Libraries lean on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to reel you in

From pithy tweets to Insta Novels on Instagram, libraries around the world are using social media to entertain and reach their audiences.

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
5 min read
Marguerite Reardon/CNET

Last summer, the New York Public Library wanted to make classic literature more enticing to young readers. You know, readers who are more likely to scroll through a text message than turn a page.

So the NYPL created "Insta Novels," digitized versions of classics designed to be read on a smartphone. Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland was the first classic to get the treatment.

Others, including Charlotte Perkins' The Yellow Wallpaper and Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis, were hot on Alice's heels. The books, complete with art and animation, are available on the NYPL's Instagram page.


The project, which included New York ad agency Mother, proved a huge success. Shortly after Insta Novels debuted, the NYPL racked up 100,000 new Instagram followers.  

Insta Novels is just one example of how libraries, now celebrating National Library Week in the US, are leaning on social media to connect with patrons in the digital era. Public Libraries Singapore uses Instagram to promote live events. The University of Liverpool Library tweets tongue-in-cheek admonishments, including a long-running gag imploring patrons not to remove "do not remove" signs. The Düsseldorf Public Libraries use Snapchat to reach young people and runs a popular blog called buchstabensuppe, or alphabet soup.

The success libraries are having on social media helps them combat their biggest challenge: the perception they're just old buildings bulging with dusty books. Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram let libraries tell the world that they have more to offer.

"We're trying to buck that stuffy image of a library," said Richert Schnorr, director of digital media at the New York Public Library. "It's about meeting users anywhere they are and showing them this lighter, digitally savvy side."

A night at the library

Back in February, the San Francisco Public Library turned to Facebook to drum up enthusiasm for its Night of Ideas, a cultural event co-sponsored by the French government. The event brings together local poets, artists, scientists and chefs who mingle with guests and participate in philosophical debates, panel discussions and even yoga classes. It's made the rounds of 120 international cities since 2015.


The Next Chapter is a multipart series that examines the changing role of libraries in a connected world. 

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The SFPL had signed up about 2,000 guests in the months leading up to the event. But it was sure it could do better. So the library turned to Facebook, sending an invitation to its more than 26,000 Facebook followers. The invitations -- along with similar invites by the French Consulate and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art -- worked. The SFPL cut off registration at 12,000 people.

"It was unreal," said Mindy Linetzky, the library's communications director, adding that a line snaked around the corner and was longer than the one in front of the rock concert across the street. "People were looking at us like, 'What are we missing?'"

The power of humor

The University of Liverpool Library opened its first social media account, a Facebook page, in 2007 and followed with a Twitter account two years later. The accounts had straightforward goals, such as informing patrons when hours or services changed. The language was buttoned down and "really boring and really, really dull," said Zelda Chatten, one of the librarians.

"There was no reason why someone other than a person massively obsessed with libraries would ever read it," she said in an interview.

Then, in 2013, the library's social media team began to experiment. The accounts assumed a distinctly British sense of humor. Soon, the team found that the more idiosyncratic or off-the-wall a tweet was, the better it did.

"We realized our students really latched on to posts that had a sense of humor," Chatten said. "They began thinking of the library as a character: someone who is a little bit bossy and fussy, sometimes annoyed, but who really cares about the students."

Since then the team has tweeted about missing staplers, the library's uncomfortable temperature settings and flirting among patrons. A particularly popular tweet reminded students not to place half-eaten sandwiches on shelves, helping kick off the #shelfwich hashtag.

University of Liverpool Twitter feed

Chatten said the witty humor builds the library community, making it more receptive to serious messages. And because followers regularly check for the library's wry tweets, they don't miss announcements for early closings or the availability of resources.

"We get to sneak in the sensible stuff without them noticing," Chatten said.

How they do it

While some libraries, such as the NYPL, have dedicated teams with substantial budgets, most have limited resources for social media. That usually means volunteers among the staff are responsible for tweets, Facebook posts and Instagram shots.

At the SFPL, where just two staff members have social media responsibilities in their job descriptions, a team of more than 30 volunteers manage the library's social media accounts.

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Elizabeth Perez, a children's librarian at SFPL, started working on the Instagram team three years ago just for fun. She liked taking pictures and wanted to merge her passion for the library with her interest in photography.

Perez began sharing pictures of the library's colorfully designed "Scholar Cards," which were designed by local artist Christian Robinson, whose work has been published by local publisher Chronicle Books. The program, run in conjunction with the city's schools, aims to provide every student with a public library card. The program's cards became so popular, the library made them available to everyone.

And then something happened: Patrons began sharing snaps of their library cards.

"People get really excited to show off their cards," Perez said. Some people, she says, show them off as a way to say, "Hey, I'm new to town."

San Francisco Public Library
San Francisco Public Library
San Francisco Public Library

The SFPL also uses its Twitter account as a way to keep in touch with the community. During last fall's wildfires, the library tweeted to let San Franciscans know its main downtown branch would be open past its normal 8 p.m. closing time so that people had a place to be while the air quality was compromised.  

SF Public Library Twitter feed

"No one was stepping up and for a city with a large population of homeless people, it was just our way of letting people know we cared," Perez said.

Going beyond

Social media also lets libraries serve people who don't live locally. NYPL patrons must be residents of one of New York's five boroughs to get a library card. But with Insta Novels, Schnorr and his team can reach people anywhere in the world.

"Playing in the world outside of New York City allows us to spread our mission to a global audience," Schnorr said. "And we get to do it in a fun and creative way. That's the money right there."