Should libraries use Twitter ? Some web2.0 librarians think so, other people say it’s just a childish hype. Alice de Jong of the Peace Palace Library in The Hague wrote an article recently in the Dutch magazine Informatieprofessional (in Dutch), saying libraries should use Twitter as a means of quick and direct communication with their patrons. The Peace Palace Library uses Twitter as an automatic newsfeed .
An interesting question is: how can an in essence exhibitionist individual social networking tool be used in an institutional way?
What is Twitter anyway?
Wikipedia says: “Twitter is a social networking and micro-blogging service that enables its users to send and read other users’ updates known as tweets. Tweets are text-based posts of up to 140 bytes in length.” Basically a Twitter user broadcasts short messages to the web. Everybody can read these through that user’s personal Twitter page, or via an RSS feed on that page. Twitter users can subscribe to other Twitter users’ tweets by “following” them. In that case all followed tweets appear in their own Twitter stream. Twitter users can also reply to other tweets; this way it becomes a social networking environment. Tweets and replies are public, but there is also the option of “Direct messages”, that are private.
Twitter can be used via the Twitter website, or applications on mobile phones (Like Twitterfon ), on PC’s (like Tweetdeck ), or through widgets in other websites, like TwitterGadget in iGoogle .
Exhibitionism: that’s what Twitter originally is of course. Twitter asks “What are you doing?”. You simply tell the whole world (or world wide web at least) what you’re up to. A symptom of the egocentricity of this decade.
But somehow egocentric exhibitionism turned into professional cooperation and friendly conversation.
I first heard of Twitter at ELAG2008, less than a year ago. Besides the tag to be used for blog posts about the conference, there was also an announcement for a Twitter hashtag to be used. (And this at a conference where social tagging was promoted against controlled vocabularies!). There were a number of library bloggers there, who were also on Twitter: digicmb, Wowter, PatrickD.
Most people I follow or who are following me, are library people. Most of these also blog. So there is a kind of library2.0 community on Twitter, like there are all kinds of communities there. Some of my Twitter friends I know personally, I have met them, talked to them. Others I have only met on Twitter, but we do have agreeable, both professional and social talks. Remarkable: one of these Twitter friends I have never met “in the flesh”, is a colleague at the University of Amsterdam, but she works in the Medical Library, a long way from where I work.
My subjects on Twitter:
- football (soccer)
- what I am watching on TV – music
- what happens to me
- metadata issues
- day to day work issues
- my IGeLU stuff
- interesting blog posts
- my new blog posts (like this one!)
- interesting websites
- library 2.0 news
Twitter is also the “largest virtual expert helpdesk”, as digicmb recently experienced.
My personal Twitter experience is like having chats and discussions with colleagues at work, or with friends in a bar, but with a much larger group; or attending some library systems conference, with professional discussions, and also with social events, but then a continuous, intermittent one, and without travelling.
Now, how can an organisation, and in particular a library, use a tool, or rather a community, like Twitter for its own benefit?
Twitter has been around for three years, but it is growing incredibly fast. In The Netherlands politicians use Twitter, like our Foreign Secretary. Well known people in all areas are on Twitter, example: British writer Ben Okri started publishing his new poem “I Sing a New Freedom” on Twitter, one line a day. Newspapers write about it, popular TV shows talk about it.
So clearly, there is an ever growing audience. Libraries, as other organisations, should contact their audience where their audience is, so Twitter is another channel for communication.
Organisations can use Twitter as an alternative for news items on websites, RSS feeds, blogs, etc. But is there an advantage in using Twitter instead of other web2.0 channels? I am not sure. Just like surfing to websites and subscribing to RSS feeds, people have to actively start “following” an institutional Twitter account. Organisations, libraries need to actively promote their Twitter channel for it to be a success. But they also need to actively maintain their Twitter channel, just like all other web2.0 activities, otherwise it will just fade away, as Meredith Farkas notices in her blog post “It’s not all about the tech – why 2.0 tech fails“.
One advantage of using Twitter in libraries is the fact that it is getting beyond a hype. It will be one of the main channels of communication on the web.
Another one might be the interactive possibilities of Twitter. Institutional use of Twitter is mostly one way traffic, a broadcast to whoever wants to “follow”, as opposed to personal Twitter. See for instance the Library of Congress and the Peace Palace Library.
But as Alice de Jong points out, a number of libraries are choosing the “personal approach”. The tweeting librarian really communicates with patrons in order to promote closer contact between libaries and patrons.
This approach might also be a replacement for current libary chat services.
Personal institutional Twitter accounts could also be used as a means of representing the library as actual recognisable people, as has been promoted recently on a number of occasions. Patrons then will know library staff as experts in certain fields, instead of facing an anonymous organisation.
Conclusion: yes, libraries should use Twitter, as long as they can get a reasonable “following”, and have an official policy and staff dedicated to maintaining it.