or, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Fear and Loathing at a Public Library Reference Desk

Be Careful What You Tweet For

   April 14th, 2009

chelmsfordlib on TwitterTwitter has been around for a long time, so all the press it has gotten recently surprised me. Personally, I never really had much interest in it, so I just more or less ignored it.

Until a few months ago, that is, when I found a way to use it for the library.

The snowfall and storms this winter seemed particularly bad, and we had quite a few early closings or delayed openings. Whenever this happens, one of the ways we get the message out is to announce the change in hours prominently on our homepage.

However, it's the library director who makes the decision to close the library, but she had no easy way to update the homepage from home. She hasn't coded in html for years, and installing an editor and ftp program - and then her having to remember how to do everything - seemed like an unnecessary barrier. So, she asked me to find an easier way for her to update the homepage.

Ah-ha, I thought - I know libraries are displaying their Twitter feeds on their homepage, so why can't we?

homepage with embedded twitter feedI signed up for a Twitter account, learned how to customize the feed display, and added it to the library's homepage. I set the feed to only display one message, and after some trial and error figured out how to send a blank message (use the html code  ). That way, after the storm passes, we could send a blank message to remove the announcement from the homepage.

Then, to make it as easy as possible for my director to update from home, I also created a Twittermail account. Using Twittermail, all she needs to do is send an email message to our account, and whatever she types into the subject line with then display on our website (centered on the very top of the page). Neat.

When I demo'ed it for her, it worked like a charm, and she was very happy. But of course, we haven't had a snowstorm since.

And see, that's the problem - I created this Twitter feed for a very specific purpose, and we haven't had much of a need for it yet. However, since I created it, seven people have started following the library on Twitter.

We don't promote it, so how'd they find it? They must have gone looking. If our patrons are expecting us to be on Twitter, and voluntarily pay attention to us, doesn't it make sense that this is a tool we should be using? To me, it does.

So, in addition to storm closings, I've lately been trying to think of other "announcements" that deserve top billing on the library's homepage - just so I don't feel guilty about these Twitter followers not getting their library tweets.

This is very much a case of "if you build it, they will come." Now I need to live up to the implied second half of that saying, "when they come, make sure it's worth their while."

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11 Responses to “Be Careful What You Tweet For”

  1. alex zealand Says:

    Here’s an example of what you can use your twitter feed for on a regular basis:
    We did it as an experiment a few months ago, partly because all the smithsonians have twitter feeds. Twitter’s been growing here in the DC area a lot lately, and it does seem to be giving us an increased online/social networking presence. The biggest response we’ve gotten is to the book reviews #br – people seem to like them.

  2. Hollis Says:

    How cool! It would be a great way to let people know that a new book can be put on hold now that it is on order, or in processing. Or to let people know that a publication date changes–people would know that Book XYZ won’t really be released in May, the date has been moved to August. You could even list the site where the information was found, so that they can track the process if they want.

  3. Jonathan Says:

    I have the same level of interest in Twitter as you, but this is a brilliant use of the service. Nice work!

  4. Emily Says:

    I had a similar idea for solving some of the communications issues we have with our large consortium… but using the OPAC instead of (or really, in addition to) the homepage.

    Here’s what we did… http://bit.ly/AVqiE and here, too: http://bit.ly/16EIPz

    Now I’m thinking of cool ways to do something similar to give our individual libraries a way to use this with their library Twitter accounts to promote their local info/events.

    Fun stuff!

  5. Paul Debraski Says:

    Thanks for the great idea! I’ve not really investigated Twitter before, but looked into it for this breaking news aspect. This past weekend we had to close unexpectedly for HVAC repair, and the Twitter was a great way to keep them everyone updated!

    I especially like the blank message idea, which is what you’ll find if you visit the site now.


  6. Brian Herzog Says:

    Funny how we all had similar ideas – maybe Twitter warrants all the hype after all. Except that I think they need more processing power – if the twitter.com servers are lagging, our homepage is slower to load. Hmm.

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