Twitter describes itself as “a service for friends, family, and co-workers to communicate and stay connected through the exchange of quick, frequent answers to one simple question: What are you doing?” .
The “answers” are equally simple, because the tweet (that what is being “said”) must fit in 140 characters. The tweet does not only contain plain text, but can contain short-URL’s which link to webpages, figures and videos.
However, tweets have evolved to more than everyday experiences, and take the shape of shared links to interesting content on the web, conversations around hot topics (using hashtags (#), like #cochrane OR #ev2010 (conference evidence2010)), photos, videos, music, and real-time accounts of a newsworthy event . Furthermore, Twitter is now also used by institutions and companies for branding, marketing and costumer service. This also applies to libraries, with public libraries leading the way. Health science libraries started twittering in 2009 and as of 2010 there were (only) 24 of them. In addition, the National Library of Medicine (NLM) and most of the regional National Network of Libraries of Medicine (NN/LMs) have a Twitter presence. I follow @NLM_LHC and @NLM newsroom, for instance.
The NYU Health Sciences Libraries (NYUHSL) began using Twitter in June 2009. The team, consisting of the Director, the Emerging Technologies Librarian and the Web Services Librarian of the NYUHSL, described their experience with the implementation of Twitter in the latest Medical Reference Services Quarterly 
The main aim of their Twitter account was to disseminate topics similar to what was posted on their Web site: news about facilities, resources, handy tidbits, services offered, downtime, events, and staff, as well as breaking news.
What was their approach and what were their main experiences?
- Claim your name, as soon as you vaguely consider using Twitter!
In the case of NYUHSL, their usual library acronym was already taken, so they took a similar name: @NYU_HSL (because of the 140-character limit, it is advisable to use as few characters as possible: this will leave more room when somebody replies to you).
- They added the library logo as a profile picture and included a link to the library website plus a short “bio”.
- First the team shared responsibility for posting on Twitter (by logging in into the NYU_HSL account and posting), but this posed coordination problems (like double postings, irregular postings). Therefore it was decided that team members would post according to a schedule. Furthermore there was a 2-week rotation. Any important news was tweeted promptly and interesting news from other Twitter users was occasionally retweeted .
- Later CoTweet was used. This is a free tool, which -as its name suggests- allows multiple people to communicate through corporate Twitter accounts and stay in sync while doing so. One person is the account owner, who creates and maintains the account and gives other people access to it. The individual members can post to Twitter via the Co_tweet account. CoTweet uses bit.ly as an URL-shortener, displays some (rudimentary) stats, allows scheduling and archiving of tweets and has some other slick features for corporate Twitter use. (See this post at News CNET for a comparison between CoTweet and the better known Hootsuite)
- What I most liked about the paper – besides the description of CoTweet – is the content flow diagram the authors used (adapted below). Posts from their library blog were automatically cross-posted via RSS to Twitter using Twitterfeed, whereas tweets were in their turn automatically posted on Facebook. To this end a Twitter Tab was added to the NYUHSL Facebook fan page. In addition it remained possible to post manually to the different social networking tools and to respond to followers or retweet messages of other users.
- The team also had to find the right tone for Twitter: the style of tweets is more informal than the style of blog posts. They emphasize the importance of keeping the nuances of different social networking sites in mind when establishing an institutional presence.
- They promoted Twitter in many ways:
- A large Twitter mascot (blue bird) with the text: “Follow NYU_HSL on Twitter” was placed on the prominent Web’s site feature bar (see Fig. below). Unfortunately the twitter message only appears when you press “next”. Most users will not do this.
- Creation of a small poster about Twitter.
- A word of mouth campaign (in orientation presentations, and a tag line with Twitter account information in e-mail correspondence to students: according to Pew Internet  college graduates are among the biggest users of Twitter.
- description and promotion of the Twitter account in the library’s e-mail newsletter and in blog posts.
And finally, we have to come up with the Key Question: was it all worth the effort?
At the time of writing the NYU-HSL had 66 followers, 27 of which were affiliated with the NYU (others being other libraries and librarians for instance). This is not a very big (target) audience, but I agree with the authors that the definition of success in social media is relative. There were clear (subjective) benefits, like the low cost, ease of use, low effort to maintain the service on the one hand and the possibility to engage the audience, get user opinions and the opportunity to fix problems quickly on the other hand. Furthermore it’s presence on Twitter enhances the library’s reputation, as the library is making an effort to extend beyond its walls and confirms the role of librarians as technology leaders.
I also agree with the library’s basic principle “to give users as many options as possible to keep current with library news, resources, and services.” In this regard Twitter is a simple and effective method for promotion.
Thus health, medical and other libraries. I would say, if you are not twittering, give it a try and read the reviewed paper  for more tips. One of these tips is to connect with other libraries on Twitter as to learn from their experiences.
Credits: @DrShock dm-ed (direct messaged) me on Twitter to alert me to the paper. Thanks Walter!
References (all assessed 2010-11-23)
- Cuddy, C., Graham, J., & Morton-Owens, E. (2010). Implementing Twitter in a Health Sciences Library Medical Reference Services Quarterly, 29 (4), 320-330 DOI: 10.1080/02763869.2010.518915
- Mashable http://mashable.com/guidebook/twitter/
- Lenhart, A., and Fox, S. ‘‘Twitter and Status Updating.’’ Report: Web 2.0, Social Networking. Pew Internet & American Life Project (February 12, 2009). Pew Internet: http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2009/Twitter-and-status-updating.aspx
- Power Tweeting: Next Steps (libraryjournal.com)
- Twitter CRM Service CoTweet To Enter Japan Assisted By NTT Communications (asiajin.com)
- Libraries on Friendfeed (library20.org)