Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Twitter for Libraries (and Librarians) / Sarah Milstein

Computers in Libraries / Vol. 29 No. 5 / May 2009 / pp. 17-18

For many people, the word “twitter” brings to mind birds rather than humans. But information professionals know that Twitter (www.twitter.com) is a fast-growing, free messaging service for people, and it’s one that libraries (and librarians) can make good use of—without spending much time or effort.

Twitter lets people send and receive short messages (called Tweets) via the web or via SMS using a mobile phone. Messages on Twitter are limited to a maximum of 140 characters, including spaces, and they’re generally public. [snip]


Thanks to the brevity of messages on Twitter, people often refer to the medium as “microblogging.” Like full-sized blogging, the pint-sized version is useful for exchanging many different kinds of information. Although Twitter users initially shared just personal updates (“Eating kale for lunch” or “Watching the Giants game on our new TV”), it’s become common for people and organizations to Twitter about professional ideas and information too. Yes, organizations have now begun to use Twitter as a communications medium.


Libraries of all kinds are already using Twitter to good effect. Public libraries such as Ada Library in Boise, Idaho (http://twitter.com/adalib), and the Cleveland Public Library (http://twitter.com/Cleveland_PL) use Twitter to point out highlights on their websites—everything from exhibit announcements, to links for nominating “your favorite librarian,” to holiday hours. The Missouri River Regional Library (http://twitter.com/mrrl) posts information about teen events and recently linked to research about the value of libraries in lean economic times. The Glendale (Ariz.) Public Library (http://twitter.com/GlendaleLibrary) Tweets about its programs.

University libraries have a somewhat different focus. The Undergraduate Library at the University of Illinois–Urbana-Champaign(http://twitter.com/askundergrad), for example, lets students know about upcoming deadlines (“5 days left to return ALL media items”), service issues (“Access to EBSCO through wireless is down. You can still access EBSCO through desktop PCs”), and other topics of interest to its audience (“UGL is hiring for Spring 09! Applications @ the front desk”). The Yale University Science Libraries (http://twitter.com/yalescilib) announce workshops on library resources, provide links to online archives, and give tips on sending text messages to a librarian. North Carolina State University Engineering Library (http://twitter.com/NCSUEngLibrary) links to both university and external blog posts.

Twitter gives special libraries a new opportunity to share information not just with their internal clients but also with people outside the institution who are interested in their topics. The Lunar and Planetary Institute Library (http://twitter.com/LPI_Library), for instance, has linked to the Carnival of Space blog, the International Year of Astronomy Discovery Guide, and a report on the National Science Digital Library (NSDL) meeting. Sun Microsystems’ library (http://twitter.com/libraryresearch) Tweets about additions to its collection[snip].



The essence of Twitter is conversation. Libraries, however, tend to use it as a broadcast mechanism. Libraries on Twitter should encourage followers to interact with the library—ask questions, share links, re-Tweet interesting posts from others, and reply when people message you (those are prefaced with @ your account name). For professional development, look for conference coverage on Twitter.

Given the many potential uses of Twitter for libraries—not to mention the likelihood that your patrons are already on it—it’s a great medium to embrace. And at just a few sentences a day, the lightweight format doesn’t require much time to make a big impact. The accounts above will give you a feel for library Twittering (for more libraries that Twitter, check out (www.libsuccess.org/index.php?title=Twitter).

Bear in mind that the medium is new, and libraries have only begun to skim the surface of Twittering. But as a service designed for exchanging information, Twitter holds great promise for libraries of all kinds, and your creativity will expand its utility.

Twittiquette for Institutions

Before you do anything else on Twitter, sign up for an account at Twitter.com (it takes just a few minutes) ... . After a week or so, you’ll be familiar enough to start posting—particularly if you keep the following guidelines in mind:

  • Do fill in your account’s Settings with the name of your institution and its URL. [snip]

  • Do treat Twitter as a conversation rather than a broadcast medium.

  • Don’t simply post information without also replying to people who send you messages in the system. How do you know they’re talking to you? They’ll start their message with the @ symbol, followed by your account name. For instance, “@Cleveland_PL: Where can I find a podcast of Sarah Vowell’s recent reading?” Replies show up in a tab on your Twitter page.

  • Although conversational Twittering is not yet the norm among libraries, it is common for other institutions on the service to interact with followers. Thus it’s expected by many Twitter users, and it’s a great way to connect with patrons.

  • [snip]

  • Don’t ignore the conversations that are happening about your library or your community. [snip]

  • Do follow everyone who follows you. When somebody follows you, it’s a sign that they’re interested in talking to you; when you follow them back, you’re signaling mutual interest and providing an important connection for many of your constituents.

  • Do post approximately once a day, or up to as many as five or six times a day.

  • Don’t let the account go inexplicably quiet for extended periods, and don’t overwhelm people with too many posts. [snip]

  • Don’t forget to follow up with a post on the results.For example, a library could share all kinds of news that patrons want. Short messages can tell people about events such as readings, lectures, and book sales; newly available resources; or changes in the building hours. One message a day or one a week could share a tip on finding or accessing information online or in the building. Twitter posts can link to interesting news stories about literacy or about libraries. When appropriate, the posts can link to a library’s own website and blog for more in-depth information.
Sarah Milstein (sarah.milstein@gmail.com; http://twitter.com/sarahm) is a co-author of “Twitter and the Micromessaging Revolution,” a research report from O’Reilly Media. Her webcast on “Twitter for Business” is available at O’Reilly TV on YouTube (www.youtube.com/watch?v=lUR2E8l3bi8).

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