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Friday, 30 August 2013

Social media and academic libraries – is this a good fit?

By: Mukesh Kemrajh

Social networking tools for academic libraries: benefits and challenges for implementation.
Social networking tools such as Facebook, and Twitter etc, are increasingly being used by individuals of all ages but are particularly popular among young people and University students. As a result, these social networking tools have been adopted by academic libraries worldwide, for promoting library services within their communities, with potential benefits and challenges.

However in our local context, where do UKZN libraries fit into this picture? I would like to ask the University community, the following:

  • Are the libraries already using social networking tools, and if not, do you think it is advisable to do   so?
  • Would you want the library or your subject librarian to have a presence on social networking sites such as Facebook, twitter and others? If yes, then what information would you expect to find?
  • As librarians at UKZN, what are your thoughts on this issue, would you like to communicate with the University community via social media, and do you think it is feasible to use these media to promote library services in the future?
Before you decide, please find below some pointers for you to consider. 

Social networking and its impact on academic library outreach

Studies in Asia, Europe and USA, have indicated that, social networking tools used by academic libraries are potentially effective methods for student outreach as long as it takes into account the possible issues that may arise. Social networking tools are used for academic library outreach, to encourage and promote library usage among academic staff and student populations at Universities and other institutions.

With the current increase in usage of electronic and internet resources, University students are becoming less dependent on, and often do not use the library as a physical space  for their research. Therefore, academic librarians need to reach students in their own space or environments to extend library services beyond the library walls. According to Dickson & Holley (2010), the goal among academic libraries is to repackage materials into an environment that is more familiar to specific users, and online social networking tools provides such an avenue. Examples of social networking tools used by academic libraries are the usual social networking web sites, blogs, wikis, social media web sites, and social bookmarking web sites.

The benefits of using social networking tools in academic libraries.

Studies in the United States in the mid 2000s, initially indicated that library management, did not think that social networking tools could be used by libraries, due to their nature and the impact it would have on teaching and learning (Dickson & Holley, 2010).

However, the potential use of social networking tools in academic libraries has been highlighted by the use of Facebook, Twitter and MySpace.  For example, librarians visible on these media at a specific time were easily identified by users to address various queries. Communication between librarians also improved, when dealing with user’s queries, and the efficient provision of answers. Furthermore Facebook and MySpace were also helpful in improving a library’s social visibility through profiles with a uniform identity. For example, MySpace, allowed different libraries to contribute knowledge and information, maintain a common profile together, and promote new library collections. Facebook has been suggested as a way forward to deliver library services and to communicate with users.

According to Chu & Du (2013), social networking tools such as Facebook and Twitter were used for marketing and publicity, and improving reference services and knowledge shar­ing among staff. Instant messaging was also used for handling enquiries and internal staff communication. This tool also enhanced a users’ social presence and created a connection, which was not provided by the usual emails and conventional websites. Wikis have also been used to deal with enquiries and FAQs, creating further communication between librarians and users. Another use of Wikis has also been to create, capture, share and transfer knowledge.

Overall, social networking tools were found to be very helpful, for information and knowledge sharing, enhancing reference services and promoting library services. This indicates a change in attitudes of libraries towards social networking tools as was previously mentioned. With regard to promotion of library services, two purposes were mentioned.  The first was the promotion of library events, such as exhibitions, competitions, talks, seminars, workshops, and tutorials etc. The second was the dissemination of news, such as events alerts, and library updates.
Other benefits were the quick dissemination of information, improved interaction between libraries and students, access to student’s ideas, comments and suggestions, interaction and feedback from library users. Students were kept up to date with news and information, without actually visiting the library.

According to Chu & Du (2013), social networking tools also helped library staff to keep up to date with resources and activities in their profession, and allowed them to learn new technology. As a result, students trusted the library more, as it was keeping up with the pace of technology.
The cost implications of using networking tools were also considered, but found to be minimal or none at all. Training costs were also found to be minimal as the appropriate technology was freely available. The only cost mentioned was the extra time spent by staff on learning and administering the social networking tools. Added to this was the further time spent, in the initial launch and monitoring of the service, but the long term management required little time. Basically the benefits were greater, as compared to the associated cost, as libraries invested almost nothing.

Challenges of using social networking tools in academic libraries.

Firstly, librarians have limited time to learn how to use social networking tools, which is not given priority. Social networking tools are found to be very technical, and the limited time allocated by the librarians is inadequate to learn, explore, and eventually implement and administer these tools in their libraries. For example, the nature of Twitter, with its newsfeeds etc, requires constant personal attention, therefore the library staff are hardly able to monitor them. Generally, it was found that the monitoring of social media in libraries required additional time and manpower, therefore various ways of minimising these factors have to be considered for future implementation.

Apart from the inadequate time for learning social networking tools, another challenge is the ability to master the technology. With the rapid development of social networking tools, library staff might not be able to keep up. In addition to the extra time spent mastering the technology, regular updating of the tools is found to be time consuming. Older library staff also find it difficult to keep up with the technological developments of networking tools. Another difficulty is determining which tools users prefer over another, due to the continuous development of social media. Furthermore, there is also difficulty in understanding how each social media worked, and how it can be adapted to a library.

Furthermore, there is limited interaction with social networking tools, by library staff, as they find the networking tools difficult to understand and use.  There is also no agreement between library departments, as some are willing to use social networking tools, while others are hesitant. This lack of use by staff also creates difficulties in determining who the future users would be.  Students also do not always like using library social networking tools, as they prefer communicating with friends and family, rather than academics and librarians, via this medium. Apart from this, library staff also find it difficult to communicate with students, as the language tone has
to be informal, but also presentable.


Chu, S. K-W., & Du, H. S. (2013). Social networking tools for academic libraries. Journal of Librarianship and Information Science, 45(1), 64-75.
Dickson, A., & Holley, R. P. (2010). Social networking in academic libraries: the possibilities and the concerns. New Library World, 111(11/12), 468-479.