Librarians Using Social Media: The Role Of Twitter In Forming And Cultivating Mentoring Relationships

Abigail Willemse
Publication date: 
Thu, 2014-02-13


By Abigail Joy Willemse
Open Polytechnic graduate, LIANZA Library Life Editor


Introduction. Mentoring is a valuable concept for professional development in many professions, including library and information science. Mentoring is typically thought of as a hierarchical relationship between an experienced person and a novice, but there are many evolving definitions of mentoring. Librarians use Twitter to form supportive relationships with other information professionals that contain elements of mentoring relationships.

Method. This research used a variety of methodologies. A literature search sets into context the data gleaned from an environmental scan of the online literature (particularly blogs) and answers to the qualitative questions posed by the researcher in an industry blog. Fourteen librarians from Australia and New Zealand answered the questions either as blog post comments, separate blog posts, or private e-mails.

Analysis. This research identified a number of themes arising from the data including the tension between traditional and informal mentoring, alternate models such as the Personal Learning Network and peer mentoring, ‘mentoring moments’ (rather than a longer relationship), the use of Twitter in conjunction with other platforms, and the use of Twitter to identify a mentor.

Results.  The research found that relationships formed on Twitter have elements in common with mentoring relationships, although other terms may be used and the participants may have varying understandings of the mentoring concept. A redefinition of mentoring in the context of social media is required, and future research is necessary to continue developing these themes further.



Mentoring is a popular topic in many professions today including business, health, and information. LIANZA’s Professional Registration Scheme includes one year of formal mentoring for new information professionals (LIANZA, n.d.). Mentoring is typically defined as a hierarchical relationship between an experienced person and a novice (Gieskes, 2009; Moore et al., 2007), although there are other less formal definitions of mentoring which will be explored in this paper.  

Mentoring taking place in electronic environments is known as e-mentoring or telementoring (Buchanan, Myers, & Hardin, 2005). E-mentoring offers many benefits including flexibility, impersonality, and the mentor’s ability to reach out to many students (Shrestha et al., 2009). Formal online mentoring programmes have been used to great success in both business and education environments (Davis et al., 2012; Emelo, 2009; Grosseck & Holotescu, 2008; McCarthy, 2012).

Twitter is a micro-blogging service that enables people to send short ‘tweets’ of up to 140 characters on any topic they like. #Hashtags are used to index subjects and conversations. Twitter, a micro-blogging service, is the focus of this research because it is used by many librarians (Bradley, n.d.; Flood, 2009; Milstein, 2009). There were some conservative estimates in 2010 of 7977 librarians globally using Twitter as well as 830 library Twitter accounts (Forrestal, 2011). About half of New Zealand public libraries - 29 out of 65 - have a library Twitter account (Tamaira, 2013).  There are fewer statistics available for the number of New Zealand librarians personally on Twitter, but through personal observation of participants involved in programmes such as ANZ 23 Mobile Things, I would estimate at least a couple of hundred, if not more.

The research question this paper explores is: “How do librarians use Twitter to form and cultivate mentoring relationships?” In answering this question, this research will also explore the definition of mentoring today in social media, the related concept of the Personal Learning Network, and the use of Twitter in these interactions. This research is unique in that it explores the concept of using Twitter as a tool to form mentoring relationships whereas other literature on Twitter tends to focus on different aspects such as its use by institutional libraries to engage their students, or its social nature.

This research is set within an interpretive paradigm which takes a qualitative approach. It employs a literature search and then carries out an environmental scan of blogs and other online literature, as well as asking some qualitative questions of librarians on Twitter. Fourteen librarians responded to the questions, giving a wealth of qualitative data used to put the themes from the literature search and environmental scan in context.

The research found that librarians use Twitter to form relationships and receive support, even though not all the respondents agreed that this could be called mentoring. Other highlighted themes were the concept of the Personal Learning Network, informal mentoring, and mentoring moments. In summary, while librarians use Twitter to form relationships in which they receive and give mutual support and advice which has elements of a mentoring relationship, Twitter is not the only medium they use for this purpose and is very useful when used in conjunction with other tools and platforms to conduct a mentoring relationship.


Clarification of mentoring concept

The concept of mentoring is central to this research question, so it is important to establish a mentoring definition for this paper. While traditionally, mentoring has been viewed as a hierarchical one-on-one relationship between an experienced person and a novice, the definition of mentoring is slowly changing. Informal mentoring as defined by Welsh, Bhave, and Kim (2012) is characterized by an elective personal connection between two people sustained over time for the mutual benefit of both through feedback, role modelling, counselling and opportunity creation. Welsh, Bhave and  Kim (2012) further note that whatever the mentoring relationship, there must be mutual identification from both the mentor and the mentee. Mentoring relationships formed on networks such as Twitter may be problematic as they tend to be less formal and may not have identification on both sides.

Barr (2013) offers a useful perspective on mentoring:

In the real world, mentors are usually organic relationships without specific titles, goals or responsibilities. Mentors are most often simply experienced people you get to know and look to for advice, informally and organically. They’re people you go to coffee with, people you ask for guidance, and people you call when there’s a big decision to make. (para. 14)

The sort of mentoring relationship spoken about in this research corresponds more to Barr’s comments than a traditional, hierarchical, formally-defined relationship between an experienced person and a novice. Within Barr’s definition, there is also a subtle assumption that you look to ‘experienced’ people for advice; on Twitter, these could easily be peer-mentoring relationships where people learn from each other and some are more specialised or knowledgeable about particular areas.  

A challenge associated with this particular research is that the term ‘mentoring’ is not often used even when people are talking about this concept in social media, particularly Twitter. Instead other terms such as Personal Learning Network and networking are used which fit into the concept of mentoring as defined in this research. Therefore this research uses the term ‘mentoring relationships’ to denote relationships formed on Twitter that have elements of mentoring – mutual support, encouragement and advice - within them.



As mentioned above, the research question this paper explores is: “How do librarians use Twitter to form and cultivate mentoring relationships?”

The basic assumptions behind this research are as follows:

  • Meaning is formed, rather than found – each librarian using Twitter may have different ideas about mentoring relationships and Twitter as a tool for achieving those; some may even feel that it does not lend itself to mentoring relationships.

  • The data are drawn from existing fluid social interactions (such as on social media, blogs, and other forms of social networks) and so is not based on precise observations that others can repeat.

These assumptions lead to an interpretive approach, which recognizes that meaning is formed, rather than found by observable laws. This research seeks to understand how and why librarians use Twitter to form and cultivate these mentoring relationships, rather than discover laws that dictate they will do this in any given situation. In light of this, the data gathered will be qualitative rather than quantitative.

The research used different research methodologies to help triangulate the results. It began with a literature review of published library and information journals to understand the background of how the concepts of mentoring and Twitter were addressed in the literature, followed by an environmental scan of blogs and online literature. Finally, a series of qualitative questions was asked of librarians on a blog (attached as Item 1 in the Appendix).


Environmental scan

An environmental scan is a scanning of resources and information in the external environment that relate to the chosen topic. It can be seen as: “a kind of radar to scan the world systematically and signal the new, the unexpected, the major and the minor” (Brown and Weiner as cited in Morrison, 1992, Issues para.3). An environmental scan will never be able to include all the information possibly written on that topic; rather it is a selection of resources relevant to the particular angle of this topic.

 The search terms mentor, mentoring and Twitter were used on both a Google search and a blog search. Another scanning strategy was to locate a relevant resource and investigate the links and resources referred to in that article. This technique extended the search and located some very pertinent articles. In addition, participants who answered the interview questions mentioned some other useful resources that were included in this environmental scan.


Qualitative questions

The nine interview questions (attached as Item 1 in the Appendices) were posted on the New Professionals NZ blog - This blog was chosen as it was convenient, well-established and has a large number of regular followers. The link was shared on Twitter multiple times (a sample of tweets is attached as Item 2 in the Appendix) as this research aimed to get a sample of librarians who used Twitter to answer these questions.

There were fourteen responses to these questions by the time of writing (mid-May, 2013). Others may be added subsequently as there is no deadline. The added discussion will be useful for continuing to inform and shape the results and may pave the way for future research into this fascinating area.



Many of the answers to the questions were published openly online on the blog, and so were linked to the identity of the poster (some used aliases, others used real names). However, there was an informed consent statement included in the original blog post (see Item 1, Appendix), and there was also the option of submitting a response via e-mail which three people took advantage of. In quoting or paraphrasing the data in this paper, names and personal information have been omitted and no individual participant is identified in this research paper.


Results and Discussion

The environmental scan identified at least fifteen different online resources – mostly blog posts and news or journal articles – discussing Twitter as a professional tool, finding a mentor, and different types of mentoring. 

The tweets asking people to respond to the interview questions (attached in Item 2, Appendices) were re-tweeted forty times. The hashtag #TwitMentoring was used to index the tweets on this subject on Twitter.

Fourteen librarians responded to the questions on the blog, mainly from New Zealand and Australia.



New Zealand








Table 1: Responses by country







Blog post




Table 2: Responses by format




The open nature of the answers in the blog comments could mean that people were impacted by earlier participants’ answers Overall though, many participants worked through the issues individually and applied the answers in different ways to their Twitter experience. A number of themes were identified from both the environmental scan and participants’ answers. These themes are discussed individually below:

  • Twitter as a tool to form relationships

  • Tension between traditional mentoring and informal mentoring

  • Personal Learning Network (PLN)

  • Peer mentoring

  • Mentoring moments

  • Twitter in conjunction with other platforms

  • Using Twitter to actively locate a mentor

Twitter as a tool to form relationships

Twitter is a useful tool for forming professional relationships (Arora, 2011). All the research participants agreed that Twitter is a fantastic relationship tool, although it was noted that other people need to use Twitter to engage for it to be truly effective. One participant commented:  

One thing I really enjoy is getting to meet people in real life after following them on Twitter. As an introvert it is really nice to be able to find people that you feel you already know at an event!

From this comment, and other participant’s comments, we can see that online relationships can set the foundation for successful real life partnerships. A case in point may be the author’s collaboration with Kate Freedman (@katejf on Twitter), on co-running ANZ 23 Mobile Things together. All their interactions have been through Twitter, email, and online interactions – they have not met in real-life yet, but have successfully co-ordinated a programme for over 750 librarians in both New Zealand and Australia in this way.

The participants identified a large number of terms to describe these relationships such as collegial, learning, supportive, and professional. One participant noted that she is geographically isolated from other library professionals so finds Twitter a tremendous source of advice and professional relationships.


Tension between traditional mentoring and informal mentoring

The research participants recognized the value of Twitter in forming relationships with other people in the information profession, but many wondered if these relationships fitted into their mentoring concept. Some visualized a traditional mentoring relationship between an experienced person and a novice with clearly defined goals and time-frames. As one participant said, mentoring is:

A confidential and formal / semi-formal arrangement over a period of time in which one person seeks career advice and development from someone that they perceive as able to help them achieve some fairly explicit goals.

Another participant thought that a mentoring relationship should be: “somewhat private … not necessarily confidential, but not open to the world.

As discussed above, there are other definitions of mentoring which are more informal. Welsh, Bhave, and Kim (2012) emphasis the elective nature of the relationship while Barr (2013) speaks of: “organic relationships without specific titles, goals or responsibilities.” Czarnecki, (2013) speaks of the difficulty of finding a mentor and advises:

find those who love to help, and let them help. Yearn to learn, and learn to learn. That way, you will not need a formal relationship.  Your willingness to grow from that relationship will make the relationship into a mentoring one. (para. 5)

One participant is doing just that:

I consider a number of people that I follow on Twitter to be mentors for different parts of my life, be they professional or personal. In some cases, this is an arrangement that has become an offline mentoring relationship in a professional capacity. In other cases, the people I regard as mentors are probably unaware that I consider them to be so, but I use their tweets to inspire and encourage me in my life, even if it is a simple reminder that there are others out there that feel as I do.

The tension arises where the participants speak of the help and advice they have received from people on Twitter, but that this support does not fit into the mentoring model.


Personal Learning Network (PLN)

While some participants felt that mentoring was not the correct concept, they spoke of an alternative model – the Personal Learning Network (PLN) which is:

an informal learning network of people you connect with for the specific purpose of learning, based on reciprocity and a level of trust that each party is actively seeking value added information for the other. (Lalonde, 2012, “Literature Review”, para. 2)

The emphasis of a personal learning network is people coming together for the specific purpose of helping each other and learning. Twitter, as a platform that encourages interaction and conversation, is an important part of a Personal Learning Network. Twitter enables conversations (Potter, 2011), encourages sharing of knowledge and resources, and is an ideal tool to amplify and motivate – particularly in conjunction with a blog (Lalonde, 2012).  Its characteristics – mutual support, implicit trust, and sharing for the benefit of all – fit within the mentoring concept.  Collaboration is vital within a Personal Learning Network: “The 3’Rs have been replaced by the 3 C’s Collaborate, Communicate, and Create” (Ian Woods as cited in Clifford, 2013, para. 10).  Twitter has also been used in educational contexts to provide just-in-time conversation and interaction of students and educators in-between and during classes (Dunlap & Lowenthal, 2009).


Peer mentoring

The participants all noted the open nature of Twitter which allows many people to participate in conversations, bringing in other perspectives which offer richness to interactions. But this extra participation from others changes the relationship dynamic, so it no longer fits into the traditional one-on-one mentoring relationship. However, many career experts recommend more than one mentor as they provides well-rounded advice and guidance; no one person will have everything that you need (, 2013; Hurt, 2012). Twitter could be a way of finding multiple mentors or experts in different aspects in an informal setting. One participant notes:  

I feel one of the things Twitter does is flatten out the layers so that, although you know in theory someone is older/more experienced etc, you can communicate without so many barriers. A flatter playing field if you like!


Mentoring moments

As well as removing hierarchical barriers, Twitter helps combat our busy lifestyles. Mentoring in a formal relationship can be time-consuming; thus Hurt (2013) recommends ‘mentoring moments’; just taking a bit of time to help people that come to you with questions and taking a genuine interest in their situation. Twitter is an ideal platform for mentoring moments because of the short, conversation-sized messages (Potter, 2011). Dalton (2013) likens Twitter to a stream full of fleeting, ephemeral interactions. However, many of the participants said they didn’t think Twitter was appropriate for mentoring relationships because of the 140 character limit for each tweet, and the open nature of the tool.

Conversely, one participant reasoned:

Twitter can enable a mentoring relationship to occur when it might otherwise be impossible. In this way, perhaps, something is better than nothing. For busy people who find it difficult to make time to meet face-to-face, Twitter enables conversation and connections to reduce feelings of loneliness and detachment.


Twitter in conjunction with other platforms

Many of the participants made comments that Twitter is a fantastic tool when used in conjunction with other platforms (such as Skype, e-mail, blogs, etc…) where you can have longer, confidential interactions. Lalonde (2012) particularly notes that Twitter works well in conjunction with a blog. One participant said:

Ideally, a mentoring relationship could operate across multiple spaces, changing whenever the needs of the people in the relationship change. Ultimately, yes, I think Twitter can provide a good platform for conducting a mentoring relationship, with the proviso that it can move to other platforms or formats when necessary.


Using Twitter to actively locate a mentor

Some people have used Twitter to identify influential people in their field and then have used other means – such as an e-mail - to ask that person to be their mentor. One participant noted:

I think Twitter could be effective and useful in identifying potential mentoring relationships and for some interaction or summary of questions thrown open to others for feedback or experience.

Morrison (2013) lists a number of tips to help locate a science writing mentor and her first tip advises people to expand their potential pool of mentors on Twitter. Meyers (2011) notes:

Other platforms may have allowed interaction between people that hadn’t been able to talk to each other before, but the simplicity of Twitter has leveled the playing field in all forms of communication, and it’s awesome. (para. 1)

She gives six tips on how to use Twitter to locate a mentor, but advises that the best thing we can do is ask someone: “Will you be my mentor?” One research participant even mentioned that someone used Twitter to ask them if they would like to be a mentor as part of LIANZA’s Professional Registration Scheme!

Another participant commented:

If I was in a bigger town with others in similar roles or people in similar organisations, I’d more actively look for a ‘traditional’ mentor. However, I am thinking about using the connections I have already made through Twitter to approach people to see if they’d like to support me more formally as a mentor.



Although some of the participants felt that Twitter didn’t fit into their concept of a mentoring relationship, their answers still showed that they use Twitter to find interesting people in the profession and interact with them for mutual support and advice. The wording of the research is “how librarians use Twitter to form and cultivate mentoring relationships” and this paper shows that librarians do use Twitter for these purposes. Some use Twitter as a platform to gain this support, whereas others use it to identify people to initiate a relationship with through other channels.  Twitter encourages conversations and interactions in a public sphere among multiple people so it supports peer mentoring and the concept of a Personal Learning Network.

The concept of mentoring is shifting and could be redefined or explored further within a social media context. As more of our interactions take place online, whether for entertainment, learning purposes, or collaborating, this flexible concept of mentoring and support will become more important.  As noted at the start of this paper, there is no other research, at the time of writing, which looks specifically at this issue. This research could pave the way for future research into the type of interactions and relationships formed among information professionals on Twitter and the use of Twitter as a tool to form and cultivate these types of rewarding mentoring relationships among professionals. 



Arora, V. (2011, May 2). Twitter to tenure: 7 ways social media advances my career [Blog post]. Retrieved from 

Barr, C. (2013, February 25). How to find a mentor [Blog post]. Retrieved from 

Bradley, P. (n.d.) Twitter for librarians: A resource guide [web log message]. Retrieved from

Buchanan, E. A., Myers, S. E., & Hardin, S. L. (2005). Holding your hand from a distance: Online mentoring and the graduate library and information science student. The Journal of Educators Online, 2(2), 1-18.

Clifford, M. (2013, January 3). 20 tips for creating a professional learning network [Blog post]. Retrieved from  

Czarnecki, G. (2013, March 25). Can you find a mentor or will your mentor find you? [Blog post]. Retrieved from  

Dalton, M. (2013, March 5). Tweet your heart out [Powerpoint slides]. Retrieved April 24, 2013, from 

Davis, K., Hallam, G., Henry, K., Davis, W., Fairbairn, K., & Heidelberger, E. (2012). Connecting across continents: Collaborative learning in a Web 2.0 world. New Library World, 113(9/10), 415-428.

Dunlap, J. C. & Lowenthal, P. R. (2009). Tweeting the night away: Using Twitter to enhance social presence. Journal of Information Systems Education, 20(2).

Emelo, R. (2009). Mentoring in tough times. Industrial and Commercial Training, 41(4), 207-211.

Flood, A. (2009, June 24). Librarians tap into Twitter. The Guardian. Retrieved from 

Forrestal, V. (2011). Making Twitter work: A guide for the uninitiated, the skeptical, and the pragmatic. The Reference Librarian, 52(1/2), 146-151.

Gieskes, L. (2010). Mentoring interactively (MIing): New tools for librarian recruitment and retention. New Library World, 111(3/4), 146-153. (2013, March 17). Key to finding mentors: Begin with the end in mind [Blog post]. Retrieved from  

Grosseck, G., & Holotescu, C. (2008, April). Can we use Twitter for educational activities. In 4th international scientific conference, eLearning and software for education, Bucharest, Romania.

Hurt, K. (2013, April 30). Mentoring moments: Just in time support [Blog post]. Retrieved from  

Hurt, K. (2012, June 25). Don’t get a mentor [Blog post]. Retrieved from

Java, A., Song, X., Finin, T., & Tseng, B. (2007, August). Why we twitter: understanding microblogging usage and communities. In Proceedings of the 9th WebKDD and 1st SNA-KDD 2007 workshop on Web mining and social network analysis (pp. 56-65). ACM.

Lalode, C. (2012, September). How important is Twitter in your personal learning network? eLearn Magazine2012(9). 

LIANZA. (n.d.). Professional registration mentoring scheme. Retrieved from

McCarthy, J. (2012). International design collaboration and mentoring for tertiary students through Facebook. Australasian Journal of Education Technology, 28(5), 755-775.

Meyers, K. A. (2011, March 26). How to find a mentor on Twitter. Retrieved from 

Milstein, S. (2009, May). Twitter for libraries (and librarians). Computers in Libraries. Retrieved from 

Moore, A. A., Miller, M. J., Pitchford, V. J., & Jeng, L. H. (2008). Mentoring in the millennium: New views, climate and actions. New Library World, 109(1/2), 75-86.

Morrison, J. (2013, January 15). How to find a science writing mentor [Blog post]. Retrieved from 

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Potter, N. (2011, March 21). 7 reasons people give for not using Twitter and why they can all be rebuffed with the phrase: It's a conversation [Powerpoint slides]. Retrieved April 24, 2013, from 

Shrestha, C. H., May, S., Edirisingha, P., Burke, L., & Linsey, T. (2009). From face-to-face to e-mentoring: Does the "e" add any value for mentors? International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 20(2), 116-124. 

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Welsh, E. T., Bhave, D., & Kim, K. (2012). Are you my mentor? Informal mentoring mutual identification. Career Development International, 17(2), 137-148.



Thank you to all the librarians who took part in my research and gave me such full answers to my interview questions as well as helped me edit the final draft of the questions so they would clearly address my research topic.  Your generosity and wisdom has greatly impacted my research.

Thank you also to my course supervisor, Amanda Cossham, for her continued input and pastoral care; her advice and direction has helped guide my fledgling efforts in the world of research.



Item One: Interview questions as posted on

Twitter Mentoring – Research Discussion
What do you think about mentoring relationships on Twitter?

Mentoring has traditionally been viewed as a formal relationship between an experienced person and novice, with the experienced person offering support, encouragement, connections and opportunities for the novice to grow in the profession. However, there are other views of mentoring. Barr (2013) offers an alternative perspective on mentoring:

“In the real world, mentors are usually organic relationships without specific titles, goals or responsibilities. Mentors are most often simply experienced people you get to know and look to for advice, informally and organically. They’re people you go to coffee with, people you ask for guidance, and people you call when there’s a big decision to make.”

So, what are your personal views of mentoring and how Twitter fits (or does not fit) into this model? Please feel free to answer or discuss any of the questions below (you do not have to answer all of them).

  • What do you think of when people talk about ‘mentoring’?

  • Does your view of mentoring fit into what you do on Twitter? If so, how? If not, why?

  • Do you see Twitter as a tool to enable you to form relationships?

  • If so, what kind of relationships does Twitter allow you to form?

  • How do you use Twitter to identify interesting people/mentors (in the library and information profession and wider) to follow and learn from?

  • Have you been mentored by someone on Twitter? Can you think of someone on Twitter you look up to as a mentor?

  • Are you able to give an example of how you have used Twitter to either mentor/give someone advice, or receive mentorship/advice from someone else?

  • If you think that Twitter is useful for mentoring, do you think it is more appropriate for a traditional, one-on-one mentoring relationship between an experienced person and a beginner, or a peer-mentoring approach, or a different sort entirely? Why?

  • Or conversely, do you think that Twitter is perhaps not suited to mentoring or is not an appropriate tool to use in a mentoring relationship? Why?

I’m collecting ideas for a research assignment about mentoring using Twitter, and would love to hear your perspectives (as librarians) of Twitter as a tool to establish and cultivate mentoring relationships. I will collate these findings and talk about the themes that emerge. I will not mention anyone by name or identify them in my research. I will share a summary of the results in a blog post here on the New Professionals NZ website.

There are no geographical limits; I would like to hear from any librarian using Twitter!

You can answer these questions in a number of ways:

  • a tweet (or series of tweets) using #TwitMentoring

  • a comment on this blog post

  • a separate blog post on your blog if you would prefer (but please ping-back to this blog so I can find it  )

  • or via an email to me.

If you have any further questions about my research, please feel free to send me an e-mail. I look forward to hearing your ideas!

Thank you in advance for your consideration of this topic.

Abigail Willemse


Item Two: Samples of tweets used to direct people to the blog post


Pls RT Are you a librarian on Twitter? I’m interested in your views on Twitter & mentoring –… #TwitMentoring#research


Thank you to all the kind folk who have RT #TwitMentoring and have taken time to comment #KeepItUp :D…


Pls RT I’d love to hear librarians’ views of Twitter as tool to form mentoring…


Pls RT Librarian on Twitter? Yes! Pls share your views on #TwitMentoring - I'd love to hear your ideas :D… …


Pls RT Librarian? Thought about use of#Twitter in mentoring relationships?#TwitMentoring Share views…