Social Enterprise

Taking a page from the New York Public Library's approach to Instagram

NYPL's Chad Felix talked to TechRepublic about what happens when a library more than a hundred-years-old gets an Instagram account.

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Image: New York Public Library

It's a lucky New Yorker who gets to walk by the New York Public Library on the way to or from work. The building, which opened in 1911, is large and elegant, with Corinthian columns and lion statues. That's the outward face of the library.

Online is a different story. The New York Public Library has a lively Instagram account with 80,000 followers, and for those who don't pass by the building by on the regular, that might just be the best place to get a daily dose of the historic institution.

Chad Felix handles the Instagram account for the New York Public Library. He's been there just about three months. Coming off years of experience working in bookstores, Felix learned the value of expressing thoughtfulness and enthusiasm for books — and instead of having that drive book sales, it gets people to engage with the library and the free services it provides.

"People respond really well to being thoughtful and just having fun, as opposed to having an agenda. You kind of do both, but it's really important to just be excited about it," he said. "That sounds so cheesy, but when you're engaging with it and you're interested in it, I think people tend to respond and also become engaged with it."

When you run through the comments threads on the NYPL Instagram account, it's clear that's what happening — it's a good little corner on the internet to geek out over books.

Part of the reason why is because NYPL makes great use of the resources it has — those things that only the library can offer, as Felix put it.

For example, during a move, a box filled with question cards from the mid-1900s turned up in a desk drawer. These cards had questions by patrons for librarians to answer. Many of them are the types of oddball questions you'd search for online, but also phrased in the somewhat stilted manner of bygone decades. "What is the natural enemy of a duck?" Or, "What does it mean when you dream you're being chased by an elephant?"

Every Monday, they post a photo of a question card with the hashtag #letmelibrarianthatforyou.

"There's really just wonderful, strange stuff in there," Felix said.

Those posts tend to do very well.

"I [what] think people are drawn to is just they're these old, beautiful, handwritten, sometimes type written documents. You photograph them, and they look appealing, they look like something out of a Wes Anderson film," he said.

The regularity of showing the question cards plays into part of NYPL's strategy. They have a series that runs every day of the week.

So, followers can expect #bookfacefriday, which are pictures of people usually holding up a book with a face on it, over theirs. There are also #bibliofurtues. A colleague of Felix's writes fortune cookie-esque fortunes like, "A paperback will take your life by storm" and Photoshops them on pictures of fortune cookies. #shoppingsunday highlight what's going on in the library shop. #captionthis once again makes use of NYPL's resources by tapping into the library's digital collection for interesting and odd photos that beg for captions from Instagram followers.

Image: New York Public Library

Felix also said that every morning, they query the 92 other library branches for anything that might be postable. So, when you see something like #bookfacefriday, that might not necessarily come from the main branch. Or even a library at all — they ask to repost the photos they like that they find with their tags.

One campaign that plays into crowdsourcing in particular is their #ireadeverywhere campaign, which is tied to their outdoor reading room. It encourages followers, even celebrities to take pictures of themselves reading and post with that hashtag.

Recently, artist Amanda Palmer and author Judy Blume contributed photos, which NYPL was able to repost.

What that all this means is that even though NYPL uses those reliable and recurring hashtags, keeping an eye on other branches and followers keeps them from getting too tightly bound to routine.

"You don't want to be too rigid because you begins to lose the personality," Felix said.

In many ways, that's what it comes down to — finding a way to communicate a personality to thousands of people, delivering on what they expect, and finding ways to keep them checking in.

One of Felix's favorite initiatives so far that encouraged engagement was a series that allowed people to vote on book covers to go on e-reader versions of books — #recoveringtheclassics. They did this everyday for 10 or 12 books, and people kept coming back to vote.

NYPL's also transferred offline engagement online.

They have a recommendations board in their outdoor reading room where people can post the books they're reading.

"It photographs really well. It's really beautiful colors and it's always full, and I try to go out there and photograph it once a week," Felix said.

So, armed with a cellphone camera, he does.

And even if you won't be standing in front of that board, or the library, any time soon, you can still check out what other readers are into.

"People tend to grab onto books," Felix said, "When they like a book they like to say they love it."

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      About Erin Carson

      Erin Carson is a Staff Reporter for CNET and a former Multimedia Editor for TechRepublic.

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