November 22, 2017

The Advocate's Toolbox

Power Tumbl’ng: Why Tumblr Is a Great Way to Reach Teen Patrons

Illustration by Regan Dunnick

In his video “Tumblr: The Musical,” Youtube celebrity Hank Green mocks how Tumblr aficionados get lost in a loop of scrolling, liking, and reblogging to the point of neglecting everything else in their lives, including sleep. The addictive Tumblr scroll has indeed become the preferred Internet rabbit hole, as Green, brother of the author John Green, hilariously shows.

Should libraries and librarians use Tumblr? Is it wise to wade into this alluring sea of wacky photos, pop-culture commentary, and gifs—snippets of moving images—in order to virtually chat about best book lists, library events, title recommendations, and our favorite quotes?

Yes, and here’s why. The key to a useful social network is to strategically use communication tools, understand each network’s reach, and guarantee ease of use for all involved. Tumblr can be a successful way to connect to new and diverse audiences, provided you understand who you’ll be attracting to your site and how to use Tumblr to your advantage.

Why Tumblr works

In my job as a teen librarian, I’ve been running social networks since 2006. As anyone using social media knows, it’s vital to meet your patrons where they are, rather than try to get them to visit a new, unknown site. My colleagues in the reference section maintain lively accounts representing the library as a whole on both Facebook and Twitter. But the Twitter account I maintained for my teens fell dormant, since none of them seemed to be using that platform. So I decided to concentrate my efforts on where I thought my teens were: Facebook.

In the past year, though, it became clear that my teens were no longer on Facebook—or if they were, they weren’t using it to connect with the library. During that time, I searched for ways to invigorate the teen section of our library’s website—to post more content daily and engage more readers. I sought a streamlined, visually exciting site. But the traditional blogging options were hampered by clunky interfaces and an outdated look; I knew that the posts weren’t reaching many patrons, let alone teens.

Enter Tumblr. I had been using a personal Tumblr account for a few months and found its mix of art, photos, gifs, quotes, and videos to be far more engaging than my library’s traditional text-dominated website. Hank Green was on to something.

Tumblr’s interface is easy to use, and each post looks professional the instant it uploads. There’s no need to know code, wrangle with images, or get complicated with fonts. The site can easily take the place of a traditional website or blog.

Depending on the theme you choose for your Tumblr, you can include static information—like phone numbers or hours of operation—in a sidebar, while keeping the main part of your page fresh and visually exciting with an ever-changing stream of posts. Updating is incredibly easy, and you can save drafts and schedule posts to appear at future dates and times—useful for event reminders and time-sensitive content.

As with Twitter, your goals while using Tumblr are to engage with your public and gather followers. The more you post, the more users will find you through your content, especially by searching your tags. As on Facebook, people can “like” your posts. They can also reblog them on their own Tumblrs—similar to retweeting on Twitter or sharing on Facebook. Liking and reblogging are how your Tumblr audience shows its appreciation and where they may add their own notes. While the flow of information is mostly one-way, you can track your followers as well as the number of times an individual post has been liked and reblogged to gauge your impact.

Most important for youth librarians, though, is that young people are active on Tumblr. When I checked with my teens, many said they were Tumblr users and were excited by the idea of connecting to the library this way. That’s why I made the leap to Tumblr for our teen site.

Eight tips for successful tumbling

If you’re considering starting a Tumblr, either as a supplement to your established Web presence or as a replacement for a blog, it’s important to think through your needs and those of your patrons before making the switch. Below, some pointers.

1. Think visually. The most popular Tumblr posts tend to be images, photos, or gifs. In the past, there was no easy way to quote a TV show, film, or video game without posting a video. But with Tumblr’s magic combination of gifs and blogging, media quotes are now everywhere. Take advantage of this. If you’re recommending books, don’t just post a list: Include images of all of the covers. Promoting an event? “Tumbl” your poster and a selection of photos.

2. Tag your posts. Tagging is incredibly important on Tumblr because searching tags is how users discover content and people to follow. Remember, though, that only the first five tags on any post are searchable, so choose your tags wisely. After those five, people use tags to add commentary to their posts in the same way that savvy Twitter users deploy hashtags as asides or jokes. So these additional tags can be humorous reading.

3. Be professional but playful. Be mindful of what you post. It should be in keeping with what you would highlight on any part of your library website. At the same time, be aware that your Tumblr should be fun to follow. Share favorite quotes; topical, pop culture images; and favorite artists.

4. And…be mindful of mature language. One of the truths of Tumblr is that there is no oversight regarding mature content or language. When you first sign up, your Tumblr will be automatically set in safe mode, meaning that you will not see any content deemed “not safe for work” (NSFW) on your dashboard. The Tumblr community counts on users to flag their own blogs and posts as NSFW in order to keep safe mode working properly. There’s definitely 18+ material out there, and you won’t necessarily be forewarned by tagging or a user’s customary posting habits. Many Tumblr names are variations on the appreciative phrase f**kyeah___ (example: “f**kyeahbooks”). While you may be inclined to like or reblog those items, you should consider the profanity in the source site before doing so.

5. Schedule your posts. It’s especially enjoyable to schedule themed posts, perhaps once a week, that highlight a particular topic or service. For example, the New York Public Library celebrates “Caturday” every week on their Tumblr by posting cat-related images and items from their collections. School Library Journal runs a regular feature, “Where I Work?” with photos, sharing a glimpse or two of authors’ writing spaces. Who doesn’t want to see where their favorite novels are created?

6. Check your sources. A lot of unsourced images gets passed around Tumblr, especially when it comes to art and photography. If you’re not certain of a work’s provenance, use Google’s image source search by clicking on the camera icon that allows you to search via an image URL and see if you can locate the source reliably. Artists and image makers will thank you, and you’ll set a strong example of giving creators credit for their work.

7. Remember, it’s (basically) one-way. Tumblr is not the place to gather comments, start discussions, or debate favorite books. People can send in questions, or “asks,” through the Tumblr interface. You can also pose a question and invite your followers to answer it. That’s about it for the platform’s capacity for discussion.

Tumblr is built to be used through its dashboard, the main control panel where you scroll through posts and investigate whatever keyword searches you like. On your dashboard, there’s no easy way to comment. You can reblog a post and add a comment, but replying gets increasingly cumbersome. Unless Tumblr revamps its question system, at this point you’ll be announcing or sharing information, but only occasionally responding to a question.

8. Make it easy and fun to maintain. Check in daily and take advantage of Tumblr’s tools. Use the J, K, and L keys to navigate your dashboard quickly. Hitting the L key “likes” a post, and typing shift+R (on a PC) reblogs that post instantly. Remember the current limits: You can send 10 “asks” an hour and “friend” up to 250 people per day. For more Tumblr tricks and tips, check out this helpful list over at the Daily Dot: http://ow.ly/nVTvc.

Checking in on my Tumblr account has become the most relaxing and enjoyable part of my daily routine, keeping me abreast of new books, targeted book lists, library news, and the grand world of art and images from various media. One of my teens recently proclaimed how much she enjoyed my Tumblr—a gratifying signal that I’m heading in the right direction. As long as that enjoyment continues, and my own messages are getting out, I’ll keep on tumbling.

A few of my favorite Tumblrs:

General Tumblrs 

Book Riot
LIFE
National Public Radio
The New York Times’s The Lively Morgue 
PBS’s This Day in History
WYNC’s Radiolab

Library Tumblrs

Public Library of Brookline (MA) Teen Services (my Tumblr)
Cape May County (NJ) Library Teen Zone
Grand Rapids (MI) Public Library Tumblr for Teens
Library Advocates
Library Journal
The Lifeguard Librarian
Librarian Wardrobe
New York Public Library
School Library Journal
Teenlandia: Lewis & Clark (Helena, MT) Library Teen Services Department

Tumblarians list from

The Lifeguard Librarian
Young Adults and Teens at Oak Lawn (IL) Public Library

Teen Lit Tumblrs

Public Library of Brookline teen title recommendations (mine again)
Diversity in YA
The YA Cover
YA! Flash
YA Highway

Teen Authors who Tumble

Cassandra Clare
John Green
Shannon Hale
Karen Healey
Malinda Lo
Maureen Johnson
Rainbow Rowell

Brenner-RobinRobin Brenner is the reference and teen librarian at the Public Library of Brookline (MA). She is also the editor-in-chief of the graphic novel review website No Flying No Tights and know all too well the allure of the late-night Tumblr scroll.

This article was published in School Library Journal's September 2013 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

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