Library sorry as student Twitter saga turns out to be tall tale

Story of student borrowing two books to share them with their mother ‘drew on genuine experiences’ but was ‘imagined’

February 4, 2022
Concept of an open magic book; open pages with water and land and small child. Fantasy, nature or learning concept, with copy space
Source: iStock

A university library has apologised for tweeting a story of a student borrowing two copies of books to learn alongside their mother – which, it later emerged, was fictional.

The thread from the library at Royal Holloway, University of London told the tale of a student who visited the library and always borrowed two copies of each book. When a librarian eventually asked why, the student said that their mother would read the same book and that they would discuss the content, helping the student with their course.

The tweets were widely shared and liked, but later the library tweeted that it had deleted the thread because, “although it drew on our genuine experiences of talking to students throughout the pandemic, it was an imagined scenario and we’re sorry that this wasn’t clear”.

“Students have told us about the real-life support they’ve had from family [and] friends in tough times during the pandemic, including reading study books alongside them. Our story of two characters was intended to tell the story of many, and the important role friends and family play in supporting students,” the account said.

Some Twitter users had suggested that, if the story was true, the library should have sought the student’s consent before sharing it.

Reaction to the plot twist on Twitter was mixed, with many users commenting that there had been nothing to suggest in the original thread that the story might have been made up.

“It wasn’t at all clear! I know it doesn’t really matter in this case, but shouldn’t universities avoid peddling ‘fake news’?!” replied Alexandra Wilson, professor of music and cultural history at Oxford Brookes University.

But other users took a different view. “Real or imagined, I thought it told a very true story of how important libraries can be for people (even if it was a bit cheesy),” said another response.

Some users saw the lighter side of the story. “I did think it was strange a student was able to successfully loan two copies of the same book. In my experience, across four universities, it’s a major win if you can snag one whilst they’re in demand,” said Laurence Sullivan, a PhD student at Northumbria University.

Meanwhile, some felt that the episode pointed to serious issues faced by cultural institutions while using social media.

Joe Vaughan, digital editor at the Museum of English Rural Life and Reading Museum, said the pressure of seeking likes and retweets meant that “the focus falls on quantity, not quality; the volume of responses you generate, and much less in the terms of what they’re actually to”.

“I feel that when you use social media as an organisation, you have to take a lot of care to avoid falling into this trap of chasing engagement. To be clear on what matters uniquely to you, rather than what’s rewarded. They’re not the same,” Mr Vaughan said.

“To try and win social media, chasing engagement, is a losing game. I think only Twitter wins. But I think it’s a game that’s engineered to be addictive, and I feel all organisations can do more to be mindful of the huge pressures that social media staff face.

“Ultimately I think it’s vital to have a clear sense of why you’re using social media, alongside the responsibility you have to your audiences, users, collections, and (well, heck) the truth.”

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