Thing 19 of 23: telling people things they’re not interested in knowing

For Thing 19 we’re asked to think about marketing with social media and how we might market our own services. I’ll say at once that I’m going to cheat and not talk much about my own library, since I don’t think I can do much directly to market it. That’s because the library I work in at the Fitzwilliam Museum is on a very specialised and specific subject. You will want to use my library if and only if you are interested in numismatics, and if you are at all serious about numismatics, you will know about the library. Even if you’re not, if you search on Google for ‘numismatic’ ‘library’ and ‘UK’, we come up as the first entry (and as the third entry if you omit the ‘UK’). The one form of promotion I would like to do (but I don’t know whether it’s technically feasible at the Fitzwilliam end), is have an RSS feed of new books added to the catalogue, to keep more distant researchers up to date.

The main marketing effort that’s needed isn’t therefore about getting numismatists interested in the library. It’s about getting people in the university interested in numismatics. The staff in the Department regularly give classes and lectures for students to whom numismatics is potentially relevant: historians, archaeologists, art historians. I came to the Fitzwilliam to see and handle Carolingian coins when I was doing my masters here, for example. That kind of promotion really needs a specialist numismatic knowledge that I simply haven’t got, though I have occasionally blogged about numismatics, and some of my colleagues do a lot more.

What I want to spend the rest of the post doing, therefore, is looking at the flip side: being marketed to via social media, as a user of academic libraries. Andy Priestner, in his introduction to this Thing, uses the idea of the 4 Cs in such marketing – content, context, connections and conversations. I want to focus on the first and last of these and ask: if we’re having conversations with users, what should we actually talk about? I worry that too often libraries’ use of social media involves a lot of telling people things that they’re not actually interested in knowing.

Think back to real conversations: we’ve all had the friend who wants to tell us all about an interest of theirs that we really don’t share, or the minutiae of exactly what happened on a particular day. And we’ve also all had the ‘conversations’ with salespeople where their only interest is selling you something even if you don’t want to have it. Are library ‘conversations’ in danger of making us sound like bores or pushy sales reps?

What kind of things are we telling people that they aren’t really interested in? Take as an example the current library news page of the University Library (also available as an RSS feed), which contains the following items:

1) Sassoon archive on display for first time
2) Sculptor George Kennethson remembered in centenary donation to University Library
3) Squire Law Librarian David Wills elected as President of the British and Irish Association of Law Librarians
4) Sassoon’s Poetry Please
5) Cambridge aims to become the world’s library [Digital Library for the 21st century]
6) UL car park – closed overnight and Sundays
7) Codes, ciphers and spooky science: the University Library in the Science Festival
8) BBC’s Today Programme uncovers UL spy exhibition
9) Cambridge University Library on the spy trail
10) Sassoon Archive arrives in Cambridge
11) Do not open until 2109 [Letters to the Future project]
12) National Heritage Memorial Fund awards £550,000 to help save Siegfried Sassoon’s archive
13) DSpace @ Cambridge unveils e-thesis depositing
14) Darwin’s library to be made available digitally
15) ‘Topping out’ ceremony for new Library extension
16) Cambridge University Library extends its welcome [new public art]
17) Books of enduring scholarly value [CUP launches reprint collection]
18) Rose Book-Collecting Prize winner 2008-2009
19) Cambridge appoints first female University Librarian

To start with, I think it’s fair to say that the percentage of people in Cambridge University who care about who the President of BIALL is (no. 3) is negligible. Similarly, I’ve been a regular user of the UL for more than 10 years without ever knowing or caring who the University Librarian was (no. 19).

Too many libraries also want to tell people about things that aren’t of interest to them now. Most of the time, reports of events that have already happened (nos. 4, 7, 15, 18) are not of interest to users unless they were at them, or know the people who were. The exception is when the report contains information that people can still use after the event. So, for example, I like conference reports that are actually informative about the topics discussed. I am less impressed by the ones that read like particularly boring ‘what I did on my holiday’ reports. (For a dreadful example from the Chief Executive of CILIP, see his blog).

There’s also an interesting contrast in the two CUL news items that include links to external audio reports. The podcast from the Today programme on the UL spy exhibition(no. 8) is still accessible 6 months after the event and contains some interesting material that isn’t in the news report about Cambridge’s links to espionage. On the other hand, on 18th June, someone added a news item (no. 4) saying that the BBC had broadcast a programme of Sassoon’s poetry that was available online until 19th June, which is pretty much useless.

While reports of past events are often telling people things they’re not interested in knowing , being told about upcoming or current ‘events’ (nos. 1, 9, 16, 17) is more likely to be interesting. The problem is that this easily spills into a view by libraries that information about anything in the future is interesting. If you tell me about something that’s going to happen in three months’ time, or a year’s time, or three years’ time, what am I going to do about it? Maybe, if it’s on a specific date, I might make a note of it in my diary. If it’s something where I need to prepare far in advance I might start those preparations: register for when the tickets for the blockbuster exhibition go on sale, for example. But otherwise, what I’m probably going to do with your information is file it away in my mind …and then forget it. It’s not like a birthday present that I’m going to be eagerly expecting for the next six months. Yet libraries keep on telling users about the start of projects or what they will eventually be able to access in the archives (nos. 2, 5, 10, 12, 14), which is pretty much useless. (Though no 11, the Letters to the Future project, is perversely about something so long in advance as to become interesting again).

The effective way to discuss a new project is seen in no. 17, where the first tranche of digitised titles from CUP is already available when the announcement is made. This bit of news is also likely to be interesting to people for another reason: most academic library users care about the library because of the resources it contains. When I’m talking to other historians, or discussing things on blogs, it’s often about books or articles I’ve being reading, or particular websites I’ve found that they are likely to be interested in hearing about. And it’s not just because I’m a librarian that I’ll sometimes blog about such things. Jon Jarrett, for example, recently did a post mentioning that the journal Francia was now online.

I think, paradoxically, librarians are sometimes reluctant to see discussing their library’s stock as ‘news’: it seems to play into a view of librarianship that sees the library solely as a repository of material and ignores librarians’ other roles in information provision. But as a way of engaging the interest of users, especially academic users, a focus on particular items can be invaluable, because it can open up a strange and different world to view. If someone tells you about a book in which Judas Iscariot and Cain discuss suicide or shows you a different picture of polar exploration every day, it’s likely to stick in your mind and get you thinking, even if it’s nothing to do with your subject.

What of the other ‘news’ items on the University Library’s list? There’s always a role for the giving of practical information (no. 5): that is something that library users generally do want to know. But information about new services and technological developments (such as DSpace at no 13) is trickier. In real life, when I’m talking to other researchers, I don’t tend to drop into conversations statements like: ‘Did you know that COPAC now has a function to download records directly into EndNote and Zotero’, or ‘Have you tried the new Cambridge library widget?’ If we were already having a conversation about managing references or how to get hold of theses, I might well mention these services, but to introduce them out of the blue is likely to make you come across as being a faintly obsessive nerd or a salesperson. If you’re supposedly having a conversation and you say something to which the only likely response is either baffled silence or the despairing politeness of ‘that’s very interesting to know’, then there’s something wrong with your conversational technique.

As my analysis shows, this part of the University Library’s use of social media is something of a failure as a conversation. But I don’t want to pick on the UL particularly: the same tendencies are visible in a lot of libraries’ use of social media. And as a contrast, I want to show an example of a CUL project where the use of social media is producing new and interesting conversations: the Incunabula Project blog. I think it’s fair to say that the posts on Laura’s blog aren’t going to appeal to many users. But those who specialise in the field are already reading the blog, adding helpful suggestions and perhaps even beginning to create a small textual community around it, even though the blog is only a few months old. And because such posts show up on Google, anyone in the future who is interested in George Merula’s edition of Cicero is easily going to be able to find Laura’s discussion of it and join in the conversation, and possibly use the CUL’s services in future.

Marketing libraries using social media requires us to think quite hard about whether what we’re saying can really be considered as a conversation, rather than a monologue. But it also offers us the possibility of people who don’t know us overhearing what we’re saying, and if it’s interesting, staying to hear more, and maybe even introducing themselves to us afterwards. And those are the kinds of conversations we surely ought to be having.


3 thoughts on “Thing 19 of 23: telling people things they’re not interested in knowing

  1. Thankyou for the links, as ever. It seems to me that a lot of what you critique about the UL’s RSS feed could be solved by more timely expiring of outdated items, really. The other factor is one that we also suffer from, which is that when we do something someone else paid for it’s often important to the reports we write back to funding bodies to say it was publicised. I think that’s where the ‘start of project’ announcements you rightly point out as useless come from.


  2. What a thought-provoking post, Magistra.

    I do agree with a lot of what you are saying. However, I wonder whether it’s in part that the example you use (the library news items and associated rss feed) aren’t really web 2.0 in the way in which they are being used. The presence of the rss feed makes it more than a static html page of news items irregularly updated as required, but it doesn’t make it much more than that to be honest. It’s not a format allowing for feedback/comments or the “conversation” you’re looking for. I think that’s part of hte problem – it’s essentially web 1.0 and not really social media at all.

    That’s why the Incunabula blog (and I was going to mention a couple of other project blogs til I saw you’d mentioned that one) do create conversation, because they are *intended* to do so. They are truly exploiting what’s social and interactive about web 2.0.

    For what it’s worth, the news items still have their place – no one reader is going to be interested in all of it but it’s a blunt instrument, not a finely tuned one, so news items like this are put out in the hope that a certain percentage of people who see one item will be interested, which may not be the same group of people as those interested in the previous item, etc. And my experience in librarianship tells me, people don’t always know what they want to know until somebody tells them 🙂


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