The pandemic wiped out decades of progress in children’s reading skills. So what’s a librarian hoping to engage children and teenagers with books and reading to do?
“Meet them where they are,” said Sara Day, a teen services librarian at the Woodland Public Library in Woodland, Calif. And that, she said, is on TikTok.
A growing number of librarians are joining her there. Last month, Day and her colleague, Sara Vickers, a children’s librarian, led dozens of their colleagues in a short choreography set to Taylor Swift’s “Anti-Hero,” as part of a session called “TikTok O’ Clock!” at the Young Adult Library Services Association’s 2022 symposium in Baltimore.
“Looking cool was a big challenge at the beginning,” Vickers, 34, told the crowd. That was until her colleagues had a change in mind-set. “Lean into the cringe,” Day, 29, advised. Teens are overwhelmed, she said. “Put a smile on their face.”
Asked if their libraries were on TikTok, about half of the room raised their hands. The message to teens, Day said, is: “Come in, there’s a space for you.”
On TikTok, librarians don costumes, dance to viral songs, show off new books and bond with their co-workers. And as they do so, they draw in visitors and drum up interest in reading: Margo Moore, 28, a teen services librarian who traveled to the symposium from Lawrence, Kan., said that interest in books featured in popular TikTok videos often spikes in the days and weeks that follow.
Library TikTok is related to, but distinct from, BookTok, a corner of the platform where readers post about their favorite books and which has become a force in book sales. On library TikTok, there is chatter about books, but librarians also post about resources and events, showcasing libraries as welcoming places for diverse communities. There is no official tally of library and librarian TikTok accounts, but Katie Elson Anderson, a reference librarian at Rutgers University-Camden, has compiled a list of 85 accounts — which she says is likely an undercount.
Making the effort to show up on TikTok tells young people that “we’re here, we hear you, we feel you,” said Celia Greer, 30, a teen coordinator at the Kankakee Public Library in Kankakee, Ill. The library posted a video that went viral on TikTok earlier this year, earning over one million views — and scoring a comment from Kevin Bacon. The library then posted a second video celebrating Bacon’s comment, which got more than 30,000 views. Now, the account is a local phenomenon, she said.
“People know who we are out in public because of the TikToks,” said Greer.
Librarians said that the TikTok videos are also a blast for the staff, who are often dealing with burnout and stress after serving their communities throughout the pandemic. As conflicts over book bans escalate across the country, some librarians have also come under attack.
“We just want people to engage with local libraries,” said Emily Jackson, 40, the social media manager for Dallas Public Library. “In the environment we’re in, it’s super important.”
In August, the Dallas Public Library’s account posted a TikTok about titles that had been banned or challenged. In the video, Jackson holds up a series of books as “World’s Smallest Violin” by AJR — a song that was popular on TikTok — plays. The post reached nearly 28,000 people.
Several librarians also said that the platform can be helpful in dispelling stereotypes and giving people a realistic view of what libraries and librarians are like in 2022.
“We have this misconception that libraries are antiquated and not on top of tech trends,” said Emily Drabinski, the president-elect of the American Library Association. But historically, she said, librarians are often on the forefront of engaging with new technologies.
“It is our job to select, acquire, describe, make accessible and circulate preserved knowledge,” Drabinski added. “That’s the whole project. So as technology changes the ways things are circulated, we change with it.”
Librarians can also use TikTok to spread trustworthy information on a platform rife with manipulated content. “It is a space that requires critical information literacy,” said Jessie Loyer, an academic librarian in Calgary, Alberta who posts about topics including digital sovereignty and repatriation on TikTok under the handle @IndigenousLibrarian.
“Librarians have always been involved in helping people figure out what is real, what is relevant,” Loyer added. So TikTok, she said, is “a necessary space to be in, and a useful tool.”
Not everyone is on board with the idea of librarians posting on TikTok. Some library directors and boards find some TikTok accounts unprofessional, Vickers said. And some librarians are ambivalent about encouraging young people to use the platform. Elizabeth Miller, 22, a youth services librarian at the Rehoboth Beach Public Library in Rehoboth Beach, Del., said that while TikTok has potential for helping people make friends and explore hobbies, the app isn’t always a healthy environment for adolescents.
But others, including librarians at Kankakee Public Library, find that TikTok lets them engage with the community in person, too. The library often collaborates with local figures, including the mayor. “He’s always excited to do it,” said Greer, who helps make the videos. The library has plans to make TikToks with cheerleaders and the drama club at the local high school next year.
“We may not make them readers this year or next year,” said her colleague Mary Bass, 30, the youth services assistant supervisor and lead at the Kankakee library. “But they’ll know that we’re here as they grow up.”