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Monday, December 4, 2023

How book nerds and a dancing accountant made the library cool

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If you’re the type of person who giggles at a librarian peering from behind a cardboard cutout of LeVar Burton, then I have a treat for you. (I am definitely that person.)

In the Milwaukee Public Library’s wonderfully weird social media videos, you might also see a library accounting employee somersaulting as M3GAN, the fictional murderous artificial intelligence doll.

In a couple of other videos, a nonagenarian library lover makes a hand gesture that The Washington Post won’t let me describe. Or you can smile at a librarian and a kid wiggling and face smushing.

The Milwaukee Public Library shows how book lovers are flourishing on social media. Those accounts are a joy and that’s a win.

TikTok fan communities regularly make books into best sellers. And some book stores and public libraries have found social media attention by — and I say this with affection — being their wholesome, huge nerd selves.

Let’s talk about how and why the Milwaukee Public Library created one of the country’s most unhinged social media accounts (in a good way).

From dull to deadpan genius

Until last year, the Milwaukee library system’s social media messaging was straightforward but blah. Posts might have displayed the hours for story time or events to sign up for library cards.

But like many of its counterparts, the Milwaukee Public Library saw that people weren’t coming back to libraries after pandemic restrictions were lifted. Budget cuts loomed.

Staff figured it couldn’t hurt to shake things up on social media.

“We started these videos out of desperation,” said Fawn Siemsen-Fuchs, the MPL volunteer coordinator who also helps run the social media accounts.

First with Instagram Reels and then TikTok, the social media approach became fun first and informative second.

One of the first hits was the librarian spying at her book display behind the cardboard Burton, whom book lovers know from “Reading Rainbow.”

They also filmed complex videos including scenes from Stephen King books and a telenovela-style video about a book that fell in the toilet. (Read to the end for a toilet-related book tip. Gross, sorry.)

Siemsen-Fuchs’s social media partner is Evan Szymkowski, the accounting staffer who has a background in theater and dance and stars in some MPL videos. (Szymkowski played that pitch-perfect M3GAN.)

Other library staff members and their children pop up in videos, too.

My personal favorite is the parody of a viral video in which a young woman repeatedly purrs “Mercedes” while caressing the vehicle’s features, including a luxurious automatic window and a stereo system.

In a shot-by-shot remake, a library employee brute-forces the window crank of a decrepit car used for community outreach events, and he blasts the “Pocahontas” soundtrack from the in-dash cassette tape player. (That MPL staffer, Kou Vang, is a deadpan genius.)

There’s useful information in all that fun

If you’re not impressed with the creativity at work and the joy that library employees are having in the videos, you have no soul.

I mean, come on, librarians billowing in a wind machine! (Read the loving comments on that video, too.)

Like hiding your dog’s pill in a blob of peanut butter, the Milwaukee Public Library uses its videos to convey useful information to people who might not know all that the library has to offer.

“We’re able to showcase these kinds of things in a simple-ish way,” Szymkowski said.

It’s always tricky to measure how social media views translate into real-world successes.

But Melissa Howard, MPL’s community relations and engagement director, said that when the library social media videos take off, there can be a surge of people using MPL’s online resources, such as e-books, language learning tools and streaming videos.

She also said that the videos are helping shift the image of public libraries from tombs of dowdy shushing matrons to geek chic.

MPL staff regularly get recognized from their appearances in the library’s online videos. Lauren Messner-Kenney, a library technical services specialist who also works as a restaurant server, once noticed that a diner kept staring at her, according to Siemsen-Fuchs.

Finally he asked, “Are you Amelia Bedelia?”

Yup, Messner-Kenney had played the children’s book character in a library video.

I asked Siemsen-Fuchs and Szymkowski for other book-related social media accounts that inspire them and might captivate you. Here were three suggestions:

The Cincinnati & Hamilton County Public Library, on TikTok and Instagram

A former Milwaukee Public Library social media maven, Paul Wellington, now runs the Cincinnati social media accounts. Just watch this…enthusiastic?… attempt at book cart gymnastics.

Mychal Threets at the Solano County Library, on TikTok and Instagram

City of Marion Libraries on Instagram and TikTok

Szymkowski said their first introduction to this account was the “Keeping Up with The Librarians” series featuring reality show-type dramas between two library staffers.

This library system is in South Australia, which explains the accents and the cricket bowling.

Unrelated, but since you read all the way to the end: If you, like the characters in MPL’s telenovela video, drop a library book in the toilet, “Please throw it away,” Siemsen-Fuchs said. “We do not want it back 😆”

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