Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

Illustration by The Globe and Mail

There’s nothing more cringe than someone trying to describe a meme, but here goes. If you’ve ever watched Parks and Recreation, you’ll remember Tom and Donna explaining their Treat Yo Self Day – “the best day of the year!” In a series of TikTok videos filmed against the show’s original audio, including one from Alberta’s Grande Prairie Public Library, librarians replace the characters’ indulgences – clothes, fragrances, massages, mimosas, fine leather goods – with their own, which are conveniently found at the local library: video games, Chromebooks, puzzles, anime and manga, toys. Treat yo self!

It’s cute and fun, and might surprise some viewers who don’t know that a library can offer access to much more than books. It’s also one of the hundreds of videos the staff at GPPL have posted on the library’s TikTok account. As of this writing, the library, one of the first in the country to launch on TikTok, has 26,100 followers, with videos reaching more than half a million likes. Now, it’s a model of how to harness the power of this particular social channel to entertain and educate viewers – whether they be patrons or not. Not bad for a one-branch library system in a small northern Alberta city.

“We have found that it’s a really great way to break down stereotypes of what libraries are versus what they used to be, and show the services that we have and show that we are a safe space,” says Bailey Randolph, head of children’s services at GPPL. Randolph, and her colleague Hailey McCullough, head of adult services, have used the account to spread the word about the library’s donation-driven food pantry and its role in serving the city’s unhoused population, among other endeavours.

The unpredictability of TikTok’s algorithm and its content environment – charmingly unpolished, fun and educational – fit the diverse services libraries offer unlike any other social-media channel. Librarians are harnessing the app to redefine what the library represents, and in the process, finding new audiences in their immediate communities and developing fan bases far outside city borders.

“Libraries are using TikTok in the right way. They really get it. They’re approaching it from a place of creativity and authenticity to their brands and their local communities,” says Lina Renzina, lifestyle and education media partnerships lead at the app. “It’s an unexpected voice – they haven’t really shown up like this before – and the libraries that are jumping on it now are seeing success because it’s early days.”

Randolph launched GPPL’s account in December, 2020, as a way to reach the library’s teen audience during the first year of the pandemic. “There was a little bit of weariness because we were one of the first libraries to start an account. There weren’t a lot of others on TikTok that we could bring forward to be like, ‘Hey, this is what everyone else is doing.’ But we were really lucky to have a director who was supportive of it.”

She and her colleagues worked to create the library’s personality on the app and quickly found it was a useful tool for reaching all demographics of library users – and they continue to observe the videos drawing people into the physical space.

“We’ve had people come in because they have seen that we have a library of things, for instance, or a little free pantry and they want to donate to that,” she says. “We also have seen a lot of people come talk to us at outreach and community events, telling us that they’ve seen us on TikTok and that they follow us on the app,” says Randolph.

Visitor numbers have risen to about 700 people a day, compared with 600 prepandemic. “We get a lot more people coming into the library and sharing that they’re aware of specific collections because of our TikTok account and we often hear about people watching certain videos, which is great,” says McCullough.

There are now more than 100 librarians, libraries or library systems with accounts on TikTok. Katie Elson Anderson, a librarian at Rutgers University who researches libraries and social media, keeps a running list – which includes anthropology and Indigenous studies liaison librarian Jessie Loyer at Calgary’s Mount Royal University and the Akureyri Municipal Library, one of Iceland’s largest – on her website.

The most popular is the Milwaukee Public Library (its staff are so inundated with media requests, they did not have the capacity to speak to The Globe for this piece). A recent video shows a staff member eyeing romance novels, her glasses fogging up at the steamy covers while SZA’s Big Boy plays. The caption: “Dewey belong together?”

But with just less than 7,000 views to date, this is far from its most popular video. “How can I support public libraries” claims that title, with 3.9 million views. In it, rapper Saweetie says “Let’s go,” then via the magic of TikTok’s green-screen filter, struts through the library as viewers learn they should visit libraries, keep an active card and use the resources there.

MPL is certainly not the only one flipping stereotypes on their head. One of Cincinnati and Hamilton County Public Library’s popular posts shows a librarian spoofing a viral video from Diana Belitskay, a TikTok celebrity known for her flexibility. The CHPL video, titled “How we gather hold requests at the Library,” shows Belitskay doing the splits to knock a package of toilet paper off the top shelf at a grocery store, then cuts to Kelvin Hester, a library customer advisor, making repeated attempts to high kick a book off a shelf. It has been viewed 3.3 million times and Hester now has celebrity status at the library.

“We’ve heard anecdotally from staff and customers that there’s a lot of buzz and excitement around the library’s TikTok,” says Libby Scott, CHPL’s communications manager. “While it can’t be directly attributed to our activity on social-media platforms like TikTok, we did have nearly 700,000 more library visits in 2022 than in 2021.”

Initially, it was difficult to get staff involved in making the videos, says Paul Wellington, CHPL’s social-media specialist. “I was putting feelers out there, seeing what staff were interested in being involved with TikTok, but now that we’re becoming more popular, a lot of staff are craving to be involved. Even our customers love seeing us film TikToks, so it is a great experience for everyone involved,” he says.

Aside from the quirk, the success of LibraryTok, as the collection of content connected to libraries is known on TikTok, is due in part to BookTok, wherein book lovers share recommendations and other book-related information. Renzina says BookTok content has more than 117 billion views to date “from a really engaged audience.” LibraryTok has one billion monthly users, with key hashtags – #librarytok, #librariansoftiktok, #publiclibrarylove – attached to 427 million views to date.

“Libraries are taking up space in the social-media sphere, but they’re operating within that bigger virtual literary community,” says Tanja Grubnic, a PhD candidate at Western University and Fulbright Scholar at Duke University who studies the new position social-media platforms have within the literary industry.

Grubnic doesn’t see BookTok as being the exclusive domain of TikTok. “You have book bloggers on YouTube and book-review accounts on Instagram and they cross-post content to other platforms,” she says, but the difference between TikTok and other social-media platforms is its ability to predict what users want to see. “I think many users find that they are being recommended content that they really want to see about books compared to Instagram.”

Another, and perhaps the most important, reason the content is resonating is that it’s humanizing libraries and librarians, pulling back the curtain on something that still has a reputation for being stuffy, quiet and arcane.

“These accounts are giving the behind the scenes of the people who run the library so that what goes on in libraries isn’t shrouded in mystery anymore,” says Renzina. “What goes on behind the scenes is really interesting to people and makes them feel like accessible community hubs.”

It’s that access that keeps audiences engaged on TikTok and in real life. “It’s kind of weird. I was at Tim Hortons the other day getting coffee and the teen girl there was like, ‘I follow you on TikTok!’” says Grande Prairie’s McCullough. “It’s just another way to make connections with the people in our community.”

And it provides insight for decision makers, too. McCullough says some members of Grande Prairie’s city council follow the library’s TikTok account and engage with staff on the app. “We have had some success in donations and grant funding as a result of our TikTok account,” she adds. “While it doesn’t guarantee funding, it helps people realize we are more than just a book-storage facility, and it has the potential to change the conversation about libraries everywhere, which is a beautiful thing.”

Interact with The Globe