Public Libraries, Social Media and News Media

I gave a lecture to students on the Public Libraries module of Sheffield’s MA Librarianship course yesterday. Slides, and the gist of what I said (or wish I’d said!) below:

Introduction and Aims

Voices for the Library came about because a group of librarians and information professionals from a wide range of backgrounds and age groups had a common cause – standing up for public libraries. This involves the following aims:

1. Share positive stories from public libraries and librarians across the country.
2. Provide factual information about library usage in the UK.
3. Provide spokespeople for the media from a variety of different public libraries
4. Be a voice for communities and individuals to speak out about why they value their public libraries.
5. Support local campaigns to save libraries where it is apparent that the local council has not properly considered the impact of cuts to library services.

A lot of the work we do involves setting the record straight when news about libraries is presented inaccurately, expressing the role and value of libraries and communicating with local, national and international journalists. Web 2.0 and social media has played a key part in achieving our aims and helping us to create, shape and report news.

We have a duty to take back the narrative. We’re librarians, library and information studies students – we’re the experts. We’ve learnt the hard way that we can’t put our trust in politicians and count on them to represent what we want or provide what we need. There are issues of deprofessionalisation and a lack of voice of professionals in all kinds of decision-making processes. For example, Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, current school and NHS reforms. There are serious issues with communication, agendas (hidden and not-so), and getting the voices of those who best understand the issues heard in the media.

Much of what we did in the first couple of months was about getting ourselves out there, letting people know that we existed and why.  But it quickly became about communicating in different directions, at different levels, and communicating different messages depending on the other groups involved. For example, newspaper journalists wanted to be provided with real life stories, policy makers wanted to know facts and figures, the economic benefits etc. Specialist magazines wanted to know about how  library cuts affect their area, and commissioned us to  write articles about adult learning, employability etc., or asked about the impact that cuts would have on their readers, for example classic car enthusiasts. It’s possible to research into those areas and often it’s a solo effort, but for us time is limited – we all have jobs. We’re also not necessarily experts in all those areas – but someone on twitter often is, or can help put us in touch with the right resources.


We use social media to get input from the public, including campaigners, around the country. The input takes different forms, all of which are useful in different ways.

  • Statements of support
    Help to get the message out there about Voices, who we are, what we do, why we’re different, which legitimises the campaign. We’ll spot celebrities online if they’ve just tweeted something about libraries or something vaguely related – and ask them for support through statements, guest blog posts, retweets etc. Lauren Laverne, Chris Addison, Josie Long, Rebecca Front and Robin Ince to name but a few have all helped out.
  • Stories and anecdotes
    Make good content for the website – they’re genuine, heartfelt, qualitative accounts of why libraries are important. It might not make those holding the purse-strings change their mind yet, but these can be used in case studies at a later date, as good content for journalists etc. Even the media seems to be coming to understand ways in which what libraries do as preventative measures can help save money along the line e.g. employment support, health information, preventing antisocial behaviour, improving wellbeing, supporting the elderly.
  • Photos
    Flickr submissions to the Voices for the Library pool – these have been used by journalists for news websites, in CILIP publications etc. Every attribution gets  us a little better known.
  • Fundraising
    We’ve just made ‘save our libraries’ ribbons available to campaigns – not to individuals because it’s too time-consuming to deal with orders. This is mostly to spread the word, but also hope it will help with cost of transport to places like Hay Festival, annual save our libraries day planning etc. Transactions will be dealt with online and advertising is taking place through social media.
  • Useful links
    We can’t always locate everything on the internet that’s of use – the #savelibraries tag is incredibly useful for finding blog posts or videos etc. that mention libraries, and when cross-tagged with other things it ties libraries into the wider picture.
  • Evidence for legal cases
    Campaign for the Book launched a legal challenge against DCMS. We were asked to collect evidence from local campaigns and did this through twitter and facebook – we received hundreds of emails relating to about 50 local authorities. Although the national case has been suspended, the same law firm is now using the evidence gathered to challenge individual councils where it appears they have not made decisions lawfully.
  • Opinions and ideas
    We sometimes ask what people think we should be doing and how we could improve things. The point of public libraries is that they’re there to serve the public, the point of Voices is that we’re there to help libraries keep doing that. Although the campaign isn’t run completely based on public opinion, we care about how we’re doing and don’t want to spread inaccurate messages about how great librarians are even if they don’t do what’s in the public interest.

Ian created a Wordle based on the simple question “what three words would you use to describe what libraries mean to you?” We asked people through twitter and facebook. About 50 people contributed 150+ words. They weren’t necessarily what was expected, and certainly weren’t the words that were being used by the media and councils at the time. It was a simple thing to do, but it’s now been used on the front of the report produced by Suffolk campaigners to challenge the decisions made by Suffolk CC. They’ve since done a u-turn on their decision to divest library services. This doesn’t mean there won’t be closures still, but it shows that work put in by local campaigners can make a difference, and hopefully some of the content and ideas provided by Voices played a part.


We use a lot of free internet stuff because we’re poor and far away from each other, but also because they’re really effective. The major ones are: ,Wordle, PB Works, Flickr ,Youtube, Google Maps, Google fusion tables, Delicious, WordPress, Facebook and Twitter. These help with behind-the-scenes planning work as well as front-of-house things.

  • : pulls links out of Twitter by using a search. Produces a newspaper type page (image) automatically updated and archived… don’t have to miss any news that has been tweeted… just go and look at edition for that day.
  • Saves links to delicious from your Twitter account and any hashtags as delicious tag
  • Twitterfeed – automatically publish any RSS feeds you want to Twitter
  • News articles; using Tweet buttons means you don’t have to retype links,
  • Amend headlines so people know where article is about. No good tweeting a headline like “A village library is closing”. It’s not informative. Can put your own perspective on an article, by wording you use in the tweet
  • Encourage people to get involved and campaign for their local libraries
  • Discuss key issues with others
  • Promote events, local campaigns, consultations
  • RT relevant blog articles
  • RT tweets by other local campaigners
  • Good way to report live on events and keep momentum. On 5th February there were loads of RTs about the events around the country

We have an open facebook page that we share stories through. We update it both manually and automatically. It’s linked up with the Doncaster and Gloucestershire blogs so that when we publish a new blog post it automatically feeds through onto facebook wall, for example. We use notes, wall posts and topics for discussion, sharing news and information. 2,757 people like it so far! There’s also a closed facebook group that’s just for campaigners. It means they’re able to speak privately about issues that we don’t want to make public yet but do need input from other campaigns with. We want it to link communities of users/campaigners and librarians together.


The nature of using so many forms of social media is that they don’t all work as well as each other, especially when some are so new. So far we’ve not had any huge failures of using a particular kind of tool, but we have tried out ideas through twitter etc. that haven’t worked so well. For example, we had an idea to create a ‘wall of shame’ of councillors who had voted for library closures. We asked on twitter and facebook, but there wasn’t enough planning and preliminary research. There wasn’t enough time, the issue was too complex, and we didn’t have a wide enough reach, so received little input. It turned out that not many councillors who had openly said they wanted to cut library budgets were standing in local elections. But, we would be able to improve this next time.


I see it as a success every time an article is published that goes beyond stereotypes, presents factual information, promotes value of libraries, challenges status quo and the assumption that libraries are out of date, not needed etc. It remains to be seen if any libraries will be saved. At the moment it’s too early to tell, and we will never (and should never) be able to attribute it solely to Voices. But it’d ne nice to think we’d helped.

One of the biggest successes so far has been save our libraries day on 5th February. A lot of this was planned using social media, and publicised widely on twitter and facebook. It received national media coverage, with celebrity involvement, such as Lesley Garrett on BBC news in Doncaster. We’re now planning a national annual day (or week).

Media use of Web 2.0

I find it interesting that journalists have been engaging with people through twitter about library issues. Journalists ask questions, try and find people in particular areas, publicise pieces they’ve put together. For example, Hasit Shah who works for BBC Radio 5 Live tweeted about the radio interview I did for Up All Night – he linked to it with #savelibraries hashtag – and reached far more people than I could.

In turn, mainstream media have really picked up on the issue – and are now getting used to talking about it in more depth. Discussions about ebooks, publishers, implications on equality etc. are all quite recent. They find it interesting and valuable to talk to librarians who are informed about the key themes of debate and happy to discuss the pros and cons – none of this is black and white, and librarians don’t try to paint it that way.


There have been some surprises about how people have reacted to Voices campaign. Some librarians see us as going too far, some people accuse us of having ulterior motives. Some reporting is still simplistic and reductive…and we do still have the old stereotypes to deal with. There are also some people who don’t like librarians one bit. I was surprised by how much history there is to deal with, which gets in the way of making anything better sometimes. We’re members of the ‘new’ and ‘old’ generations working together to right whatever wrongs have happened and do away with unhelpful attitudes. Even though our work is evidence-based, reputable, and balanced, and we try to weigh up all situations and report appropriately, some people don’t see it like that. Some people see a progressive agenda as a threat or ulterior motive. If you have a non-conservative (small c) view, people are quick to label you as a communist. This is simplistic and reductive, and seeks to vilify those trying to do good and make improvements. It also opens up the debate about ‘neutrality’ of public libraries. Can they be? Should they be? Have they ever been? Is the concept of equity politically neutral? I don’t think so.

I thought we were making some really good progress with journalists, but others are quick to criticise. Criticisms without constructive suggestions can make you feel a bit angry. But, with all the contact from others in the same boat through social media, it makes you feel a bit better. (Sometimes they even send you pictures of kittens.)

There’s lots of progress to be made and new areas of social media to explore, questions to be asked and answered, articles to be read and written. We’re not finished!

3 thoughts on “Public Libraries, Social Media and News Media

  1. Sorry to hear you and colleagues are being criticised from within the profession. I don’t have any kitten pictures, but please accept wam wishes and many thanks for getting “out there” and doing so much for libraries and library staff everywhere.

  2. or even warm wishes – no echos of “wake me up before you go” – sorry, you’re much to young, showing my age!!

    1. 🙂 Thanks Lindsay! It’s within and outside of the profession, so it can often be a bit confusing…!

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