Visitors and Residents: Useful Social Media in Libraries



Visitors and Residents (or V&R) is a really useful way of thinking about how people interact online and use social media. In short, people in Visitor mode come online to complete a particular task, and then leave - with very little trace of their activity remaining. People in Residents mode are more likely to identify as themselves and use the web as a social space, sharing as well as obtaining information. Visitors and Residents is a continuum which all of us are on, moving between the two according to our needs at any given time. It was first proposed by Le Cornu and White, and (David) White has a very useful section of his site to introduce the topic in more detail.

As libraries, it's really useful to think about how we go about catering for users in both modes. Social media isn't all about social networks - we can use social media platforms to provide easy entry points for Visitors seeking information (a lot of the platforms I've set up at York should provide utility even for students and staff who don't use social media at all), AND we can use it to add our voice to a more Residential space and provide help and information as part of a community. Led very much by Donna Lanclos's views on the subject, I now see V&R as a far more constructive lens through which to view peoples' online behaviour than the 'Digital Natives' idea, which is extremely prevalent and asks us to make assumptions about our users based on their date of birth.

I was invited to give a keynote at the Interlend conference, and asked specifically to talk about social media. As I've mentioned before I think a keynote is a very specific thing, and has different requirements to a regular conference presentation where I could, for example, just report back on what my institution is doing to engage users online. A keynote needs an overarching theme which gives people a way of looking at the world, as well as specific ideas and things for people to try out. With this in mind, my #Interlend2015 talk was entitled Visitors and Residents: Useful Social Media in Libraries.

The Presentation

The actual slides I used will be available on the FiL website shortly, but they won't make that much sense without me talking over the top of them so I've redone them to stand alone online. Here they are. (I get really excited about slide design. It's the one part of me that is remotely visually artistic, and I loved using a slightly different style for this slide-deck and learning new tricks. I found new sources of images - listed on the final slides - and a couple of new fonts, used a lot of darkening and blurring of images so I could write directly onto them, and generally tried REALLY hard with these!)

Screw Digital Natives

Inspired by Donna I've become quite militant about the whole digital natives thing.

It can't be left unchallenged - when people use it uncritically we have to pull them up on it! It's dangerously reductive. There's two major problems with it: firstly anyone who's thought about it for more than a second would agree that age doesn't actually determine technological know-how. How exposed we are to modern tools and computers depends on place of birth, environment growing up, privilege, and other socio-economic factors - we know that. So to assume that students entering University now have a set of skills that they just have (how do you Snapchat? You just Snapchat. Hello to Jason) is to ignore the messier reality in front of you in favour of a very simplistic alternative - an imagined present, as Donna eloquently puts it. So we don't assess the students in front of our very eyes on what they can and can't do, we just plough on and risk a dereliction of our educational duty. And secondly, even those that ARE excellent with the tools don't neccessarily know how to use them in the academic environment (or indeed for life-skills type purposes). Technological literacy does not imply digital literacy! Being deft with a touch-screen and quick to find information is a great first step, but then comes all the (again, messy) business of critically evaluating that information, and potentially re-purposing it.

My 1 year old can - genuinely - do things with our iPad which we can't recreate, to do with swiping in a certain way. She's born into the technology. She's what the people who talk about Digital Natives are imagining ALL children are like. But that doesn't mean she can use the tech to achieve goals and complete tasks and understand how information works. Of course it doesn't.

On talking then leaving

I strongly dislike when people give talks at conferences and then leave straight after. It implies arrogance - it says I am here to give out knowledge, but there's nothing you guys can teach ME.

With the Interlend Conference, the timing was awful - it was in a run of the most stressful and stupidly busy 7 days I've ever had professionally. I really wanted to do the talk though - I was supposed to do it last year but had to pull out because of my daughter's illness, and it was an honour to be asked to do a keynote. The only way I could do it was if I went back to work in the afternoon, due to a massive deadline looming - so essentially I did what I hate people doing: I showed up, gave the talk, and left.

I wanted to stay - especially after the really interesting conversations I had with people over coffee after my talk - but I had to choose between talking and running, or not talking at all. I chose to talk and run, but next time I would make a different choice and not do the talk at all unless I'm able to attend the full day on which I'm speaking. I just felt awful - sad to miss out on stuff I would have found really interesting and useful, and my insecurities running wild about what people must think (fired further by a few tweets which confirmed my worst fears).

So huge apologies to the delegates - I wish I could have stayed and carried on the conversations.

CPD as a way to get some learning done

One of things I like most about CPD is choosing paths which force me to invest proper time in understanding something relatively new. Over the years I've often submitted a title of a talk knowing that it would involve some serious work  and research to actually be able to deliver the finished article... What normally happens is I do this and feel excited about it, then about 2 days before the talk is due to be given I curse my past self in great and sweary detail because I'm still learning about a topic rather than planning how to create a presentation on it, and then afterwards I'm really glad I forced myself to do this because I learned something valuable and lasting. That's basically exactly what happened here.

When I was planning this talk and knew it had to be about social media, I was really drawing a blank in terms of an angle for it - I didn't want to just repeat the same old same old. If I read one more conference tweet that says 'social media is a great way to connect with our users!' I will probably despair.

So I asked Twitter what I should call the talk, and got loads of good suggestions, before ultimately realising that this would be the perfect opportunity to go from 'being interested in that #vandr thing I've read a lot about from Donna Lanclos' all the way to 'knowing enough about #vandr to actually talk about it at a conference' so I settled on that, and am really glad I did. (Although it was, as predicted, massively stressful.)

But I wanted to give an honourable mention to the best twitter suggestion in response to my plea for ideas for possible titles for my talk:

I wish I could have used it...

9 reasons to love the British Library's Mechanical Curator


At heart this is a post about discoverability, access, and bringing things to the surface that might otherwise not be seen. The Mechanical Curator of the title is one way of the ways the BL has done this with their digitised images, but only one of many - the point is we all have collections which WOULD engage people if they knew about it, so why not invest some time in getting the message out there in innovative ways?

I ran some workshops for the British Library at the end of last year, aimed at social media 'improvers' (people already using it as part of their professional role, who want to get more engagement and measure their impact etc), during which I talked about Tumblr. I showed various examples and confessed my favourite Tumblr of all was from the BL themselves, the Mechanical Curator.

The Mechanical Curator is Tumblr blog which regularly (and automatically) posts images from 1,000,000+ the BL have scanned from out-of-copyright books from previous centuries. It has been programmed with some Artificial Intelligence - or as far as I can see, more like Artificial Whimsy - and becomes taken with certain shapes, symmetries, and themes, and posts these more often and in clusters. After its set up and tweaking, there's no human intervention - it just gets on with it.

Click the pic to open The Mechanical Curator Tumblr in a new window. Go and explore it! I'll happily wait.

Click the pic to open The Mechanical Curator Tumblr in a new window. Go and explore it! I'll happily wait.

I loved the Mechanical Curator before, but I love it even more now, because I got (my childhood friend!) Ben O'Steen, who is Technical Lead at BL Labs, to come along and talk to the group about the project, as he designed the whole thing. And he gave such an interesting talk about it, and I learned so many new things, that I felt compelled to write this post about how great the whole thing is. Not just in itself, but in what it represents about the new ethos of library sharing, which could be the very thing which ensures our continued relevance.

So here we go, 9 reasons why I love the Mechanical Curator and the project around it:

  1. It's the perfect use for a Tumblr. It's not a regular blog which just used Tumblr because it's fashionable, it's a short, snappy alternative to the BL's more traditional blogging output (which happens via Typepad)
  2. It helps people engage with the BL even if they wouldn't usually. On a micro-level, people stumble across the weird little Tumblr and its weird little images, and then they can either leave it at that OR follow the links to the BL catalogue for each pic, and engage with the Library through other channels. That's what social media should do for us; exist on its on terms, and as a gateway to other library content. On a macro-level this whole project gets people interested in British Library materials - people who would never visit or even really know about the BL normally - and then allows them to learn more about the organisation if they wish to
  3. It takes something vast and makes it accessible one piece at a time. Tumblr is very visual and, like Pinterest, when it first came along I wondered what the point was when we already had Flickr. In this case, all the images the Mechanical Curator brings to the surfaces are on Flickr anyhow. But a digital repository or a Flickr account provide such a MASS of materials, it can be hard to find a way in and make sense of it all. The Tumblr takes one image at a time and gets it out another way, broken down into smaller chunks, which helps people find it, access it, and then explore further
  4. It's just the kind of thing you want your national library to be doing. They've taken 1 million images and said: here you go, you can do anything with them, whoever you are. That's fantastic. Not only that but they've done so in a properly interesting and accessible way, with an emphasis on actually REACHING people with the materials, not just making them available in a vacuum
  5. Forget librarians as gatekeepers... When I first entered librarianship I was very excited about the fact that while in the past librarians were gatekeepers of knowledge and information, now the gates were open and we were the sherpas who helped people find what they needed. This takes that anaology one step further and, in effect, brings all the content out from behind the gates and just puts it on the street, asking people to help themselves. I love that. We will get nowhere by trying to guard what we have, we need to give of ourselves as much as we can
  6. The BL is now immersed in pop-culture. My favourite Buzzfeed article of all time just happens to be this one: 44 Medieval Beasts That Cannot Even Handle It Right Now. All 44 are illustrated from the BL's images, put out by the Manuscripts Team
  7. The level of engagement is incredible. Sometimes you do all the right things to bring people in, but nobody comes. Not this time. Over the first 11 months, the images were viewed on Flickr 212 million times! I try not to put too much stock in views alone, but 20 million hits every month is hard to ignore. Not just that but every single one of the images have been viewed at least once, all but a handful 5 times or more. So despite the collosal scale and bredth of the collection, people are engaging with all of it
  8. People aren't just viewing the images, they're DOING things with the images. People are doing really creative things with the images: using them in art installations, free colouring-in books for children, as patterns on handbags... I love how this video from Joe Bell brings the images to life
  9. Including a huge movement to crowd-source some contextual information. Here's the wikipedia page (not set up by Ben or the BL) aimed at tagging all the maps found in the images with contextual and geographic information. As you can see, there are NONE left still to do: all 29,304 of the maps have been tagged.

It's not just maps - the community have tagged all sorts of things, providing the BL with groups and categories on its flickr page. Crowd-sourcing is great way of engaging a community and giving them ownership of something!

Finally, for some more context, here's one of Ben's presentations about the Mechanical Curator.

SO Can WE ALL do something like this?

As you can tell, I really think this project is ace. It's a template for what libraries can do with their collections - and although there's a tremendous amount of resource behind what the BL has done, we can all learn from it and apply some of their methodology.

Perhaps we can't all make a tumblr with Artificial intelligence, but we might know someone who can take Ben's code, freely available on Github, and apply it to another project. But to get distracted by the AI is to miss the point - the Mechanical Curator's greatest asset, for me, is taking something unmanagably vast and giving people another way to access it. So if your library has digitised materials which are out of copyright, don't just have them sat in a digital library! Get them out for people to happen across, via Tumblr, Pinterest or Instagram.

If you have collections which you own, or which are out of copyright, can you put them into the public domain and encourage people to take them and remix them?