPA.

by Hugh Rundle

Librarian. Flaneur. Wanton Publisher.