Isn't it Time to Establish Library-Related Social Media Best Practices Guidelines?

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Isn’t It Time to Establish Library-Related Social Media Best Practices Guidelines?

By Bobbie Studwell

Librarians aren’t shy about participating in forums and outlets that let them engage strategically and proactively with their patrons. Since we are also in the best position to inform those users about information practices that could affect them in the future, shouldn’t we be the logical producers of some type of social media best practices guidelines? Aren’t we encouraging students to write local reviews of books we place in our online catalogs, to follow us and comment on our blog and Twitter posts, and to notify us of the need to keep our web presence up to date?

The train has already left the station for most key legal populations in terms of how they choose to embrace social media. The positive uses can help students gain notoriety and followers and perhaps even land them a job. But it’s often the negative uses we’re more likely to hear about: law firms that don’t monitor a page and lose clients, students who “out” a fellow student, graduates who plaster drunken photos on their Facebook wall and fail to land that critical first job. Law libraries need to take a stronger lead to teach our patrons yet one more aspect of how to disseminate reliable, authentic, and private information about ourselves without destroying a reputation. After all, the use of social media is an information practice.

It’s clear that universities and law firms recognize the importance of social media in their marketing and strategic planning initiatives, but if society has embraced social media without first establishing some guidelines to protect our user populations, especially the younger ones, then aren’t we creating more fodder for their digital dossiers that we could be helping them avoid? Some of this information is likely to damage these users throughout their legal careers if we don’t give them a proactive head start.

Surveys about the use of social media have been popular these past few years. Some survey results indicate that students about to enter our doors, law students in our schools, and newer attorneys aren’t thinking much about using social networking sites to promote themselves as professionals. Therefore, it seems the best time to distribute practical information about best practices in using social media sites is when they are our law students. Some schools are considering offering or are currently offering hands-on workshops where they address Facebook privacy settings, hold professional discussions giving reasons for joining LinkedIn, train students on how to find people on Twitter, and work with students on setting up Flickr captions and tagging conventions that will keep them under the radar.

Overarching guidelines will differ from place to place, but best practices can and should encourage user self-expression within a business-appropriate framework. Following is a list of best practices that could prove useful to you as you prepare your own institution-specific framework, workshops, and guidelines.
Set Goals for your Posts

  • Discuss the intended purpose of your posts with your friends or followers.
  • Set common-sense goals for posts: Is the post intended to provide information? Is it one-sided? Is it intended to prompt an ongoing discussion? When should a post be vigilantly monitored and when can it stand on its own?

Practice Professionalism and Instill Notions of Respect and Courtesy in all Posts

  • Maintain confidentiality.
  • Do not post confidential, proprietary, or protected information about a person or an entity.
  • Use good ethical judgment.
  • Follow federal guidelines and institutional policies, helping to guide these entities for the greater good when you see a need for change.
  • Regard, value, and recognize the different perspectives of others.
  • Seek inclusiveness.
  • Regard and value contributions, and recognize the advantage of a discussion with your followers, even when you don’t agree. Constructive criticism can be useful, but refrain from engaging in dialogue that could disparage colleagues, competitors, or critics.
  • Even if you provide a disclaimer saying your views are your own, be respectful and don’t post anything you would be uncomfortable saying in a public setting. 
  • Be thoughtful in the account-naming conventions you use to be sure they exhibit discretion, thoughtfulness, and respect for your colleagues and your social media supporter/community.

Be Trustworthy and Transparent in Your Posts

  • Be transparent and up front about your role and goals for your post.
  • Evaluate the accuracy and truth of your posting before making it public.
  • Strive for accuracy, correcting errors quickly and visibly.
  • If you have questions about whether it is appropriate to write about certain material, ask someone you respect for advice.
  • Choose words and exhibit online behaviors that are consistent and reflect the highest ethical standards of integrity, truthfulness, and ethics.
  • Check your ego at the door, and post with honesty, openness, and respectfulness.
  • If you find out something you’ve posted is untrue after you post it, retract and correct it as quickly as possible.

Set Learning Goals for your Posts

  • Work, learn, and strive for excellence.
  • Share both successes and mistakes.
  • Expect and set a continuous learning process for yourself.
  • Recognize that no one has all the answers and points of view will vary.
  • Remind yourself about copyright and other legal restrictions, such as the use of logos and trademarked or copyrighted materials.
  • Remind others to seek permission to use materials that are not their own.
  • Read the terms of service at least once a year because they can change.

Protect Yourself and Your Work Product

  • Exercise common sense in any online activity, realizing that anyone can access and view what you have posted.
  • Protect your identity. Don’t provide personal information about yourself or others that scam artists and identity thieves might steal.
  • Everything is public. There’s no such thing as a “private” social media site.
  • Read the terms of service before you sign up for any new service.
  • Master the privacy settings, and pay attention if the options change.
  • Remember that search engines can turn up your posts years later. Don’t post something today that may haunt you later.

Create the Image of Being a Team Player

  • Foster positive working relationships through inclusive approaches. That is, seek input and involvement from those who respond to your statements and ideas. Ask others to comment on your ideas, or comment respectfully on theirs.
  • Avoid publicly discussing or speculating on institutional, departmental, or other policies or operations. Find alternative ways to create change for an institution when you think it is needed instead of ranting about it online.
  • Create a posting environment that allows you to stretch your thinking beyond what even you thought was possible, and publicly acknowledge your changed thinking.
  • Accept responsibility and accountability for your ideas. Admit your mistakes.
  • Place the greater good above your personal goals by thinking twice before you post a derogatory statement about a friend or follower.

Bobbie Studwell ( is associate dean for law library and information services at Ave Maria School of Law Library in Naples, Florida.