Tag Archives: Micro-blogging

Houston, TX Public Library on Twitter: Getting Back to Basics

4 Dec

While I must say that it took me a long time to understand all the hype surrounding Twitter, I’m starting to come around to the idea of micro-blogging and I like the idea of using it in libraries. The purpose of using it as a technology, and the ways of reaching our Two-Point-Whoa goals through its use, seem much more immediately clear to me than they did with Flickr or with YouTube. While I’ve seen now that both of those can actually be used in very effective ways, I do like that Twitter is so simple and straightforward about what it offers users: a chance to communicate important, up-to-the-minute information about an organisation to whomever chooses to listen, and without all the distracting, unnecessary “extras” found on other blogging or social networking sites.

Take Houston Public Library’s Twitter account, for example. While not exactly forthcoming on HPL’s website, it’s not difficult to find either, after a bit of browsing. HPL definitely gets points for keeping up-to-date with its participation on Twitter; it seems to “tweet” nearly every day. Most importantly, its tweets are useful and informative about what’s going on at the library and in the community. In keeping with Twitter convention, the library often directs its tweets at specific followers, usually replying to their questions or comments. In this way, HPL is very directly connecting with users, and on a very personal level. The information contained in the tweets is succinct and concise, although this is thanks to the format of Twitter itself and its maximum tweet lengths rather than being a characteristic of HPL’s communication style.

http://twitter.com/#!/houstonlibrary

Overall, I think Twitter is a good Web 2.0 tool for libraries in and of itself. Due to its simplicity and standardized format, it’s generally difficult for libraries to go wrong using Twitter provided they follow that cardinal rule of keeping it up-to-date.

But before I give HPL the thumbs-up, I’m going to play devil’s advocate for a bit and go off on a little tangent- because, let’s face it, this was just too easy.

So while I like the fact that Twitter makes it hard for libraries to stray too far from the norm (and the socially acceptable), this simplicity is also what keeps me from getting altogether enthused about it as a Library 2.0 tool. Maybe it’s just because it provides me with less to criticise, but I can’t help but feel like the no-nonsense brevity upon which, as I understand it, the site and its popularity are based, are not necessarily conducive to some of the library’s goals.

Let’s go back to HPL. Unfortunately, not all the features of Twitter or of HPL’s account are accessible to those who don’t have their own Twitter accounts, but this isn’t uncommon among Web 2.0 tools, and is relatively easy to remedy. Where inaccessibility becomes problematic, in my opinion, is when the format, enforced maximum, and language of tweets can cause barriers to communication.

Many tweets are fine, making announcements like “Houston Public Library will be closed on Thursday, November 11, 2010 for Veteran’s Day.” These are simple enough, relaying important pieces of information that don’t require any further explanation or interpretation. Others, though, can be a little more difficult to decipher: take for example, “Help us promote the “More Money @ your library” financial literacy classes. Find a class near you http://ow.ly/2Kxjq (Oct 1-31). Pls RT”. For many users, parts of this tweet will appear to be written in code. To some extent, I would argue, and for some users, this kind of communication will only make library-related information more opaque and less accessible. We need to be careful to keep long-standing missions and mandates in mind here, and to remember that libraries are supposed to always and above all prioritise access to information.

I’m not trying to sound like a luddite here, and for the most part I really am just playing devil’s advocate. I know a lot of people would respond to my objections by pointing out that the kinds of users who will be scared off by Internet slang won’t (or maybe shouldn’t) be on Twitter in the first place. Maybe this is true, but I think it comes back to the question of just how far libraries should go in conforming to the habits of their users, no matter how low-brow. To those who would argue that this kind of communication does actually enable access to information, by exposing patrons to a different kind of community, and by reaching those users who feel most comfortable communicating with this kind of language, I would agree. But libraries still have an image to uphold and a responsibility to their users and communities to promote learning, knowledge, and culture- so shouldn’t they be expected to be grammatically correct, at the very least?

I don’t have an answer to this question, but I think it’s an important one to ask. My instinct is that libraries should continue to embrace technologies like Twitter, but that some of them might want to work more at making the tools better fit their existing policies and approaches. Indeed, this is what many libraries are already doing quite well. Tweet away, but drop the lol-speak and go back to using language that all users can understand- and respect.

I am totally on board with the idea of libraries engaging with users where they are and in what form they choose, and I think the benefits of Twitter are considerable and worth looking at for all libraries. It probably seems too obvious even to say, but I want to point out, if only for myself, that we need to take things like this slowly and with a grain of salt.

What looking at HPL on Twitter has made me realise is something so basic I’m embarrassed to be bringing it up only now; I think it’s because it seems so fundamental, maybe, that it never occurred to me in this specific context, although it is such an important principle for technology and for libraries, at all times. As I say, it should just go without saying, really, but perhaps in all the hype and excitement of a trend as big as this one, we need to remind ourselves. While we can hope that Web 2.0 tools like Twitter will help us reach new users and expand our audiences (and hey, nearly six thousand followers at HPL is nothing to sneeze at), we need to realise the limitations of these tools as well, and acknowledge that traditional forms of communication are going to remain necessary for libraries for a long time to come. Let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater, but add these Web 2.0 tools to our arsenals while continuing to take advantage of those tried-and-true methods that have served us for years. For our own sakes, and those of our patrons, we need to constantly and critically evaluate and re-evaluate the technologies that we adopt, and decide which ones best suit the needs of our communities, all the while adapting the tools themselves to suit our purposes and conform to our goals.

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