Knovvmads Magazine

Social Media, Small Libraries, and COVID-19

Today we have the privilege to welcome Suzanne Macauly to our blog. Currently she serves as the Assistant Director of the Pioneer Library System, and is a New York Knovvmad. Our first encounter was during the ARSL (Association for Small and Rural Libraries) conference, which we supported. As soon as we caught wind of the love and energy she deposits into her work, we were convinced she would be an amazing guest blogger.

Welcome to Knovvmads Suzanne! Thank you for sharing your knovvledge in this wonderful post. 

In New York State, libraries began to close their facilities on March 14. In less than a week, under strict work-from-home orders, library administrators and staff were scrambling to figure out their next steps. 

There were so many unknowns, including how bad it would get and how long it would last. At first, everyone was certain it would be over in two weeks. “We can’t be closed for more than two weeks.” “This will end soon… right?” But as the time stretched longer and longer, the extended closures became somewhat of an identity crisis for an institution that was built on physically placing information into the hands of their patrons.

Yes, libraries have been circulating digital materials for quite some time, and databases and other online research tools could be accessed remotely. But what about the books? And storytimes? And computers? And all of the other wonderful services and things inside our buildings? How could we continue to be a library if we could not serve our communities? The foundational industrial grade carpet had been pulled out from under us.

This abrupt change was especially jarring for small and rural libraries that pride themselves on personal, face-to-face interactions, on being central to their close-knit communities. Small and rural libraries, generally, are defined as libraries serving a population less than 25,000 and/or serving areas that may be geographically isolated (there are sub-classifications for “rural” based on a territory’s distance from an urbanized area or city). Small and rural libraries often have limited personnel, resources, and finances.

The staff at small and rural libraries wear many hats, including collection development, cataloging, circulation, programming, and technology. Not to mention they are also often the library’s plumber, electrician, and landscaper. In some small and rural libraries, there is only one, singular person on staff (the Solo Librarian) wearing all of these hats all of the same time. 

While most libraries, of every size, have a Facebook presence, social media is not always a priority for libraries with limited personnel, resources, and time. There is no social media manager or even a team. The task of digital marketing in a small or rural library typically falls to one person who will occasionally throw up a quick post or a picture on Facebook but hasn’t had the time to develop any social media skills or grow the library’s reach.

Like all libraries during COVID-19, extended closures meant small and rural libraries had no choice but to pivot from serving their communities in person to utilizing digital platforms to meet the needs of their patrons.

So amid a public health crisis, Social Media Manager was forcibly added to the already overly bloated job description, which left many library workers to wonder “Where do I start?” 

In 2011 I moved to Rochester, New York. While I was looking for a library job, I began working at a run specialty shop. The store was locally owned and featured a personalized fit process that matched customers, mostly runners and walkers, with the perfect shoe. But the true “specialty” in run specialty was not the gear. It was the knowledge of the staff, and our one-on-one interactions had many parallels to the library reference interview. I love running and I love helping people find the information they need, so it was a perfect fit (no pun intended).

While staff expertise and exceptional customer service meant a loyal following, we were also competing with the rise of digital retail. The convenience of online shopping such as Amazon and Zappos led many business blogs, articles, and opinion pieces to lament the painful and inevitable death of brick and mortar. (Yet another parallel to librarianship where we are often asked, “Why would anyone need a library when there is Google?”)

Fortunately, at this same time, social media was on the rise. The following year Facebook would surpass one billion users with half that number logging on to the platform every day.  (Today there are over 2.7 billion active Facebook users.) At the running store, we realized that social media was a way to have a presence online, to build a community, and to drive people into the store for their gear instead of them clicking Add to Cart. 

Sure our posts featured the latest and greatest sneakers and athletic apparel (just like libraries snap pictures as they unbox their Baker & Taylor goodies), but we also shared running tips, gave training advice, answered questions, commiserated with the injured, and cheered on race times and new distances covered. Slowly but surely, we built a small Facebook community. With every Like and Share, we gained more followers. The small group became a medium group, and the medium group became a large group, and the large group became customers. 

Long story short, this locally owned brick and mortar shop did not die. In fact, it moved into a 10,000 square foot space just a few years later. Through the boom of online retail (or despite it), the store remained true to its core value of providing an exceptional in-store experience but used the internet to leverage their knowledge and personalized service to gain customers. The ROI of social media was off the charts.

As I returned to libraries, I thought a lot about how we could be using social media in the same way. How could we promote our materials, services, programs, and knowledge and build an online community that would translate into regular library users? Could likes and follows become door counts and circulation statistics?

At conferences, I attended any session on social media that was offered. I wanted to learn as much as I could so I effectively utilized social media to increase the library’s reach in our community. Social media could also help attract a younger demographic or demographics not considered traditional or consistent library users. There was huge possibility for growth if social media was done right and it was done well.

At first I left these sessions feeling a little discouraged. Although the workshops were conducted by extremely knowledgeable presenters, as professional Social Media Managers they had the time and resources to hone their craft. They created fantastic online campaigns and were sometimes part of a multi-person marketing team. Social media seemed too daunting an undertaking. Small and rural librarians just didn’t seem to have the bandwidth or the capacity to keep up. 

Fortunately, I came to the realization that everything was scalable, and I had to focus on what I could do. I had to learn to utilize social media the best that I could with what I had. Over time, and through some trial and error, I found a system that seemed to work, and I watched as our library’s social media following grew. Slowly but surely, our Facebook page Likes went from 600 to 800 to over 1100. We saw greater door counts, increased program attendance, and books featured in our posts were actively sought out. In our community of 2000 residents, our social media was enjoying moderate success.

I thought it would be helpful if I shared what I learned with other small and rural library staff, and submitted conference proposals to the 2020 ARSL (Association for Small and Rural Libraries) Conference and the NYLA (New York Library Association) 2020 Annual Conference. At the time I had no idea how important social media would become to libraries in just a few months, but fortunately both proposals were accepted and I was able to provide useful information to so many of my colleagues who were looking to find some footing in the new library normal.

Here are some of tips from the “Social Media for Small Libraries” sessions I presented this fall

Schedule

I use Hootsuite for scheduling. There are other options, but this platform works well for me. I used to think that using a scheduler was beyond our needs, but it has saved me countless hours and has kept me consistently posting across all three of our social media accounts. I set aside two short blocks of time each week (usually Monday and Thursday afternoons) to schedule out the next few days of posts. Once I set it and forget it, I am able to focus on all my other library tasks.

Design

I use Canva to create original content. If you have a limited (or no) budget for graphic design software, Canva is a good alternative. Canva offers a Design School so you can quickly learn the ins-and-outs of their tools through short video tutorials. Don’t forget to slap your library’s logo on your designs–be proud of your original content.

Give Credit

We’re libraries so borrowing is what we do, but it is important to give content credit to the borrowee. Preface shared posts statements such as “Our friends at the Next Town Over Library curated this fabulous Back to School booklist!” Plagiarism issues aside, giving credit will help build partnerships with other libraries, community organizations, the school district, and whoever else you borrow content from.

Edit

Read your posts out loud. If you are speaking for a long time, delete some text. In our scroll and scan culture, giant blocks of text are going to be ignored. Also, if you find you’re stumbling over words or your phrasing doesn’t easily roll off the tongue, delete some text. If your users have to work to understand the content or context, they will get frustrated and scroll past. There is too much to see on social media, and users do not like spending time deciphering posts.

Third Person

You are not the library. You are posting on behalf of the library so do not post in the first person. Use “we” or “the library” instead of “I.” If you do want a post from a specific staff person, write “Miss Jenny loves this new picture book!” instead of “I love this new picture book!” 

Be Consistent

While two to three Facebook posts per day is a popular recommendation, that just may not be feasible for you or your library. Aim for at least one regular post per day that your online followers can rely on. Your social media motto can be quality over quantity. You do not want to post sporadically or disappear for weeks at a time. Be consistent. (On the flip side, avoid rapid fire posting. Your followers will quickly click Unfollow if you fill up their feed with a dozen posts at a time.) 

Be Inclusive

Learning about creating and posting content that is accessible to all, such as using Alt Text, must be a priority. Libraries need to be as inclusive online as they are inside their buildings. A quick internet search will provide you with many resources about online accessibility.

You Be You

Don’t compare yourself to others, and especially don’t compare your social media to libraries with a bigger staff or a bigger budget or a bigger chartered service area. We are all doing the best that we can with what we have and that will look different at every library. If you are using social media to bring value to your community, then you are doing a great job!

During COVID-19, social media was tremendous in keeping libraries connected to their communities. Libraries shared resources from the department of health, food banks, and state unemployment offices. They also began using social media to host online book discussions, craft tutorials, and storytimes. Although their physical spaces were closed, libraries continued to serve their communities in virtual spaces.

Social media is always evolving, and it can be difficult to stay on top of trends. I recommend that libraries just starting out choose one platform to focus on. Don’t spread yourself too thin, but don’t ignore social media altogether. Find your sweet spot and start posting!


Suzanne Macaulay is the Assistant Director of the Pioneer Library Systemwhich supports the 42 public libraries in Ontario, Wayne, Wyoming, and Livingston Counties, New York. Suzanne started as a Children’s Librarian and has held various positions in public libraries in New York and Pennsylvania, most recently serving as the Director of the Clifton Springs Library. She received her BA in English from Molloy College and her MLIS from LIU Post. In non-pandemic times, Suzanne spends her non-work hours driving her three kids to sports, officiating girls high school lacrosse games, and dreaming of her next Disney vacation.