The Library Is Open: A Look at Librarians and Tumblr

The Library Is Open The Library Is Open: A Look at Librarians and Tumblr

“Tumblr is rife with libraries. They’re everywhere.”

Online literary magazine The Millions has been keeping tabs on noteworthy book and culture-related Tumblr blogs since the beginning of 2012. The first round of recommended picks from Millions social media editor Nick Moran included only one library Tumblr: the New York Public Library’s. By the second round, published six months later, libraries warranted a whole category. Most recently, in April 2013, Moran gave up keeping tracks of library Tumblrs altogether—there were too many. Instead, he offered two lists maintained by librarians, of librarians and libraries and of archivists and archives on Tumblr. Together, they list over 500 individual Tumblr blogs. “Tumblr is rife with libraries,” says Moran. “They’re everywhere.” He’s right.

“All you have to do to participate is show up.”

Here are some facts: Tumblr is both a social media network and a blogging platform. It is often called a “micro-blog,” but actually there is nothing micro about it. Tumblr is large. It hosts multitudes.

Tumblr, launched in 2007 by then 21-year-old David Karp, is home to over 116 million blogs. Its user base consists overwhelmingly of younger bloggers: 38 percent are under the age of 25, and 68 percent are under 35, according to Quantcast, a company that measures Web traffic. There are Tumblrs on fashion, gifs, Doctor Who, costume dramas, banana peels, publishing, corgis, bookstores, astrophysics, and of course, libraries.

What makes library Tumblrs different from your run-of-the-mill library blogs is that they can take advantage of a built-in community with built-in readers. If a WordPress or Blogspot blog is an island, Tumblr blogs are a city. Many librarians were initially attracted to Tumblr for the same reasons nonlibrarians were—ease of use, social features, the cool factor. But, once they arrived, they began to run into each other, then to talk to with one another, and finally to understand themselves as a community. The portmanteau Tumblarians—meaning “Tumblr librarians”—was coined and a subculture born.

“The Tumblarian community, like many online communities, is beautifully flat,” explains Kelly McElroy (kellymce.tumblr.com), undergraduate services librarian at the University of Iowa libraries, “All you have to do to participate is show up.” Though certainly some library and librarian Tumblrs have more followers than others, discovery is not dependent on follower numbers, meaning that conversations can become broader and deeper than those that occur on individual blogs or even other social media networks. McElroy notes that this “is especially helpful for folks early in their careers, in library school, or just considering the profession.”

Recent Rutgers MLIS grad Dana Skwirut (thedanaash.tumblr.com) says, “Thanks to the Tumblarian community, a librarian in New Jersey can propose a question or have a thought about an aspect of librarianship, and a library student in Oregon can respond to it.”

“It’s the best baby Twitter and WordPress didn’t know they ever had.”

Getting started on Tumblr is simple: you create an account, choose a username and url (either the free [username].tumblr.com or a url you have acquired elsewhere), select a theme (users can choose from more than 200 different blog layouts, many of them free), and begin posting.

Tumblr is often incorrectly described as a kind of image blog, but it is a platform that makes image blogs possible. There, sharing multimedia is intuitive. Anyone who has ever uploaded an image into WordPress or Blogger can easily recall the multistep process: images must be selected, uploaded, resized or renamed, aligned, and inserted into posts. With Tumblr, adding an image to a blog is as simple as dragging and dropping a file into an image post, or copying an image from a website and pasting it into the body of a text post. It is similarly easy to upload video, embed YouTube clips, link to songs on Spotify, host audiofiles, and, of course, post text.

Uploading an Image1 The Library Is Open: A Look at Librarians and TumblrSimply put: as a blogging platform, Tumblr is user friendly. Easy to use, easy to make look good, and easy to update. While this is one of Tumblr’s strongest selling points, it’s ease of use pales in comparison to the importance of and the possibilities offered by the platform’s social component.

Kate Tkacik (thelifeguardlibrarian.tumblr.com), who was one of LJ’s 2013 Movers & Shakers for her work on Tumblr, calls the platform “the best baby Twitter and WordPress didn’t know they ever had.” This is an apt metaphor. With all the functionality of WordPress, Tumblr also offers many of the same social features as Twitter. Just as tweets can be favorited, Tumblr posts can be liked. Tweets can be retweeted; Tumblr posts, reblogged. On Tumblr, like Twitter, you can follow people, and your dashboard, like your Twitter feed, is a stream of posts by everyone you follow, organized from most to least recent. Post can be tagged and those tags can show you what everyone else on Tumblr is posting on the same subject, similar to how hashtags are used on Twitter.

Some tags—#lit, #poetry, #television, #food, #gif, #lol, among others—are curated, which means a team of unpaid editors (usually Tumblr users who are particularly active in a certain tag) select the best of what is posted in that category. All other tags are a free-for-all: search for, or click on, #robots and you get a list of every post across Tumblr that uses it: related poems, drawings, photos, and clips from movies, for example. Librarians on Tumblr use the tags #libraries, #librarians, and #Tumblarians to talk to each other. On the afternoon of June 18, 2013, you could find using the #libraries tag a link to a New York Times article about discarded books, a press release from a library system announcing it will forgo watering its lawn in order to save water, excerpts from a 1796 cookbook housed in John Hopkins’s George Peabody Library, and a meditation about YA programming from a recent MLIS grad. You don’t have to follow the recent MLIS grad or the George Peabody Library’s Tumblr to read or respond to their posts. You don’t even have to know they exist. (This is the beauty of Tumblr tags.) You just have to be interested in the same things.

“We’re sharing information about libraries and librarianship with thousands of nonlibrarians.”

Ultimately, while at least 125 library branches, systems, and archives maintain official, institutional Tumblrs, the vast majority of the Tumblarian community is made up of personal blogs, individual users. Of these Tumblrs, few are strictly limited to only professional matters. Tkacik, who works as a reference librarian at the Bank of Montreal, explains, “Social media has totally blurred the lines between the personal and professional, and, at least in the Tumblarian community, that’s for the best.”

“I started my blog with the intention of it being about librarianship,” she continues, “but I find it pretty hard to keep my personality out of any part of my life—so the personal edged its way in fairly quickly. I also saw that there was a really positive reaction from my followers when I included those personal details here and there. The key, I think, is finding that balance.”

Tkacik, in particular, has harnessed this balance—between talking about library issues, about beloved books, and about herself—to great effect. She started her Tumblr in February 2011, while she was still in library school. “I was very skeptical about Tumblr—I didn’t get it,” she said in an April 2013 interview with Togather, the book-event crowdfunding platform. But when a library director recommended that she make a name for herself online to better aid her future job hunt, Tkacik turned to Tumblr as a way to do that, “without all the responsibility of a traditional blog.”

Since then, Tkacik has spearheaded the effort to connect libraries, librarians, and library supporters across Tumblr, all while maintaining a Tumblr blog that is as nerdy as it is unpretentious, as insistent (particularly on the importance of proper tagging, Jane Austen, and St. Bonaventure basketball) as it is welcoming. This has earned her many readers, both in and outside of the library community: she was even added to Tumblr’s Books Spotlight, a small group of blogs that Tumblr offers its users as superlative examples of the category, in November 2012. (She joined the NYPL Tumblr as well as This Is What a Librarian Looks Like; Library Journal’s Tumblr was added to the list in April 2013.) Tkacik’s reach is enormous: with over 17,000 followers, she is the most-read librarian on Tumblr.

“For me, what separates Tumblr from other social networks is how open it is,” Daniel Ransom (thepinakes.tumblr.com), a librarian at Oakland’s Holy Names University, observes. “Even the most widely read librarian blogs are only read by librarians. Because it’s so easy to add followers and grow a network on Tumblr, everybody participating on the platform is visible to a much wider spectrum of readers and followers, and the ability to reblog posts pushes that circle out even wider.”

“Through our individual networks we’re sharing information about libraries and librarianship with thousands of nonlibrarians: publishers, booksellers, major media outlets, educators, and average humans,” Tkacik notes, continuing, “That’s HUGE—especially from an advocacy perspective.”

Angela Montefinise, New York Public Library’s director of media relations and marketing and the person behind their incredibly popular Tumblr (nypl.tumblr.com), has used the platform to call for support against the city’s proposed budget cut (this year totaling $47 million). It got a lot of attention. As she describes it, “It wasn’t just casual. People were really responding.”

“I want people who have never heard of Darien to say to their friends, ‘They have a really cool library there.’”

In general, Tumblr is an informal space. For every post on creative information literacy workshops, there are two more that are Batman-related library jokes. This admixture of the personal—selfies, gif sets of favorite television shows, pictures of your cat—with the professional—ebook news, programming ideas, nitty-gritty conversations about maker spaces—explains why (generally) library Tumblrs are read by a much higher percentage of nonlibrarians than are most library blogs.

“Tumblr is just fun,” Skwirut says. And, ultimately, isn’t so much of the marketing work librarians do now about convincing patrons that libraries are fun too?

Montefinise thinks about it this way: “The New York Public Library is such a huge institution—it’s an international brand—that it can seem (to some people) intimidating.” For her, Tumblr is a place to be “more informal and casual.”

She pointed to an occasion in October 2010 when Keith Richards—who was participating in a Live NYPL event—lit up a cigarette in the library’s makeshift greenroom, which happened to be someone’s office. Richard cracked a window and either the cold air or the second-hand smoke doomed an orchid belonging to the office’s owner. Richards (perhaps anticipating the plant’s days were numbered) signed the pot. Montefinise wrote about the incident on Tumblr: “RIP, sweet flower.”

“We told the story as if we were talking to our friends on the phone,” she says, adding, “I think it really resonated with people.”

“This ability to be light—it’s not just for fun.” Her goal is to mimic on the web the kind of personality and service that patrons get when they interact with libraries in person. For her, it’s about being accessible. “We want to reach out to as many new patrons as we can.”

Mary Kearl, the social media manager of Queens Library (queenslibrary.tumblr.com), explains, “Our Tumblr audience is not necessarily the people who walk in our doors every day—in fact, most probably never walk through our physical doors, but that’s exciting. It’s a part of modern libraries—where the community we serve, and are a part of, can be the world.”

Erin Shea, head of adult programming at Darien Public Library in Connecticut (darienlibrary.tumblr.com) has similar goals for her library’s Tumblr. They are simple: “I want people who have never heard of Darien to say to their friends, ‘They have a really cool library there. I follow them on Tumblr.’”

“It’s a petri dish for ideas.”

“Librarianship is such a wide and varied field, full of wide and varied opinions, and lots of great ideas,” Florida librarian Megan Danak (wordtraffic.tumblr.com) remarks. “It’s never one thing. I think the Tumblarian community reflects this.”

On February 4, 2013, Silvia Lu, a librarian at the University of New Mexico, posted photos of a “Blind Date with a Book” display she helped set up. The post went viral—it now has over 120,200 notes, which are a total number of a post’s likes and reblogs—and was featured on Jezebel on Valentine’s Day. What’s noteworthy about this anecdote isn’t how popular this particular post became, it’s what happened next.

While Lu wasn’t the first to post about a “Blind Date with a Book” display (she admits she was inspired by a Worthington, OH, Facebook post), or even the first on Tumblr (reference librarian Margaret Howard posted a picture of her Richmond, VA, library’s display on February 1st), her photos of brown-paper wrapped books covered in sharpie hearts and descriptive phrases were a catalyst for at least a dozen similar displays at libraries across the country. Across Tumblr, in the days leading up to Valentine’s Day, pictures appeared of books in pink wrapping paper, books covered in paper Sweethearts, books sealed in envelopes, books with individual personal ads attached to each (hidden) cover.

“It’s a petri dish for ideas,” Ransom says of Tumblr. “If I’m considering an activity or lesson plan for instruction, writing about it on Tumblr is a great way of getting feedback and suggestions.” (Fellow academic librarian McElroy confessed to having “occasionally cribbed something for my own teaching” from Ransom’s “very generous” posts.) Ransom goes on, “If I’m dipping my toe into an area outside of my expertise—such as my recent acquisition of graphic novels for a library display—it’s my go-to destination for recommendations.”

“I am really big on asking the Internet for advice,” Shea admits. “During the 50 Shades of Grey mania one of my Internet friends told me I should create a book display called, “While you’re on hold for 50 Shades of Grey…” and include books with sex scenes that are actually good. Those books flew off the display.” (Check out Katie Dunneback’s “Erotica: Full-Frontal Shelving”LJ 2/15/13, for more on this topic.)

The ideas that Tumblr can spark and spread are not limited just to displays—they extend to larger discussions about issues like accessibility, DRM, and sexual harassment from patrons. “The iterative nature of Tumblr, where folks can reblog with comments,” McElroy points out, “makes it much more like a group conversation than the long comment list on a traditional blog.”

Danak characterizes the Tumblarian community as “a hive mind you can tap into that’s outside your usual circle. It’s a constant, dependable tool for discovering cool stuff, both for work and play.”

“We’re here to encourage each other.”

So who are all these people? In a survey conducted in May 2013 of 350 Library Journal Tumblr readers, 64 percent of respondents reported being under the age of 30. Of the respondents who said they work in the library field, 52 percent are in a public library, 31 percent in an academic library, 9 percent in a school library, and 8 percent in special libraries. A sizable part of at least the LJ Tumblr’s audience is nonlibrarians—publishers, media outlets, people who just care about libraries.

Ransom calls the Tumblarian community a movement, one characterized by a sense of youthfulness (though Tumblr users come in all age groups), positivity, and fun. In fact, person after person brings up the community’s spirit of kindness and support as a defining characteristic. Shea cites Tkacik’s leadership for setting the overall positive tone: “I am happy to say the Tumblarian community is jerk-free,” she says.

“Our undeclared purpose is to connect, discuss, share resources, get geeky, and play nice,” Tkacik said of Tumblarians are a whole in a May 2013 post, after an undergrad interested in becoming a children’s librarian sent her a question.

“Tumblr, like a lot of the best places on the Internet, demonstrates that sharing is caring,” echoes McElroy.

For instance, when Tkacik first began applying for academic jobs, Ransom was an invaluable resource. He helped her revamp her application materials and prepare for future job opportunities. “We’re here to encourage each other,” Shea said, “share ideas, and also be critical of one another in order to offer different perspectives.”

“There’s this cliché that all social media is conversation, and it isn’t always true,” Rachel Fershleiser, Tumblr’s Director of Literary Outreach, says. “But more than any other community, it’s librarians who are having very thoughtful, significant, long-form conversations on Tumblr.”

What Fershleiser finds most rewarding is not that these conversations are happening (though that’s good too); it’s that they are happening out in the open. “If you were having your professional conversations on a listserv, there would be no chance for a freshman English major at the University of Iowa to read them and get interested,” she says. Not only has she learned a lot about librarianship on the platform, Fershleiser has also seen many high school and college students across her dashboard reading and responding to library Tumblrs.

“As a grad student struggling to get her MLS, I found it so helpful to read posts from people in the business that I was aspiring to be a part of,” says Caitlin Kenney (morerobots.tumblr.com), who now works at Niagara County Community College’s library. “These librarians showed me what I could, and wanted to, achieve.”

Rebecca Hopman, a librarian and archivist at the University of Maryland, explains, “I feel like I’m more connected with the community of librarians and archivists [on Tumblr] than any of the groups or associations I belong to.”

“They’re really just ‘librarianing’ 24/7.”

In December 2012, the word “Tumblr” surpassed “blog” as one of the most searched terms on Google. Does this mean your library needs one? Maybe not, but if they (or you) are planning on starting a blog, Tumblr has clear advantages. (Montefinise uses Tumblr to post NYPL press releases—it’s faster and easier than going through their main website.) Tumblr has also worked hard to cultivate and support its online communities, with six outreach people on staff, of whom Fershleiser is one.

“Who knows what actually catches the attention of Twitter or Facebook? They’re completely faceless, leaderless,” Tkacik says, “Tumblr, on the other hand, has wonderful folks like Rachel [Fershleiser] actually in the midst of it all.”

Fershleiser appeared on a panel about libraries and Tumblr during this past BEA, and will participate in a Conversation Starter at ALA Annual in Chicago on Monday, July 1 at 8pm in Room S102d of the McCormick Convention Center. During the conference, Tumblr will also host a Tumblarian meetup with Library Journal on Saturday, June 29 at 7pm at Local 22. The Conversation Starter is open only to conference attendees, but the meetup is open to all. [Full disclosure: I moderated the first panel, will participate in the Conversation Starter, and am cohosting the meetup.]

This institutional support, Tkacik says, “has been one of the best and most unexpected parts of my great Tumblr adventure.”

When Fershleiser first started at Tumblr, she was focused on reaching out to publishers and authors. However, “over the last year and the half, it’s the librarians who’ve been the biggest surprise.” Of all of the kinds of Tumblr users participating in the larger lit community, it’s librarians who have had, in Fershleiser’s estimate, “the biggest impact on literary culture.”

“I remember when I first started going to BEA ten years ago, there was a sense that librarians were separate.” On Tumblr “it’s amazing to see these mainstream publishers, academic publishers, authors, bookstores reach out” to the library community.

For instance, in June 2013, the ALA’s Washington office Tumblr (libraryadvocates.tumblr.com) posted a picture of a cute, costumed kid carrying an “I Love Libraries” sign, and publishers large and small (from Houghton Mifflin to Tin House) reblogged it. The same month, St. Louis Tumblarian Gina Becker (iworkatapubliclibrary.com) signed with literary agent Kate McKean and began working on a proposal for a book based on her Tumblr. Publishers and institutions such as Oxford University Press and the U.S. National Archives have reached out specifically to Tumblarians.

Suffice to say: something special is happening here. Book people, technology people, and education people are talking to each other across professions in a way that hasn’t really happened before.

“Everyone’s experience of Tumblr is very unique,” said Kearn, “because you decide which kinds of Tumblrs to follow (professional organizations or individuals) and which keywords to track.” For members of the Tumblarian community, the majority of whom participate in their own time and on personal accounts, they are carving out a space for librarianship in their off hours, among their friends, and in the wider world.

Kenney articulated it best: “They’re really just ‘librarianing’ 24/7.” They’re also having a great time doing it.


If you’d like to learn more about Tumblr and are planning on attending ALA, LJ invites you to attend the Saturday evening Library Journal / Tumblr Meetup or the Monday morning Conversation Starter, “Tumblarian 101”.

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Molly McArdle About Molly McArdle

Molly McArdle (mmcardle@mediasourceinc.com, @mollitudo on Twitter) is Assistant Editor, Library Journal Book Review. She also manages the Library Journal tumblr.

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