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Jul 18 / Amy Ashmore

Reaching Out: Social Media and Reference

reaching outThe other day at work, I was talking to one of my supervisors about my work concerning social media, and she made an interesting comment that has really stuck with me. “Well, there is no one way anymore,” she told me.

Of course, we can debate the question of whether or not there ever was “one way.” But whatever side we happen to fall on, I think that this observation still has relevance. People seek out information in a wide variety of ways, and so, as librarians we need to disseminate information, whether it’s our latest programs or answers to reference questions, in multiple mediums in order to reach the largest number of users possible.

Of course, this can be very frustrating. The greater number of tools we need to use in order to reach our users, the more time it takes, and the more futile it can feel. However, this multiplicity can also be empowering, allowing us to reach more people, and in some cases, actually saving time. A few days after the conversation I had, I came across this article by Nicole Engard. In it, she describes a panel she was a part of concerning Smart Technologies. One of the speakers, Chad Boeninger, talked about using new tools to reach many people instead of just one when answering reference questions.

For example, if someone asks a question which other users might also want to know about, librarians can create a blog post or even a video (I got to use Camtasia recently and loved it. Would love to use this at work). Doing this creates the opportunity that this information will be shared more widely and even re-posted or shared in other forums.

Of course, this has its limitations – although you can certainly point patrons to a blog or online video, this isn’t the right strategy in every case. But after reading Nicole’s article, I started thinking about other ways in which social media tools can help librarians collaborate to answer reference questions more efficiently by sharing with many instead of just one. One thing I’ve been trying to improve on lately is my reader’s advisory skills, and I discovered ATN Reading Lists, a wiki where librarians collaborate to create reading lists and lists of read-alikes. I’ve also utilized my own social networks (a form of crowdsourcing, I guess) to seek information, and Twitter could also be used for this purpose.

When used appropriately, I think social media has the potential to be an important part of reference services (not a replacement for traditional services, but an addition to them). There may be no one way to provide reference information, but social media tools can certainly change some of the ways in which we  share information, and even make sharing easier.

For others out there providing reference services, has social media influenced this process for you?

Image: “Put your hand up if you are having a good time.” Flickr. Web. 15 November 2009.


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  1. Heidi Schiller / Jul 21 2010

    Amy, I totally agree with you. Reference services seem to be moving too slowly in this direction. We need to be aware of what technologies our patrons are using and adjust accordingly. For example, most teens don’t really use email anymore — they text. But email reference might be the best application for adults.

    I will add that it’s fabulous for us to expand the way we deliver reference services, but we must must must market those services. This is where I think libraries come up a bit short, and I think the public is less aware of our amazing resources because of it.

  2. DG / Jul 21 2010

    I also hear that AskAway in BC is now closed. Surely there must be a way to provide similar e-reference services using social media.

    What are your thoughts on that Amy?

  3. aashmore / Jul 21 2010

    I certainly think that this is a possibility that should be examined, although currently the largest barrier to providing this type of service is not a lack of available tools (which social media applications could provide) but a lack of funding. One of the significant benefits of the AskAway service is that it allowed a number of librarians at various public libraries around BC to collaborate in order to provide a service that benefited the entire province (as the post-secondary version of AskAway continues to do). It would therefore be difficult for individual libraries to replicate this same level of service using only their own staff time. It would be great to see libraries find another way to collaborate using different tools – and there are certainly free social media tools out there to assist with this (I know some libraries use Skype or MSN messenger). However, the lack of funding remains a huge barrier to the service being resumed using different tools – a large portion of the funding for the AskAway service came from the province, and it is in large part this lack of funding (as opposed to a lack of tools to provide e-reference) that prevents this type of service from continuing here in BC.
    Yet, as more and more library services are being provided online, I do feel that it is important for libraries to have an online presence in providing reference services. One benefit of a chat widget as opposed to a tool like Skype is that users do not have to have specific software on their computer in order to access the service, and I believe that this is an important consideration when selecting tools to provide e-reference.

  4. singley / Jul 22 2010

    Amy, thanks for these great points on social media in reference. I work some reference desk hours, and I agree that there are many ways reference librarians can use social media to enhance services. I especially liked your point about how creating online tutorials/subject guides, etc, “creates the opportunity that this information will be shared more widely and even re-posted or shared in other forums.” I think we, as librarians, need to commit to sharing our work, and social media can help us do that more effectively.

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