04 March 2011

Looking beyond the metrics and towards our future (Part 1 of 2)

I'd been trying to get some thoughts together for a few presentations that I have to give soon about the future of libraries (ours in particular) and a friend (@zaana) advised me late last night to take a look at the Twitter stream (#edge2011) from the Edge 2011 conference in Edinburgh, Scotland. At least the first of the two days looked to be very library-centric. A lot of the tweets seemed to be a bit too much like navel-gazing without any helpful suggestions, but there were a couple of positive and provocative ideas thrown in from some (service) design thinkers. A few ideas really helped me with my own thinking, even though it was all very late at night. More about that in a moment.

Already in my head was a little bit of a debate about some basic metrics that a colleague at work presented us with recently relating to our use of and progress with social media and social networks. They were OK, but nothing amazing, apart from a few interesting blips where certain content had really taken off. I think there are other more useful measures we could include as well such as referrals to our more traditional web content, but essentially, the point I want to make here is that for me at least I think our experience in this academic library with social media goes beyond what any metrics can actually measure. And it is in my opinion critically and positively related to the preparations we are making for our future library. That building isn't going to be designed on metrics alone and it will just be a building. It could be all about books and transactions relating to books.

So, to explain now: before we get to designing our future library, we've decided to jump in and implement two other major technology initiatives that take the focus away from books and transactions. Currently we are busy with a large team of designers working on an underground Library Retrieval System that will store and retrieve for our clients about 80% of our collections of books and journals. That will squarely refocus the library itself on PEOPLE. (Refocusing libraries on people was something I saw that was suggested at Edge 2011.) We are also busy implementing RFID technology that will assist us to take our focus away from transactions and onto the provision of more value-added services (e.g. improved and extended services for our researchers). These two initiatives will be implemented between 2011 and 2014, but there is also much to do to reshape the library and our services so that we can maximise the potential of those technologies and that is where social media comes in.

At UTS Library we started playing around (literally playing around) with social media in 2009. Staff at all levels were encouraged to try some new platforms and to produce content for them. We also started setting up a presence and creating a sense of community in a few selected social networks. These things take a while. They don't happen overnight and I think you can make the mistake of killing it all off too soon by over analysing it before it has had the chance to grow and evolve. We've been patient.

In my view, however, the real benefit of encouraging these relatively new initiatives has been internal. Dipping our toes into social media has been a bit of a cultural fire-starter for us. We cannot hope to move into a brave new library world without some drastic changes in our own culture and our attitudes towards exploring new ideas and services. Social media has helped us with both. It has also helped reposition our "persona" from a corporate voice to a more personal voice (which is another thing I saw mentioned at Edge 2011 last night) and that is necessary because we cannot be all about people if that is just on the outside. The focus on people also has to happen on the inside.

Playing with social media has encouraged our people to learn about new platforms and about creating content for them. Those skills in both exploration of new or emerging technologies and content production are invaluable. They've also gained confidence in their writing and presentation skills and learned how to "network" more effectively (which is critical for liaison on campus). All of this has helped us promote our services and our people and now more than ever we are in demand on campus and elsewhere.

Our social media experiments have already led to the development of improved and new services for students and researchers at UTS all through establishing a culture of fun, playfulness and a willingness to try new things. They have really helped our people in the ways they use and help others to use our discovery layer and our website and that has also helped us to understand how we should improve that layer with the addition of new features and services. There is a real momentum of openness, sharing and experimentation that has developed accordingly.

Underlying this has been a strong culture of trust at all levels of management and leadership in this library. We didn't issue a 27 page set of principles and rules for the use of social media. We simply referred to the existing UTS code of conduct for all staff and explained that for practical reasons we would concentrate our efforts on an agreed set of platforms: all the usual suspects. Everyone was treated like an adult and trusted to get on with it.

That's it for Part 1. In Part 2 I will explore a few more specific ideas about how we did this and what worked for us. (Oh, this is all straight off the top of my head after a late night following #edge2011, so I reserve the right to edit, add & change the content above over the next couple of days.)

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