Your “Library” Doesn’t Participate in Social Media, But Your People Do – A TTW Guest Post by Dr. Troy Swanson

Much discussion has been made about librarians reaching out through social media to our communities and our patrons and rightly so. But, we often overlook the role that social media offers for us internally as a means to strengthen our organizations.

One thing to remember is that libraries really do not participate in social networks. People do.

In fact, your “library” doesn’t exist. You may have a building. You may have items on your shelves. You may have people who show up to do work. But, there is no “library.” Often, we speak of our libraries as if they are these living entities outside of the people who make them up.

“The library prohibits the use of cell phones in all public areas.”

Actually, the library doesn’t prohibit anything. Only people can prohibit.

Our libraries are groups of people who come together to do a job. Together, we make rules, systems, policies, and procedures in order to coordinate our work. We need to understand how the individuals fit together to get a job done. We need some predictability. If we had to remake the rules everyday, we’d never accomplish anything.

There are two important challenges that come from this. First, it is easy to fall into a rut and make things so predictable that nothing ever changes. There are many people who talk about breaking out of ruts, so I am will not focus on this in this post.

The second challenge, which is my focus, is much more interesting. This is that it is impossible to create rules for most situations. Most of the time, when faced with a decision, organizational members take their understanding (based on past experience) and apply it as best as possible to the task at hand. Sometimes this is a very rote task, and other times, this is a once-in-a-career opportunity.  It can take months or years of working in an organization to really understand the unwritten participation rules. Empowering people to act can be even trickier.

In an ideal, magical world, all of our organizational members would know about all of the actions ever taken by our colleagues. We would build up our knowledge and have that in our heads. Then, when faced with a decision, we would have the ultimate point of reference to use in acting.

But, as we know, that’s not how the real world works. In the real world, we are always making and remaking meaning within our organizations. Each person has limited knowledge and imperfect information. We react to our environment, observe results, and decide if our actions worked. Importantly, we decide together. Sometimes this takes the form of formal policies, evaluations, or procedures. Sometimes, this happens more informally through friendships, gossip, and frowning faces. In all cases, organizational members are bumping around, making sense of the world. Together, we make meaning through doing work. Talking to someone about working is never the same as actually working with that person.

My library is open seven days a week, day and night. Our staff members are never all together at one time. There are many staff members who will never meet each other. Yet, we hope that our staff members will make similar decisions when presented with similar situations. But, there is no way we can capture every rule, every practice, or every approach. There is no handbook that will ever be complete. There is no workshop that will ever be long enough.

But, with social media, we can connect. We can share our days via Twitter or Facebook. We can document via shared wikis. We can demonstrate via YouTube. Of course, social media will not solve all problems, but they offer an affordable way to overcome space and time limitations. They are one more tool in our tool box. Most importantly, it offers an avenue to work together, which is the most powerful way to build meaning.

The question becomes how? First, those with knowledge must contribute. Some of the most vital organizational information will come from managers, so they must commit to using these tools. Simply put, organizational members will follow their organizational managers. If they put needed information and direction in these tools, then staff members will need to access these tools to do their jobs. Second, organizational members must understand how the tools are used and what they can do. Most importantly, they must understand how they should contribute and how their contribution will forward the goals of the organization. Finally, participation must become part of everyday work. It cannot be seen as an optional fun activity, but as actual work.

Troy A. Swanson is Teaching & Learning Librarian at Moraine Valley Community College. You can follow him on Twitter at @t_swanson.