I like to get to know the people who work for my library. Librarians fascinate me. Some fall right into my stereotyped vision of their profession: glasses, quiet demeanor, full of encouragement and knowledge. And some occasionally walk around in a gorilla suit, record themselves laughing in a MakerSpace sound booth just for fun, and hold programs where dogs lick guitar strings to make music.

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Meet Steve Kemple. Steve works in our Popular Library and he is not your ordinary librarian. He’s a wearer of colorful sweaters. He owns a gorilla suit and he’s not afraid to wear it in the library. He spreads “high-fives” in his e-mails. He organizes experimental music nights and can teach senior citizens how to use our streaming video services.

Steve was already a rock star at our library but he achieved legendary status in my eyes by being the front man for a social media experiment that was, in a word, risky. And he is a great example of how libraries can use the talents of employees outside the marketing department.

In December, we learned that our library director was excited for the premiere of a new show on TNT called “The Librarians.” She wanted us to do something on social media to leverage it. My staff had the idea that we should live tweet during the show.  Ideally, we thought the head Tweeter should be a librarian who could offer their own perspective on the show’s portrayal of the profession while using the show to promote our brand.

Courtesy TNT Drama
Courtesy TNT Drama

Live tweeting is risky. It’s fraught with the possibility for plain old error and, in choosing the wrong person, you could open yourself up to unspeakable problems.

Steve was a genius. With relatively little coaching, he watched the show… every episode but one… and managed to take plot themes and notable quotes by the characters and find a way to tie them into our collection or brand. He turned out 140-character promotions on the fly. Engagement was astounding. On the premiere night, Steve’s tweets were retweeted more than 500 times.  We had 48 replies, 664 favorites, 336 clicks and more than 74,000 impressions.  Hello! The numbers fell slightly, as we expected, but they still remained higher than we had predicted, averaging 35,000+ impressions each time the show aired.

I asked Steve to answer a few questions about the experience. This is an experiment that could easily be replicated by your library. It helps build audience, awareness of the library brand, and reshapes a concept much of the world has about libraries–that they are not hip enough to do real-time marketing.

Steve is on the right. Clearly, librarians love gorilla suits.
Steve is on the right. Clearly, librarians love gorilla suits.

Did you even have an interest in watching “The Librarians” before we asked you to do the Twitter stream?

Steve Kemple: I definitely wanted to at least see the pilot episode so I could weigh in on the inevitable conversations on Twitter and ALA Think Tank. Then I got invited to a staff viewing party, thus obviating the problem.

What prompted you to volunteer for the “job?”

Steve Kemple: It was a no brainer! As a longtime member of the social media team I’ve always enjoyed live tweeting events for the library. In years past I’ve tweeted about the Grammys and Oscars and a few library events. I somehow have a weird knack for it, and it’s lots of fun.

So when you volunteered, did you have an idea in your head about how it would work and what you would say? How did you decide what kinds of tweets to post during the show?

Steve Kemple: I did a bit of preliminary work, but for the most part I’ve found I get the best results by just being spontaneous. However, the first tweet that got a big response (“Filing evil under history” is an interesting cataloging decision. We usually file it under 111.84 #TheLibrarians @LibrariansTNT) I actually came up with a few hours before the show while I was eating a burrito. I saw their tagline “Filing evil under history” and thought, “from a cataloging standpoint that’s not really correct. No librarian would actually file evil under history. They’d file it in the 100s.” I might have laughed loudly to myself. People turned to look. It was awkward. But totally worth it.

I have to admit that first Sunday was a bigger success than I had personally anticipated. Were you surprised by the response? Was there a moment when you were like, “Wow, this is crazy-good!”

Steve Kemple: You and me both… I mean, I expected we would get a few retweets. Maybe a handful of “hey guys look what @cincylibrary is doing” and a few solid interactions. My goal was to make a few people chuckle and hopefully think more about their library. But the scale of the response blew me away. I mean, #TheLibrarians was a worldwide trending topic! I was actually doing everything from my smartphone (not the brightest idea), which meant I was constantly going back and forth between our catalog in the browser, my notes, and the Bit.ly app. So that first episode is kind of a blur. I can’t even tell you what happened, I was just so focused on finding things to riff off of. It was really towards the end, when things slowed down (and we all shed a tear for poor Excalibur) that I started to realize how far our tweets were going. Later I had to turn off my Twitter notifications because my phone wouldn’t stop buzzing. I still can’t really wrap my head around it. And neither can I take all the credit for the success. Other librarians, particularly Lea Nolan, who I learned that night knows the Dewey Decimal System better than anyone I’ve ever met, were tossing out ideas, writing down quotes, and looking up things in the catalog. It was truly a group effort.

Tell me about the response you got from the show and the stars!

Steve Kemple: The writers noticed what was happening pretty much right away. After the first episode, when I was feeling pretty good about things, I tweeted from my personal account about the night’s success. The next morning I had a message from the writer Jeremy Bernstein asking if it had been me doing @cincylibrary’s twitter and if he could have my phone number (!!!). Then series creator John Rogers tweeted “I can confidently say the ratings success of #TheLibrarians premiere was due to the live tweeting of @cincylibrary.” That might be a bit of an overstatement, but still! Later on I got an email from the TNT marketing team asking if we would consider live tweeting all the episodes. I was secretly hoping they would ask me to cameo in a future episode as an evil genius librarian bent on world domination. But they did just announce season 2 (ahem), so I suppose it could still happen.

Do you think that this kind of customer engagement has a place in the library world? What can other libraries learn from what you did?

Steve Kemple: Libraries need to be going out of their way to seek out opportunities for direct and relevant customer engagement. One thing we got right while tweeting about “The Librarians”  is we didn’t sound like marketing. We were just this one weird Twitter account saying funny/interesting things. The library world in general could benefit from focusing less on perfectly crafted PR and focus more on just being interesting. It’s okay to be niche or weird or even a little bit snarky. People crave authenticity. No one craves good PR. Maybe another reason this succeeded is we tapped into something that people were already interested in and just joined in the conversation, sharing their enthusiasm. In his essay “Participatory Networks: The Library As Conversation” David Lankes describes how libraries create knowledge by facilitating conversations. Live tweeting “The Librarians” was just like putting these ideas into practice in a fairly direct and literal way–using an openly conversational medium to elicit curiosity. We linked to a lot of items in our catalog, including rather esoteric material that I have no expectation that anyone will bother check out. And that’s totally fine. It doesn’t matter if anyone ultimately decided to read the books or even click the links. What matters is the conversation–the seeds that were planted. My goal as a librarian is to create conditions where people can be curious. Because curious people go on to learn things. And people who learn things are better informed and more interesting people who lead happier, more fulfilling lives.

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Views in this post are my own and do not represent those of my employer.

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