Amanda Brennan, a content and community associate at Tumblr, is perhaps better known as the “meme librarian,” thanks to a recent feature in the Washington Post. Brennan studies memes from their inception to their inevitable disappearance into cyberspace, looks at real-time trends and conversations across the site, conducts data analysis, and works on large-scale projects such as Tumblr’s Year in Review. Prior to taking the position at Tumblr, she catalogued memes for Know Your Meme, a website devoted to tracking the popular graphics. I recently had the pleasure of chatting with Brennan about her experience.
Although studying memes doesn’t seem to be part of a public librarian’s job at first glance, no matter how fun it may be, Brennan points out that even a basic level of familiarity with them can aid a librarian in assisting patrons, understanding the community, and even planning and promoting programming. For librarians first wishing to familiarize themselves with Internet culture, she suggests choosing a few topics of interest and browsing social media, blogs, and websites to see what people are saying about them. “See the flow of conversation and how people are participating,” she says. “Every community has their own quirks and internal memes, and once you find the niche you click with, you can start to translate that to other Internet communities.”
By familiarizing yourself with a few topics and the various online platforms through which people talk about them, you might even get some ideas for new services or programs at your library. Furthermore, seeing various social networks in action will likely give you some ideas about how to communicate with your patrons this way and market your existing offerings. For librarians looking to learn more about memes in general, Brennan suggests Know Your Meme and Meme Documentation as great online resources and Memes in Digital Culture, It’s Complicated, and Life on the Screen as print sources.
Interested in a career similar to Brennan’s? She urges library school students to seek out positions or internships in technology and social media. These don’t have to be housed in libraries, as many LIS skills can be applied to these industries as well. Special libraries are also a great start; while a student at Rutgers, Brennan interned in MTV’s tape library. Many of these positions can be found through INALJ. She also suggests that students “take classes that don’t sound like typical librarianship,” naming database design and MySQL as two important tools she learned in library school.
One thing’s for certain: with the growth of tech jobs similar to Brennan’s, the library world is changing more than ever. It’s no longer farfetched to see a patron visit his or her local reference desk with a question about a meme or other Internet phenomena, and there is a growing need to make sense of the array of content available through social media. Add an understanding of Internet culture to the ever-growing list of skills in the public librarian’s toolkit.
Limor Shifman, Memes in Digital Culture (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2013).
danah boyd, It’s Complicated (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014).
Sherry Turkle, Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995).