ALIA Information Online 2017 Conference, 13-17 February 2017 Sydney: Data Information Knowledge
This conference paper examines how the Northern Territory Library (NTL) utilised social media to transform the reach and impact of its public programs, propel donations and redefine its relationship with the local community.
Cultural institutions support communities, and communities are increasingly explicit about what they like and don’t like, their interests and preferences. The question is, are we listening? Every community uses social media differently so it is critical to work out the patterns of engagement among key target audiences by asking why it is that certain content evokes such a significant response, what makes it unique and what we can offer. If the preservation and safeguarding of a community’s history is to remain a key role of cultural institutions, then time spent understanding the social ecosystems in which they operate can be invaluable. Social media has an underexplored potential to detect the significance of cultural materials to a community, and could be used to identify future donations and make collection development processes more porous. This offers rich opportunities to build meaningful, genuine, engaged relationships and reassert the relevance of our organisations and collections to our communities. Rather than telling a community how important our services are, it is far more valuable to show them, and on their terms, by making timely contributions to issues and ideas relevant to them.
The Lost Darwin case study demonstrates what happens when you carry that engagement philosophy into physical spaces as well, respecting the curatorial preferences of that community enough to share control. Rather than speculating what content will interest them, social media offers us an opportunity to closely examine their preferences and use these to inform our programming and collection development strategies. The distributed curation model is an opportunity for cultural institutions to bring fresh, organic content into their spaces, validating the choices and experiences of their audience in the formal institutional setting. It shows audiences that we value their unique perspectives and experiences, deepening engagement and our responsiveness to current cultural dialogues within the digital landscape. That said, social media is not without its own inherent bias, privileging those with the means of access. What further opportunities could online social networks offer cultural institutions in representing marginalised or unpopular perspectives?
Together with these questions, cultural institutions also need to consider where management of social media sits within their organisational structures. Social media may not be best placed deep within the marketing or communications team but rather centralised to work across traditional departmental lines, and used to inform organisational priorities and decision-making. It is not just another marketing or publishing platform and is certainly not something that simply requires ‘monitoring’ or ‘maintenance’. To see it that way is to miss the opportunity that social media offers cultural institutions. It’s a rich stream of ideas, a social thermometer, a collaborative curation tool for programming and a treasure trove for strategic collection development. Indeed, it can probably be even more than that - we just don’t know it yet.