If there’s a theme to The Wired Library, it’s this: technology and libraries are a natural fit because of their shared democratic potential. More than anything else, the tools of the web allow libraries to build diverse networks of library users and create conversations involving all types of personalities. Sometimes that involves detailed research. Sometimes we’re helping people gain important life skills. And sometimes we’re connecting people with books they love—or don’t yet realize they love.
But sometimes people just want to see hilarious cat photos. Does this fall within our mission? Of course it does. We are libraries. We contain multitudes. And microblogging platform Tumblr is no different.
Like Pinterest, Tumblr allows users to collect interesting things they find (or create) online and share them with people in their network. But where Pinterest allows users to gather what they find into curated collections, Tumblr is more focused on pushing material out on the web and watching other folks consume it. If Pinterest is a cabinet of wonders, Tumblr is more like an all-you-can-eat sushi restaurant where delicacies come to you via conveyor belt.
As with all-you-can-eat sushi, it’s easy to be skeptical of Tumblr. At first glance, the site can seem like a repository for teen angst or a venue for continually reblogging other people’s content. Do these components exist on Tumblr? Of course they do. But this seemingly simple behavior masks some rather sophisticated social activity, and even more complex media literacies. It may look like tic-tac-toe, but Tumblr is really a simple set of constraints allowing for nearly infinite possibilities.
The method for creating content on Tumblr is simple: a basic text editor and a selection of tools for uploading media. The same goes for the social functions—every post gives you the same options: favorite, reblog, and follow the poster. This minimal framework allows the user community to be as creative as it likes, and allows the platform to assimilate some of the most useful elements from other social networks. Are there Pinterest-like tools for collecting online content? Yes. Can you subscribe to favorite content streams, a la RSS? You bet. Are there threaded conversations like what you’d see on an active blog? Check. Is there measurable social currency, akin to the Facebook “like” button? Absolutely. And, like Twitter, can you watch content go viral, as it is reblogged, hashtagged, and passed from one online community to another? You better believe it. Tumblr takes all of these elements, mixes them up, and doles them out in one endless stream of new content. This blend has led to an explosion in Tumblr’s popularity, with more than 89 million new posts generated per day.1
By combining all of these features, Tumblr has introduced a level of transparency to its own measurement tools. Every active move a user makes with a Tumblr post is indicated with a number next to its title. This number grows every time someone favorites, reblogs, or comments on a post. As this number grows, the name of each user making the reaction is added to the notes field in chronological order beneath the post.
I’ll give you an example, using a post from the Skokie Library Tumblr.2 By following this thread, you can chart just how far your posts travel through the Tumblr universe. Pay particular attention to where the post was reblogged from. You can see who saw the post by following your feed directly, and who discovered the post via someone else. If you see the same name popping up several times in a row, then you know that person is very likely a key influencer in their network, and is probably worth knowing. This is a goldmine if you’re at all interested in metrics, as it provides an easy-to-understand level of detail that goes far beyond the traditional pageview mechanics. Because the notes appear in alphabetical order, you can get a sense of the emerging narrative as a post gains responses. There’s something here for both sides of your brain.
It’s stuff like this that has allayed my initial doubts about Tumblr as a useful tool for libraries on the Internet. Ready to jump in? Here are a few tips for creating your own digital delights.
Streamline your workflow. “Great,” you say. “Another social media platform to update?” It’s easy to get burned out on the endless struggle to feed the fresh content beast. I find it easiest to schedule several posts at once, and dole them out over the course of a day. Adding the Share on Tumblr bookmarklet (available at tumblr.com/apps) makes it simple to post things you find on a regular browsing day.
Tumblr also makes it easy to find content within its framework due to its robust use of tags. If you’re looking for new content to reblog, it’s always a good idea to start with a tag search. (Of course, it goes without saying that you should also be tagging your own content.)
Boost your own signal. If you already have a blog elsewhere, tools like IFTTT. com or WordPress’s built-in Jetpack extension allow for easy cross-posting. These can help to boost your own signal, but be sure to mix in content native to Tumblr.
Another option might simply be eliminating the middleman by making Tumblr your blog platform outright. There are a lot of advantages to this, given Tumblr’s simplicity and built-in audience. Just make sure you’re able to style your theme to match your organization’s design scheme.
Think in pictures as well as words. Tumblr’s versatility with many different types of content has led to a whole new type of visual shorthand. It’s not uncommon for posts to start with text and use an image or an animated GIF to illustrate the point. It can seem absurd at first, but this blend of elements can be an elegant method for saying a lot with a little. It might take some practice, but you’d be surprised at how quickly you can get creative with your Tumblr posts.
Popular culture references can be teaching moments for libraries on Tumblr. Why is a particular photo meme funny? What’s the history or the cultural signifiers behind the latest YouTube dance phenomenon? How do you provide proper attribution in the freewheeling world of remix culture? Tumblr is still struggling with these questions, and librarians can help create some positive examples. If nothing else, it’s a good opportunity to link back to your own materials.
Get comfortable with GIFs. If you’re going to have a Tumblr account, you’re going to have some GIFs in there. It’s no surprise that these simple flipbook-style image files go so well with Tumblr—both take advantage of a somewhat rigid set of limitations in order to encourage creativity in the user. You don’t need to know Photoshop to create an animated GIF. Online tools like Gifninja.com and apps like GifBoom (available for iOS and Android) can handle a lot of the heavy lifting.3
Be generous. Remember the notes field? You can use this chronology of a post’s social life for more than just statistics. By reblogging content from other Tumblr users, you can make yourself visible to the people in their network. As people see your name pop up on their notestreams, they’ll be more likely to follow you back and boost your signal in kind.
Tumblr also makes it possible to solicit questions from your readers. Given that so much of what we do is built around providing answers, this is a perfect way to demonstrate our abilities within the Tumblr environment. As you build your network, you’ll have more opportunities to engage in back-and-forth.
The Tumblrarians Welcome You
Tumblr can be a useful tool for connecting with an audience that may not otherwise engage with your organization. But the site is also starting to come into its own as a tool for professional development. The growing community of Tumblrarians on the site has rapidly evolved into a great sounding board for new ideas and a source for mutual support. Librarian Kate Tkacik is maintaining lists of both libraries and librarians on Tumblr at her site (thelifeguardlibrarian. tumblr.com). Start there if you’d like to identify some best practices.
Much like our libraries themselves, Tumblr’s utility grows the more you put yourself out there. Tumblr’s core values of community, creativity, and mutual generosity make it a great fit for libraries. If you’re looking for a new way to connect with your online audience – or to replace your blog platform—it’s certainly worth the experiment.
1. Hayes Davis, “Why 2013 is the Year You Need to Get Serious About Tumblr,” Forbes.com, Jan. 24, 2013, accessed May 9, 2013.
2. Link resolves to “Someone Called Us a Hipster Library,” Skokie Public Library Tumblr page, Mar. 22, 2013, accessed May 9, 2013.
3. For a more detailed primer on animated GIFs, please see Toby Greenwalt, “Let’s Get Animated: Our GIF to You,” Skokie Public Library Blogs, Mar. 19, 2013, accessed May 9, 2013.