Government librarians tap social media to stay relevant

Far from the stereotypical image of a stodgy old librarian shushing those who rustle book pages too loudly, librarians in Ontario’s public service are embracing new media to keep their clients up to date.

Whether it’s Twitter, RSS feeds, podcasting or social bookmarking services, librarians are recognizing that information comes from more multiple sources these days. From politicians to firefighters, government workers are turning to new media for the news that matters to them and librarians are keeping pace with Web portals that deliver social media mash-ups.

Martha Murphy is the librarian for the Office of the Fire Marshall. She uses the office’s Web site “Fire News” to push out news information about the ministry, and a subscription-based e-mail newsletter. She is able to automate much of that news gathering with the help of RSS.

“If I had to browse through all these Web pages myself, it would take hours,” Murphy says. “But with RSS feeds, I can cover a wide variety of sources very easily.”

For the uninitiated, RSS – or Really Simple Syndication – allows users to receive updated content as it appears at the source. Using Google Reader or a similar program, readers can quickly browse through a long list of headlines and read the ones that are of interest.

“The advantage of an Internet reader such as Google is that you can take it with you,” says Jacquie Fex, librarian with the Ontario Securities Commission. “You can access it from home, you can access it from school, you can access it from work.”

Murphy subscribes to the RSS feeds of traditional news sources – including the Globe and Mail and Toronto Star – as well as fire-specific blogs, Twitter accounts and industry Web sites.  

Firefighters aren’t the only ones being fed social media content by their departmental library. Ontario’s MPPs and their staff are also being kept up to date on the latest issues before the house with the legislative library’s news service.

The politicians keep the library’s staff of five busy and the internal Web site gets 30,000 visits a month from just 600 users, says Susanne Hynes, head of the Legislative Library.

“They are hungry for the most current information,” she says. “They want to know what’s happening today and what’s happening tomorrow.”

With holstered BlackBerrys, politicians are constantly connected and read the library’s news updates through e-mail newsletters in text-only format. They can subscribe to receive e-mail alerts on press releases, breaking news, and more.

The library monitors press release feeds from the various political parties in the house, Statistics Canada, the Ontario Medical Association, and the Premier’s Office, amongst others. The staff also digs through social media news and packages it into topics that are of interest to MPPs – such as the subject of a Bill that is up for debate.

“The information that’s important to them is coming from so many sources and in so many new ways,” Hynes says. “It keeps changing, you can never be complacent.”

Some may be surprised that librarians take an interest in Twitter. But with many politicians and government agencies now keeping active accounts, it makes sense for Ontario’s librarians.

“You may be surprised that we consider Twitter a useful tool, but we do,” Fex says. “You can search the service without having an account – you don’t have to post in order to consume.”

Librarians may be adapting to the new social media landscape, but it doesn’t mean they’re passing on the new content without scrutiny. Special care must be given to this new type of content that is often unfiltered and can be authored by anyone, they warn.

“One thing you really have to be cautioned on is who is the actual writer of that blog or Twitter?” Murphy says. “You want to be looking at who’s sending out that content – is it the CBC or is it someone who just happens to be passing by?”

Aside from serving members with the latest news and information, librarians have good incentive to stay relevant. In a day and age where information seems to be ubiquitous and easily accessible, putting public money towards keeping dusty books on cob-webbed shelves might be called into question.

Other government departments have already cut their libraries, Murphy says. She doens’t want to be the next one closed down.

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