Sunday, August 7, 2011

How libraries communicate with users - some questions

I had the opportunity recently to populate the "Contact us" option in our new library page which led me to realize how diverse library communication channels are.

Typically most libraries would offer
  • Phone
  • Email (mailing lists?)
  • Instant Message/Chat (e.g. MSN, meebo chat rooms or paid options like Libraryh3lp)
  • SMS 
  • Video-calls (e.g. Skype)
In addition, I know of other innovative librarians who have being thinking of or playing with among other tools Googlewave, Google+ huddle (group text messenging), Google+ hangout (video chat for up to 10 people), Viber/Whatsapp, Apple iOS5's iMessage, virtual worlds like SecondLife and I had the recent opportunity to try webcasting/online conference tools like Web-ex all of which allow users to communicate with us.

But even that isn't the end of the story. Most libraries have social networking channels like Facebook (usually pages but even groups are not unheard of), Twitter, Youtube, blogs, slideshare/scribd accounts which do allow users to communicate by leaving comments, even though the main purpose of such channels are to one to many broadcasts or for pushing specific content.

And of course these are just online tools without considering posters, LCD displays etc though these normally do not allow much feedback. 

As each of these tools are adopted by libraries, you can see library literature appearing that typically consider whether the different nature of the communication channel compared to face-to-face meetings affects
  • volume of queries (ie acceptance by users)
  • types of queries
  • expected response times
  • ease of conducting reference interviews
  • some comparison with earlier communication channels (occasionally)
While such research articles are interesting, there doesn't seem to be any holistic type of research that 
  • the impact of starting one new communication channel on an existing one
  • why users choose one communication channel (say chat vs email) when they want to contact the library

In addition, I have always wondered why some libraries choose to go on some communication channels while forgoing others. 

For libraries have being around for a while, I suppose adoption goes typically from
phone to email to Instant messenging to sms/Facebook/Skype which is roughly in the order where they were available, but this is not set in stone.

For example a small puzzle for me is why Libraries in Singapore do not seem to have adopted IM reference until fairly recently, while most libraries in the US have had it, some for almost 10 years. For sure it isn't a technology issue since libraries in Singapore are typically on par in most areas nor is it a usage issue since IM is as popular here as anywhere. It could simply be a localised quirk in the personalities/staff involved in pushing technology in libraries here.

It also seems obvious to me that some channels are strong substitutes for each other but which ones? If you are starting a new library, for sure you will do phone & email, but what of the rest? 

Is IM reference enough? Or should you do IM reference and SMS reference? Do you really need a Facebook page if you send out mass emails? It would be nice to offer all of them, but each channel has a cost associated (training of staff, maintenance of infrastructure etc).

For instance, I read that Australia dropped the AskNow Chat Service  in Dec 2010, citing "change in the information landscape since the launch of Ask Now in 2002. With the dominance of Google and social networking sites, there are many new ways people can engage with libraries." Not quite sure I buy that reason.

Some librarians have expressed to me a desire to be on as many channels as possible to serve all our users according to what they prefer and I can see the merit of that. For example, when troubleshooting issues I prefer using chat as opposed to phone because we have a shared phone and it's some distance from the PC and I can type as fast if not faster than I talk. While a colleague of mine prefers the phone.

Similarly, I'm sure many of our users also have their own preferences on how to engage the library.

Another question, I have being pondering for a while is, you have all these diverse channels, from Facebook, Twitter, email, LCD screens, posters, postings on library websites etc... which one do you use?

Recently our school term began, and we started to advertise our library orientation events. A interesting question to me was, which channels should we use?

I suppose the obvious thing would be to blanket all our channels. Would that be annoying? A mass email followed by the same news posted on Twitter , Facebook and blog? How many of our users both follow us on Twitter, like our facebook page and subscribe to the library blog?

Even if one were to blanket all our channels, how about timing of release? Do users expect the same news to be sent all the time at the same time?

Is it fair to privilege certain channels say Twitter and send the information there first? I can imagine this can possibility lead to howls of outrage and questions of equity would come into play particularly if we talking about a very popular but limited event. But then again, would it be useful to release everything at one go on all channels?

For instance, changes in opening hours are generally posted 1-2 weeks before it occurs, system maintenance of databases & websites anything up to a month in advance , would it be useful for the same information to be pumped onto Twitter & Facebook at the same time as it is posted on the website?

I have often found based on likes and retweets the best time to post such news on Twitter and facebook tends to be just the day before.

I don't have any answers as I don't know much about marketing, just musing aloud. Curious on how other libraries handle these issues.

Is there a centralized strategy on how and when each communication channel is used in your library? How do you decide what to use? Are you worried about duplication of efforts?

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