Opinion

Using social media to save the library. Can it work?


I don’t need to tell you that marketing’s not just connecting consumer with product – it’s a whole philosophy of brand, as well as integration and interaction between product and consumer.

So applying this to the current plight of UK libraries has given me an idea about how we might just be able to save them…

UK libraries are in trouble – check out the figures from DCMS if you need proof that we’re just not using the library as much as we used to (48.2% of population went into a library in 2005, 39% in 2010. Ouch). And because of this, the Government is trying to shut as many as it can.

I believe that there are a few reasons for this:

    1) Growth in internet use has increased dramatically and price of access has dropped (Moore’s Law at play)
    2) The internet has also grown substantially, meaning that you can find really obscure information (that probably hasn’t even made it into book form yet) in minutes
    3) The internet is a much faster search engine than the library. If you want to know what Anatidaephobia is, you’ll find out in about 10 seconds. Finding it in the dictionary might take five minutes, a trip to the library might take an hour (including travelling time)
    4) Price of access into book ownership has dropped, thanks to Amazon, supermarkets and Ebay (to name but a few), all offering savings over RRP
    5) E-readers and other technological interventions are getting more popular
    6) People don’t have as much time as they perhaps once did to go to a library and browse
    7) The library brand image is still one where you’re told to ‘Shush’ if you get over excited and make too much noise. No-one really likes to be told to ‘Shush’ (especially now that there’s so much social media that we can make as much ‘noise’ as we like all day, every day).

I’m going to use the BIIR model to examine libraries further:

Brand: the library brand isn’t particularly dynamic. Not only do you get told to ‘Shush’ but you have to pretty much know what you’re looking for when you go in, or hope that the librarian is a Librarian, not just someone collecting a wage.
Integration: online growth and ease of access to information has diminished the way that libraries integrate into our pursuit of knowledge (or just a darn good read). If I need to research a particular topic, I turn to the internet, not the library – thus there’s no integration into my point of need
Interaction: short of having a conversation in a hallway or joining a library group, there’s not a lot of interaction to be done in the library itself or with the community of people that you might find in the library (‘Shush’)
Retention: I’m not aware of what makes people return to use the library service other than getting a new book out. By contrast, Tesco has fantastic customer retention through their loyalty card, special offers and so on.

So what can be done?

There are a couple of stages to my plan, and it’s worth saying that there’s nothing new here – everything already exists but hasn’t been joined together yet (as far as I know).

1) Integrate social media into the library structure.

Imagine a giant database of library users, where each book they withdraw from the library is recorded (already exists – libraries have to know who has what, hence the library cards).

Once the reader’s devoured the book, they write a review online under their log-in ID (concept already exists – see Amazon). They can rate the book, offer suggestions for follow up reading and so on.

They can also talk about the book on all of their other social media identities (not only increasing their specialist standing in that community but also widening the reach of the book itself into new audiences), linking back to their specialist reader profile page.

2) Build an Amazon-like recommendation engine.

Because the database will know what you read (and review, positively and negatively), it can recommend other books that you can find in the library. As with Amazon, you’ll probably discover stuff that you wouldn’t normally pick up.

For the reader, this would be a real plus. People get phased by choice. Give someone three suggestions, and they’re OK. Ten suggestions will probably make them lose interest. An entire library full of possibilities? Mind-blowing and a real turn off.

3) Put a QR code in every book

The QR would link to that book’s place in the database, giving instant access into reviews, recommendations, who had it last (Twitter/social media identities etc). It would also (depending on how much work went into the database) link you to book signings by the author, latest news from their publishing house etc (concept already exists – Ents24 for example).

What about the physical library itself?

Now that the mechanism and tools have been developed to make bring social media into the library, it’s time to look at the library itself.

Libraries are located in local communities so they should integrate into that community, providing local interest and opportunities for interaction. For example, my local library doesn’t do a lot with local authors, and the librarians haven’t even heard of an award-winning one who lives just up the road. And they won’t even let you put up a poster for a book event that’s happening in the town…

Judicious application of the Community Network Marketing Model could be used here to really drive the integration of the library (physical and conceptual) into the local community, and to get that community 100% behind the service.

This would also allow the library to become fully in touch with the community and draw influences from the area. This could be in the form of regular book signings, book groups, associated exhibitions (so when the new Peter James comes out, you could have a literary tour of all the places mentioned in his novels etc), book-related art exhibitions and so on.

Once embedded in the community, and utilising the knowledge built up through CNM, the social media work and the database, the library service could become truly relevant to the widest section of the population.

The library could then be repurposed.

There’s a lot of information in the library. Some useful, some less so. There’s even more information on the internet.

And it takes a huge amount of skill to navigate successfully through either environment.

So imagine if the library was repurposed not as a place to borrow books, but as a seat of learning and knowledge in the community.

Because the social side of the service has been taken care of as above, the librarian and library team could become true specialists in knowledge transfer. Not just the purveyors of books.

This could then spill out into educational opportunities based on the knowledge transfer that the local community is demanding.

And there could be an end to ‘Shush’. Imagine if libraries had quiet rooms for study and reflection, but the main floor was a place of debate and argument, of idea exchange, of challenge and discussion. Wouldn’t that be great?

But doesn’t all of this online stuff detract from what the library is meant to do – i.e. lend out books?

No, I don’t believe so.

Thanks to the recommendation engine/database, the integration of the library into the cultural life of the wider local community and the repurposing of the library space into one of knowledge transfer and learning, I believe that the interest in – and use of – the library’s contents would increase.

Why? Because the library would be more relevant, more targeted and more suited to the needs of the individual and the community as a whole.

Taking all of the above into account, I want to use the BIIR model once again to look at the reformed library.

Brand: The library is now a vibrant seat of culture, learning and debate in the local community. The service is flexible, adaptable, responsive to the needs of the local community and seen as somewhere that genuinely adds value.
Integration: Since the library service has worked itself into the community through CNM application, it knows what its audience wants, and how to give it to them. Our pursuit of knowledge can take place beyond the walls through the social media and recommendation engine channels, and we’re directed back into the library itself to take part in deepening that learning and exchanging our passions through passionate debate and discussion.
Interaction: The library can interact with its users (and potential converts) across all channels, answering general queries, providing detailed knowledge and offering the opportunity to get people together without being told to ‘Shush’.
Retention: The user database, social media channels and regular in-library events are a marketer’s dream – a ready made, bought in and easily segmented audience receptive to well-purposed and targeted communications. In short, there’s now the ability to keep people coming back to the service because you know who they are, where they are and what they like (and they can tell you too with genuine two-way dialogue).

So these are my thoughts on moving the library into the 21st century. What’s your reaction? Will such an online development and repurposing of the physical space encourage more people back into the library? Will QR codes provide alternative lending options and widen people’s choices? Or would such developments be the final nail in the coffin?

Comment below, please. I’m fascinated to hear what you think.

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2 thoughts on “Using social media to save the library. Can it work?

  1. Very well laid out thoughts. What’s predictable is there is no future for libraries. Your model above I think can survive for some (based on leadership), for how long though, I still don’t know. Libraries (like movie rental companies) are getting a tremendous amount of heat from the internet. I think the only value proposition libraries can offer is the ‘meeting in person’ aspect. All the other digital/social stuff can be done by any Barnes & Nobles, Amazon.com, etc. And their model scales easier too.

    Where my thoughts were drifting as you were describing libraries as meeting places to learn, debate, and challenge new or existing ideas, was what if we evolved this model to also collaborate on ways to make the local community a stronger, more holistic place. What if libraries could position themselves as the centre of a community and not just a dying entity of one.

    What do you think?

    • Hey Andrew

      Glad you liked it! I’m not sure that there’s “no future”, what I am sure of is that there’s no future in the current model.
      As an analogy, there’s still DM, local newspapers etc which haven’t been killed off by other forms of communication.

      Totally agree re the evolution of the library’s place in the community. This, however, runs deeper into the very nature of the geolocated (rather than cognitospacial) community in the first place and the changes, challenges and opportunities facing that.

      Perhaps the library could become an enabler within the community, as much as a supplier to that community?

      What I also think is that the library needs to create its own community to ensure its survival, not just relying of the patronage of the geolocated community it finds itself in…

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