AALL 2017 Recap: Social Media Use in Law Libraries: Learn from Our Successes and Failures

By Caitlin Hunter

panel photoI began my current job fresh from an online course in social media for libraries and enthusiastic about all the possibilities. I carefully identified target patron groups, then crafted goals and selected appropriate platforms for each. I made detailed Twitter and Facebook schedules in Word, Google Calendars, and Excel. Today, the library’s Twitter has three posts in the past three months, none of them by me. The library’s Facebook is long gone, courtesy of marketing’s suggestion that the law school would be better served by a single, unified Facebook that was actually updated.

Accordingly, I was excited to learn from librarians who are making social media work. Mari Cheney (Digital Resources & Reference Librarian, Lewis and Clark Law School; Facebook, Twitter, Instagram) and Nickholas Harrell (Student Services & Outreach Librarian, University of Colorado Law School; Facebook, Twitter) are academic librarians who are personally responsible for updating their libraries’ social media accounts. Cathryn Bowie (State Law Librarian, State of Oregon Law Library; Facebook, Twitter, Blog) is a public law library director who guides and supports her library’s social media program.

They offered the following tips for social media success:

  1. Avoid Facebook. All three panelists have Facebooks but this was misleading. Both Cheney and Harrell said their biggest Facebook failure was not deleting Facebook. (I was pleased to learn that my library was ahead of the curve on this one.) Cheney described Facebook as “a failure I continue to update.” Generally, the panelists felt that Facebook was geared towards the personal, rather than the professional, and had limited reach because of Facebook’s pay-for-views policy. Unless a library has the budget and willingness to pay, only about 10% of the library’s followers will see each post they make.
  2. Twitter is a must-have.  All three panelists had Twitter and agreed that Twitter is a good fit for libraries. Law students and attorneys use Twitter to promote themselves professionally, rather than to share their personal life. This means more retweets of legal research tips and fewer awkward encounters with photos of students partying.twitter
  3. Consider blogs and Instagram, but skip Snapchat. Bowie’s library also maintained a blog and Cheney maintained an Instagram. Cheney had investigated the possibility of having a Snapchat but students advised her that Snapchat was even more personal and less professional than Facebook.
  4. Retweet, repost, reblog- especially from vendors and other university departments. My biggest struggle with social media is generating content. How do successful social media users generate original content day after day? The answer is they don’t. A key part of effective social media use is engaging with the social media community by reposting others’ content. All of the panelists drew from a long list of sources, including AALL’s KnowItALL, SLAW, Lawyerist, Above the Law, Tech Dirt, Real Lawyers have Blogs, Boing Boing, In Custodia Legalis, and blogs by Hein and other vendors. Many vendors will retweet you if you retweet or mention them, pushing library content out to a much broader audience than the library could reach on its own. Likewise, engaging with other departments within the law school or university helps the law library reach audiences they otherwise wouldn’t and posting new books encourages the authors and their fans to repost your content and follow you.
  5. Enlist help. Harrell said he couldn’t do it without the help of a co-worker who rounded up her own list of content each morning. Another co-worker had a master’s in poetry and pitched in by selecting legally themed poems that were a hit with followers. Cheney reported great success asking student workers with high follower counts to like or retweet library posts. An audience member reported that her library’s trick to push out Facebook content without paying for the privilege was to have the librarians like and reblog library posts using their own accounts.
  6. Automate with tools. Feedly streamlines browsing blog posts, while TweetDeck streamlines browsing Twitter mentions and hashtags. Repost automatically reposts others’ Instagram content with appropriate credit. HootSuite automatically reposts the library’s own content to all of the services the library uses, including Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.
  7. Post what patrons like–but expect surprises.  Paradoxically, both big trends and highly local content are popular. Popular trendy content included Pokemon Go at the library, ProQuest’s guide to Supreme Court nominations, the Law of Library of Congress’ guide to Olympics law, and portraits of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Popular local content included a mariachi band celebrating graduation weekend outside the library, a post identifying the library floors where alumni could find their class pictures, oddball library lost and found items, and Bacon, the Lewis & Clark library’s bronze pig. Bowie observed that the courts were “not allowed to do fun things” but nevertheless found social media success by providing practical tips on topics their patrons cared about, like finding legislative histories, using PACER, and downloading and printing from library computers. However, don’t expect to accurately predict everything patrons will like. Students were shockingly uninterested in Cheney’s gift card give-away and I was surprised to learn that one of the Oregon Law Library’s most popular blog posts was about dictionaries.instagram wins
  8. Engage with students– cautiously. Both Harrell and Cheney followed, retweeted, and replied to students on Twitter. Cheney initially made the mistake of following students on Instagram, too, only to find her Instagram feed inundated with photos of partying students she would rather not have seen. Audience members suggested approaching these encounters as learning opportunities for students who, after all, would soon be expected by law firms to keep their public social media accounts clean of partying photos and controversial opinions.
  9. Have clear policies for dealing with questionable comments–especially if you work for the government. If the library uses a social media platform that allows public comments, eventually the library will receive hostile or inappropriate comments. Be prepared beforehand with clear policies on what can stay and what crosses the line. This is especially key for court libraries, which must take into account their patrons’ free speech rights before removing comments.
  10. Make social media part of your daily workflow–but don’t be an addict. All three librarians set aside half an hour to forty-five minutes when they first arrived at work to review blogs and repost content. For those of us who struggle to post regularly, making social media part of our daily workflow can help maintain the consistent posting schedule necessary to get and keep followers. What about those rare souls who have the opposite problem, like the self-described “social media addict” who asked for advice during question and answer? Harrell’s advice was succinct: Don’t be an addict. Review your feed, make your posts, and then move on to the rest of your day. As Bowie observed, social media comes second- the patron in front of you always comes first.

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