Today’s librarians are typically well versed in social media, and for many, one platform in particular shines brighter than the rest: Instagram. After all, the picture-friendly platform can help them reach readers—and exchange ideas. “It’s the most universal,” says librarian Betsy Bird, collection development manager at Evanston Public Library in Illinois. “Unlike Twitter, which is used mostly by adults, Instagram is used across the board.”

When asked how many of the nation’s roughly 117,000 libraries use the social media platform, Instagram spokeswoman Ashley Chapman says, “It’s hard to definitively say.” And usage varies widely, even among some of the bigger public library systems. The New York Public Library counts 339,000 followers; the San Francisco boasts 22,600; and the Chicago Public Library recently passed the 10,000 mark. (Though Portuguese pro soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo, with 156 million followers, needn’t quake in his cleats: no librarian will snatch his king-of-Instagram crown.)

“For me, it’s showing people how cool the library is,” says Matt Bero, content specialist at Lincolnwood Library in Lincolnwood, Ill., explaining why he likes using Instagram. “It’s promoting our programming and patrons.” The point isn’t to be slick or controversial.

“People go to Instagram to make their life upbeat,” says Deborah Stevenson, director of the Center for Children’s Books at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “Libraries are really good at that.”

Hashtags rule

To spread information on Instagram, librarians recommend using hashtags. Among the many popular hashtags are #Bookstagram (28,722,323 posts), which features a community of Instagram accounts devoted to books; #LibrariesOfInstagram (413,684 posts), depicting everything from a library on wheels to a diagram of a bookworm; and #BookfaceFriday (64,892 posts), which spotlights photos of readers strategically posing with book jackets to make it appear as if body and book are one seamless image.

Best practices

For librarians looking to jump into the fray, or perhaps jump-start their accounts, Instagram’s Chapman suggests “following and finding accounts that inspire you.” She adds, “The best ideas come from within the community; learn from and feed off each other.”

At Lyford High School in Lyford, Tex., YA librarian Betsy Vela notes, “We share freely and post with the intention that other librarians will remix our ideas and make them their own.”

Like most efforts in this arena, it’s a matter of trial and error, Chapman says. “It’s not permanent. If something doesn’t work, you can try something the next day.”

As a general tip from experienced users, setting up the Instagram account as a business page, not a personal page, offers benefits. It’s still free, but the business categorization allows them use of the Insights feature to see when people are online.

What to Post?

When deciding what to share, many librarians find that posts tend to work best when they include books and kids in them. “Book covers are often glorious in and of themselves,” says Elisa Gall, youth collection development librarian at Deerfield Library in Deerfield, Ill. Photos of kids are also wonderful, though libraries understandably shy away from using children’s full names or faces, for privacy and security reasons.

At Bishop O’Dowd High School in Oakland, Calif., librarian Annette Counts takes a bunch of photos, then asks the students featured in those shots to select which one she should use on Instagram. They have veto power as well. Counts only uses first names and never tags the students. “I would never want to embarrass anybody,” she says. “I want to celebrate what good things are happening here.”

With high schoolers, photos (posted with teen approval) are popular. “Having pictures of my friends doing all their activities generally draws my eye more than just, ‘Here’s a new book,’ ” says Jordan Woods, a 17-year-old senior at Bishop O’Dowd.

Indeed, students like to see snapshots of themselves, says Jessica Simons, head librarian at Moreau Catholic High School in Hayward, Calif. “As soon as I post pictures of kids, I get way more likes.”

The trick of a successful post is to be neither too polished nor too old-fashioned. “You don’t want it to look like Google’s Instagram,” Stevenson says. “You also don’t want it to look like Grandma Diane’s Instagram.”

Videos and special effects are extra credit—not required. “Anything that moves tends to get more likes and comments,” says Bero, who recently used PhotoShop and AfterEffects to create a popular #NewBookTuesday post that showed The Vanishing Stair by Maureen Johnson disappearing. “It opens up more opportunities. You can get more information from a video than a photo.”

The Lincolnwood Library even runs teen classes on how to use the software. Videos must be short, no more than 60 seconds or so, Bero says. If they’re longer, he says, they’re better suited to Facebook or YouTube.

Many of the librarians we spoke with agree that humor, including punny posts, goes over big, too. In Pittsburgh, Carson Middle School’s library posted a picture of a return-your-books poster that read, “Don’t overdue it.”

“I want to communicate that we don’t take ourselves too seriously,” says April Younglove, librarian at Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy in La Canada Flintridge, Calif., about using humor in her posts. “We’re a fun place to be.”

Sometimes librarians create posts that ask Instagram followers to answer questions. For Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the Evanston Public Library posted a girl coloring a picture of the civil rights leader’s head alongside the quote, “Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” The caption asked, “Tell us: What do you love?”

At the Chicago Public Library, marketing director Mary Beth Mulholland tries to “show visually what’s going on in our locations,” she says. She uses the Stories feature for press conferences or announcements that don’t need to live beyond a day. (“Stories is a great, pressure-free way to share,” Instagram’s Chapman says. “Content only stays up for 24 hours.”)

To get photos from diverse patrons at 81 branch locations, Mulholland relies on tags and hashtags such as #MyCPL and #ShareMyCPL. “That way we know they are wanting to be featured,” she says. She also likes highlighting archival material on Throwback Thursdays.

Vela posts under @LyfordLibraries and @BibliotechYLibrarian, “not so much to draw in big numbers of followers but to bring awareness that librarians are teachers, creators, counselors and superstars,” she says. “We want to share that libraries are the biggest classrooms in the schools, and we want to document the things students learn and experience each day in the library.”

Another posting option is to try an Instagram “takeover” in which a teen author runs the account for a day. “You have to be committed to trying new things,” Chapman says. “Experimentation is awesome. See what your followers want and what sticks.”

And when in doubt, librarians can post something that helps celebrate a special day or month. February 25 was National Tell a Fairy Tale Day. Who knew? Jole Seroff and Melaine Huyck-Aufdermaur at the Castilleja School library in Palo Alto, Calif., note that posts showcasing holidays, especially obscure ones, such as National Bird Day, do well. A post on the library Instagram got 15-year-old Gratia O’Rafferty, a sophomore at Bishop O’Dowd, to look through the Black History Month books.

What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?

For librarians trying to figure out a posting schedule that works for them, Instagram’s Chapman says that “consistency is key.” She adds, “Keep posting, whether you’re posting twice a day or four times a day.”

Deerfield’s Gall notes that having a routine for when her library’s posts go up is helpful.

And O’Rafferty approves of her school library’s once-a-day-or-so postings. “It’s a good amount, but it’s not overly flooding my feed,” she says.

When considering how often to post, a key consideration is that Instagram can be tricky to squeeze into a librarian’s busy day. “It’s kind of a secondary thing to everyone’s main job,” Lincolnwood’s Bero says. “But the more you put in, the more you get out.” If somebody comments, comment back, he says. Consider Instagram “another platform for people to engage with the library.”

As for where the responsibility for Instagramming lies within library staff, the situations vary widely. Some librarians share duties; others prefer to let Instagram be a one-man or one-woman operation. At Lincolnwood, for example, librarians hand off any photos to Bero, who handles the logistics such as permissions, cropping, write-ups, and tagging and gives the account a cohesive look.

Does It Work?

“I measure the effectiveness when a fellow librarian asks me for a template or asks me how I did something,” says Vela, at Lyford High School. “I measure it when a parent thanks me for sharing, because that’s a way they connect to what’s happening in their child’s school. I measure it when a student asks me to take their picture to share it with the world.”

Counts says she hasn’t officially looked for any correlation between her posts and the items that are checked out of the library. But she likes posting and thinks it works. “I know the message I want to get across: that our library engages users, that we’re full all the time, that we have a lot of things going on for you as a student, as a lifelong learner,” she says. “I do think it helps build a community. I think it’s fun.”

Stevenson sums up with what for her is the essential point to remember about libraries using the platform: “Followers on Instagram are nice, but what you really want is people in the library.”

Karen Springen teaches at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications.