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Let It Snow

Sheffield Hallam University Libraries Find New Ways to Communicate with Patrons During Record Snowfall

Matthew Borg, Sheffield Hallam University | Mar 01, 2011

When the UK was hit with its worst snowfall since 1970 in November 2010, Sheffield Hallam University (SHU) library staff viewed it as an opportunity to further plunder new methods of online and mobile communication. We used Twitter, blogs and RSS feeds to get the word out to just over 30,000 students and around 6,000 staff spread over two campuses.

The university’s two libraries — the Learning Centres — closed at 3 p.m. on most days during the storm, and on Dec. 1 the entire university shut down. We advertised the closure via our virtual learning environment and the staff intranet. However, we needed a way to explain the more complicated arrangements for the Learning Centres. We have been using Twitter and blogs to communicate with students for a couple of years. The SHU Library Hacks blog provides informal hints and tips on using the Learning Centres and enables two-way communication through commenting. After advising students via the blog of the reduced operating hours, we immediately received questions about renewing items and were able to respond quickly to alleviate any confusion.

Our Current Issues page on our Library Gateway generally contains information about services being down. A number of people subscribe to this via RSS, so we posted relevant information here as well. We also set up a Twitter search and combined it with an RSS feed so that every time the library was mentioned, we were able to work out whether it was a question, e.g., “Anyone know if Adsetts is open?” and respond from our Twitter account.

We have been promoting the use of mobile devices as a way of accessing our services. Looking at user logs, it is clear that although on Wednesday, Dec. 1, we had fewer visitors to the Library Gateway, a much larger proportion of those visitors were from outside Sheffield and a larger percentage used mobile devices. Anecdotally, we also seem to have had more inquiries about what services are available to mobile users, and we are reacting by creating a page within the Gateway that will contain useful information and links to relevant applications.

In retrospect, we didn’t communicate issues regarding fines very well. (Fines were waived during the closure, but the system was not able to do this automatically. Therefore, we encouraged students to inform us if any redress was necessary.) Many users were still querying this after we fully reopened. On the whole, we were pleased with the way the library was able to meet its patrons’ needs for information through online and mobile communications technology, though the buildings themselves may have been inaccessible.