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Share and Share Alike: Building Social Collections with Pinterest

by R. Toby Greenwalt on April 26, 2013

Library collections revel in the wonders of generality. We take pride in amassing wide collections of knowledge across a variety of subjects and having access to almost any answer in a matter of seconds. Yet every library is home to any number of micro-collections. Whether it’s driven by patron demand, unique local interest, or even the unconscious preferences of the selector, each library features pockets of material that will speak to those willing to dig for them. Successful collections must walk a fine line between these two poles: while it’s important to have something for everyone, it’s even more essential to have that one thing a specific patron needs.

To this end, many libraries are starting to call greater attention to these hidden gems. New York Public Library (NYPL) recently unveiled two products that have captured the public’s imagination. “What’s on the Menu” gives patrons the opportunity to comb through the library’s collection of over forty thousand menus, some reaching as far back as the 1840s.1 By giving patrons the tools to transcribe these fascinating historical documents (not to mention making it fun to do so), the library is effectively crowdsourcing what would have been a monumental task.

Similarly, the “Stereogranimator” provides a creative solution for another fascinating-but-tricky collection.2 Stereoscopic images use a pair of similar two-dimensional images to create a three-dimensional optical illusion. When viewed through a stereoscope—a turn-of-the-century steampunk Viewmaster—the two images are fused together to create the illusion of depth. It’s easy to scan these images and archive them on the web, but existing digital archives fail to show the image the way it was meant to be seen.

The Stereogranimator approximates the three-dimensional stereograph by overlapping the two original images and flashing the images back and forth in rapid succession. By turning them into animated .GIF files, patrons get a better sense of what makes the collection unique. With a collection of 21,716 stereographs (and opportunities to create even more), there is plenty of content to warrant repeat visits.

What can we learn from these successes? It’s simple: without an alluring interface, it’s easy for all the unique and fascinating stuff in our collections to get lost in the stacks. Now, most of us don’t have the kind of resources NYPL was able to use to make this happen. But we can harness the power of a newly popular social web tool.

Enter Pinterest, the latest social web sensation and an easy-to-use platform for collecting interesting web content. After creating an account, you are urged to install a “bookmarklet” on their browser of choice. As you find Pin-worthy sites, images, or quotes in your daily surfing, clicking the bookmarklet adds the link to your ongoing collection. (You can also pin content directly on Pinterest, or upload original material that you’ve created yourself.) Pinterest then creates virtual corkboards of all the images in your collection, creating a visually appealing jumble of all the content you’ve tagged.

Big deal, right? From email forwards to Delicious to our browser’s Favorites folder, we all have our own tools for saving the links that catch our eye. But the true appeal of Pinterest doesn’t appear until you look at how all these links interact socially.

As your friends start pinning items to their pages, they’ll pop up in your main feed. What starts as a simple exchange of links and photos quickly turns into an ongoing parade of all the creative, clever, and fascinating stuff that makes the Internet great. Having a good Pinterest network is like having your own digital cabinet of curiosities. Every time you open its doors, you’re treated with something completely new and exciting.

This formula has led to a dramatic rise in popularity for the site. In less than six months, Pinterest has become one of the top sources of referring links online, with users clicking on pinned links almost as much as those from Twitter.3 This site has become a major part of the way folks discover new stuff online. This free-flowing stream of content is a prime opportunity for libraries. Let’s wade in and see how we can forge new connections with our virtual patrons. Here are a few suggestions to help get you started.

  • Start developing content first, and let your voice emerge naturally as you learn the ropes. It’s easy to overthink this process. Should you have a concept for the items you pin? Don’t allow the process to get in the way of actually building your collection. The appeal of these sites lies with their ability to pull together random content. Be sure to keep that in mind as you get in the habit of maintaining your site. Once you get more comfortable with having a library presence, then you can start thinking about organizing your content.
  • Think visually. Being the bookish types that we are, librarians have a habit of focusing on text above all else. This preference is all over our websites, our booklists, and even our signage. Pinterest turns this on its ear by placing the image front and center. This isn’t necessarily a major shift for us—it’s a chance to dress up some of our existing resources by laying them out visually. Take the humble booklist, for example. On its own, it’s typically a straighforward list of bullet points. But when laid out as a Pinterest board,4 the array of book covers calls to mind a tasting menu, or even the book order forms of our elementary school days. Creating a display like this is as simple as plugging the catalog URLs into Pinterest. As you start building your Pinterest page, think of ways you can use this nice, clean, visual interface to create new virtual displays.
  • Give as good as you get. As with any other social web platform, Pinterest is built upon reciprocity. As your patrons start following your pins (you are  broadcasting your presence across your other promotional platforms, right?), you’ll want to keep an eye on the content they’re adding to their board. You might even want to highlight some of these pinboards on your blog or your Facebook page. Don’t be shy! This can be a great way to bring out the human factor in your web presence, and it’ll make your patrons more likely to remember you as they use Pinterest.
  • Don’t be afraid to think big. As your collection and network gains a toehold, it’s important to think about ways to leverage Pinterest even further. I could see programs emerging in the same vein as the Wikipedia “editathons” several libraries have held recently.5 Instead of groups of patrons editing local Wikipedia pages, patrons could scan and curate their photos to build a living scrapbook of life in your community. Take a look at your archival and local history collections, and see if Pinterest might breathe new life into them.

Pinterest gives us a chance to socialize our collections in a way that hasn’t been done before. Its simple interface and robust social tools make it possible for anyone to curate their own collections, no matter how ephemeral. As stuff gets repinned and shared, it can take on brandnew contexts. If we give our patrons the chance to pin library stuff, it might just teach us a thing or two about the way they interact with our content.


  1. “What‘s On the Menu,” New York Public Library, accessed Feb. 10, 2011.
  2. “NYPL Labs: Stereogranimator,” New York Public Library, accessed Feb. 10, 2011, http://stereo.nypl.org.
  3. Zoe Fox, “Pinterest Drives More Traffic than Google+, YouTube, and LinkedIn Combined,” Mashable, Feb. 1, 2012, accessed Feb. 10, 2012.
  4. Pinterest: April‘s New Books,” Skokie Public Library, accessed Feb. 20, 2012.
  5. Sanhita SinhaRoy, “Libraries Tap into Crowd Power,” American Libraries 42, no. 11/12 (Nov./Dec. 2011), accessed Feb. 20, 2012.