This is an interview with Valerie Hawkins, social media manager, done by Naomi House of INALJ. This is part of INALJ’s 2020 series on non-library jobs for library workers.
On Social Media Manager Work :
an Interview with Valerie Hawkins
Q1: Thanks so much for taking the time to help us better understand what Social Media Manager work is and how LIS folk can get into this field. First could you tell us a little bit about yourself, where you got your MLIS (or your educational background) and what you do for work?
My bachelor’s degree is in Interdisciplinary Studies, which I earned from Roosevelt University in Chicago, which is the best reflection of all the interests that I have and the skills that I’ve developed in finding out more about them. I’ve always been interested in fiction and nonfiction writing, film, television, music, dance, theater, computers and online networks. I studied all of these at the college level, some to a greater extent than others — like the two years I spent studying screenwriting at the film school of the University of Southern California (USC). But it was there that I had my first library job, a student work-study position at USC’s Doheny Library, working in Special Collections and Circulation.
Back home in Chicago, I was “between jobs” when I saw an ad in the newspaper – so you know this is decades ago! – for a position in the library of the American Library Association (ALA). I’d heard of ALA and Banned Books Week, from having visited neighborhood Chicago libraries through the years, but I’d completely missed that the ALA national headquarters was downtown. The job wanted two years of library work experience and I couldn’t believe my luck, that my work-study job could count toward real-life employment!
Plus the job wanted internet skills, and I had already put together a couple of websites based on my pop culture interests – including pages on Janet Jackson and Dorothy Dandridge, which had information and linked over to others’ websites on them. So I breezed through the typing test, and among my interviewers for the ALA job was the Office for Research and Statistics director, the late, great Dr. Mary Jo Lynch, who passed away earlier this year. Later, she told me that she’d had a good feeling about me, and I had really impressed her when I had gone through the ALA website and found her email address, so I could send her the interview thank-you note directly. This doesn’t sound like much now, but the ALA website was rather difficult to navigate back then, so for someone outside the organization to successfully find information on there and then demonstrably use it was close to miraculous.
I was hired to manage the couple hundred periodical subscriptions and the inter-office routing of issues to staff, and to answer questions on the ALA Library Reference Desk, by phone, mail, and e-mail, and by chat/text for awhile there. And I helped with updating existing and creating new ALA Library Fact Sheets – which are now called the ALA Library Resource Guides, with most of them revised with Springshare LibGuides a few years ago. This led to more work for ALA on the web, and, over time — as I was there nearly two decades — led to working on ALA’s social media properties, including Facebook pages and Twitter accounts.
I was able to use my Facebook and Twitter skills at my present job, in a library at a community college, rather unexpectedly, once the shelter-in-place order came down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. To alert the students that the library was still available, though now only on a virtual basis, the dean of the library directed the staff to put together weekly themed social media posts across all of its accounts, on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram. There were weeks focusing on gaming, on showing the staff reading books/listening to audiobooks, and on graduation, which showed the old graduation photos of all of the staff. It was fun and well received!
Meanwhile, I handle day-to-day Twitter and Facebook duties for the online Chicago magazine founded by my sister Karen Hawkins, Rebellious Magazine for Women. It is important to promote the magazine’s own content — its articles, columns, interviews, essays, reviews, podcasts, event announcements and reports, and its memberships, advertising opportunities, and branded t-shirts and tote bags. But one of the daily features of the magazine is how it applies its feminist independent media lens to its location, the city of Chicago. My sister created a “feminist agenda” calendar of Chicago events, centering the events being given by female and female-identifying creators, as well as by the organizations supporting and the businesses owned by those communities. There’s a daily 8:30am CT @RebelliousMag tweet and Rebellious Magazine for Women Facebook post for that.
And I’m also on the founding team of Skilltype, where I’ve been managing research and social media since 2018.
Q2: Now can you tell us how You personally got into doing this type of work?
There was no real rhyme or reason to it, and it proceeded quite gradually through my time at ALA. Mainly, I was interested in knowing more about the Internet and how it worked and what was on it – and what wasn’t on it, and I was reading the various books and blogs and monthly magazines with all of that information, plus I attended a couple of the annual COMDEX computer conventions in Chicago. And I just happened to be in a job where that information could be directly applied to my job duties, although a bit above and beyond the relative simplicity of my job description.
Like I said, doing the ALA Library Fact Sheets led to my doing more online work for the ALA Library, including compiling bibliographies on library topics in the OCLC WorldCat online catalog, and growing social bookmarking accounts on Delicious and Diigo of categorized librarianship links, which were both used to add supplemental information to the fact sheets.
I had created personal accounts on the social media platforms coming along at the time, and I had noticed that there were libraries and other library workers that had created profiles and groups on them. There were questions about ALA and librarianship, and they were a lot of the same questions that I was already answering on the Reference Desk, including some that were right on the ALA FAQ (since discontinued) I’d helped compile. So I decided I would create separate accounts that identified me specifically as a library worker in the library of the American Library Association, so I could go ahead and provide answers to those questions, and anyone reading them could be confident about my answers. I created accounts on LiveJournal and MySpace on June 9, 2006, and then later on BlackPlanet, Facebook, and Twitter, with the threefold goal of interacting with other library workers and with those aspiring to be; to promote the ALA READ posters; and to intentionally put in more places online the answers to ALA’s most frequently asked questions, especially the forever evergreen questions of how to become a librarian and how authors can get their books into libraries.
My accounts preceded and arguably helped make the case for ALA to have an official presence on social media, by showing that its existing members and possible future members were already there. And so later, my participation was directly requested in helping to manage and provide content to the I Love Libraries and the ALA Official Facebook Pages that were started, and the ALA Librarian directed me to create a Facebook Page for the ALA Library (since discontinued), and to create the @ALALibrary Twitter account, which was originally just for the ALA Library – and was actually a shortening of my own account, @ALALibraryVal – and it was later “promoted” to being the official Twitter account of the entire organization, co-managed by a selected group of staff. I created the lists linking together the ALA Twitter accounts and the ALA Facebook Pages, which still appear on the ALA Connect with Us page. And I gladly agreed to be a founding member of the ALA Staff Social Media Working Group.
The later years of my ALA Library Reference Specialist duties were spent using both well-known and somewhat obscure social media platforms. Along with ALA Library staff and interns, I updated and created pages for the ALA Library Professional Tips Wiki, which led to a weekly Ask the ALA Librarian feature in the American Libraries AL Direct e-newsletter, and that evolved into a blog, first named Ask the ALA Librarian and then later re-named Ask the ALA Library, which was later connected to the ALA Library’s Pinterest account. I collaborated with other ALA staff to help develop ALA’s presence in the Second Life virtual world, which included a Facebook Page, Twitter account, WordPress blog, and Flickr Group of its activities on ALA Island and beyond. And I re-designed an existing ALA Netvibes dashboard, to better display the news feeds from all of ALA’s blogs and journals across the association, and renamed it What’s New on ALA’s Blogs. On my own time, I was one of the volunteer editors for the old dmoz directory, I submitted missing details on TV and movies to the Internet Movie Database, and I had some tweets pop up in others’ entertainment news articles, plus I was in David Pogue’s World According to Twitter book.
Meanwhile, a library co-worker created an e-newsletter named ACRONYMS for the Chicago HQ staff that was so popular, when she announced she was leaving ALA, the first question was assurances that the library would be continuing it. I agreed to take it on, and getting content wasn’t difficult, as I was using Google Reader and then Feedly for that, but I found designing each email-only weekly issue of stories to be cumbersome and time-consuming, and attempts to send it outside the Chicago office always mysteriously failed. I did some research and found the Scoop.it platform, which picked up news stories, with formatting and original link intact, with a click. With Scoop.it, I not only finished ACRONYMS more quickly, but the completed issue resulted in a public website link, which could easily be shared with the staff in ALA’s other offices — in Washington D.C., Philadelphia, and Middletown, CT – as well as with ALA members and the public. It was featured in the 2012-2013 ALA Annual Report for that reason. I was later able to spin off two supplements from ACRONYMS, one focusing on social media articles – which Scoop.it came to highly recommend within the platform, and it came to serve as the knowledge base for the Social Media Working Group – and the other focusing on weekend “off the clock” events, naming television and online streaming events everyone could watch, and then also listing city-specific events, to acknowledge it was being sent to four different cities.
Q3: What makes this a great field for LIS workers and likewise, what do you think makes LIS workers strong candidates for hiring managers in this field?
All of the social media work I did at ALA used my existing librarianship skills – in organizing similar and dissimilar sets of information, and regularly checking them for changes and updates – and just provided responses and answers in new online distribution ways. Working in social media is a research position, which answers specific reference questions with its posts, messages, videos, etc. What is it that your users want to know? Is it basic questions about your programs like what they are and when, who can attend, if there’s a cost, where they are and if there’s parking and/or public transportation available? Also who is in it and how to contact the library if there are additional questions, especially concerning accessibility for the disabled? Prepared answers to anticipated questions are the key, built on a foundation of organized, reliable information.
With Twitter, I draw a lot of information and re-tweets from curated lists of accounts that I first started years ago, which are spread across all of the Twitter accounts that I handle. Twitter has always had lists, but the platform itself didn’t seem to take an interest in them until this year, coming up with lists of their own they’ve named Twitter Topics, which they have put together for you. I presume they’re useful if you need to hit the Twitter ground running with information you’ve had no opportunity to research yourself. But eventually you’ll have to use your own judgment as to the quality of a resource.
The biggest change I’ve made is to a Breaking News Twitter List that I have, which originally was just local, national, and international media outlets. But in light of COVID-19, I added hospital personnel, epidemiologists, medical journalists, and any others who were tweeting the actual facts of the matter about the virus and its effects and impact. I’d been following the progression of this novel coronavirus overseas since late last year, and I had no doubt it would turn up on our shores eventually. But as dangerous as it sounded, I thought the USA would be okay, because we certainly had more resources than any of the other countries affected, and I was confident the CDC would be mounting a broad defense for the multiples of millions that make up our population, alongside WHO, as we’d done with H1N1. I vividly remembered helping compile online pandemic flu resources for the ALA Library years back. But these are clearly very different times we’re living in now.
With the global pandemic, being able to communicate important, necessary information in a clear, direct voice over social media became even more vital. Library workers can quickly determine the most necessary facts to communicate on a subject, as well as discern what actually are the facts in the face of both accidental and intentional misinformation and disinformation attempts.
With Rebellious, we just needed to switch up from listing the now canceled in-person events to announcing the new virtual ones replacing them. For the now digital-only feminist agenda, there were virtual book launch parties and author talks, live streamed stage play performances, and online comedy improv and dance classes and deejay dance party sets. A regularly updated feature on women-owned restaurants was supplemented with re-tweets from their Twitter accounts announcing their new curbside pickup and delivery options. With a feature done a few years ago on Chicago’s unsung female professional sports teams in mind, I made sure to help announce when those teams were returning to competitive play. A feature on the virtual movie screenings available from Chicago’s independent movie theaters and organizations included one that was showing the Ruth Bader Ginsburg RBG documentary, which I was able to connect to the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center now having the Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg special exhibition until the end of the year. Some of this wouldn’t have been possible without having previously done the work of researching and compiling Twitter lists of Chicago’s various education, entertainment, and sports organizations and facilities and annual events.
Q4: What is the best way to get your foot in the door or your first Social Media Manager job?
The difficulty with claiming to have expertise in social media is that everyone can claim to have expertise in social media, from having used it themselves. The point is to show your social media skills in a professional context. I created a social media portfolio for myself over on Medium a few years ago to show my post-ALA work, especially in using newer social media platforms like Wakelet, Flipboard, Pinboard, and Listly.
But it’s not like I had to convince my sister, I’ll admit! I’ve been @RebelliousVal in conjunction with the magazine since she launched it in 2012.
And it’s fair to say Skilltype founder Tony Zanders came looking for me more because my name was on all of the ALA Library Fact Sheets than anything else! Skilltype just launched July 1, 2020, and right now we’re focused on various go-to-market activities you’ll be hearing more about soon.
Q5: Finally what are some of the most important skills / certifications / etc that LIS folk can do to prepare them? Any last tips?
Whether you’re working for a library or a company or corporation, there’s no shortcut to putting in the research. Social media is a voice; the most effective voice is one that speaks from a place of knowledge and relevance, that is concise but complete. What is it that users would want to know, or need to know?
One of my favorite Twitter accounts, that I stumbled upon when I was still working at ALA, was @Onionista of the National Onion Association. It’s still around! And of course the first question about it is, “There’s a National Onion Association??” And the next question is, “And I would care about the National Onion Association because–??” But it’s delightful! The avatar is a female cartoon character, joyfully tossing up a couple of the different kinds of onions. The original tweets consist of big, colorful photos accompanying a wide array of recipes that use onions, and there’s now a cartoon character to illustrate their messages on the health benefits of eating onions. Everything there clearly advocates for the onion, and that’s why the account as well as the association exist.
There’s social media marketing and management certifications and degrees seemingly available from everyone, from relatively new online academies to centuries-old colleges and universities, and all points in between. The technical information is concrete and usually appears on the websites of the various platforms. It’s developing content and a strategy to communicate that content that is a little more complex and may call for you to seek guidance. That’s where the various educational options come in, but make sure to explore your own local public library, which may have not just books and videos, but also online classes that you can take at no cost. The information is out there.