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How the Milwaukee Public Library became a social media star, inspiring global love of libraries

A screenshot of Milwaukee Public Library's latest TikTok videos.
TikTok screenshot
A screenshot of Milwaukee Public Library's latest TikTok videos.

In the throes of the pandemic, Milwaukee Public Library volunteer coordinator Fawn Siemen-Fuchs and analytics manager Derek Reilly were looking at the library’s stats and getting a little nervous. There were no volunteers. The number of people coming in the doors had plummeted. They needed more people to engage. “So, we were like, ‘How can we do something that’s really impactful?’” recalls Siemsen-Fuchs.

The two turned to TikTok and Instagram. “We started doing more videos that told a story, that were more ‘content first’ and the ‘ask’ second,” she says. Scoping out the latest sounds and trends, they let the ideas percolate, thinking “what's the library connection? What’s the tie-in?”

Two years later, the accounts have a fervent fan base, with a combined 250,000 followers. The most-viewed reel on Instagram is Siemsen-Fuchs’ grandma grabbing a book in the graphic novel aisle and flipping the bird at those who tell her she’s too old to read it. It clocks in at 8.6 million views.

The most viral video on TikTok is the “Let’s Go” meme of rapper Saweetie walking through the library as she answers the question “How can I support public libraries?” It has more than 3.9 million views.

A creative collaboration

Theater major, cello player and dancer Evan Szymkowski joined the library’s accounting team in early 2022. “We hit Evan up pretty quickly,” says Siemsen-Fuchs. “Can you do a video? Can you do another video?” With Reilly moving on to another job, the two are now the masterminds behind the viral social media account.

Szymkowski and Siemsen-Fuchs wear many hats: generating ideas, recruiting the library’s staff to star in the videos, choosing the locations to shoot, creating practical effects, doing the videography — often on a rolling office chair, setting up the makeup, costuming and sound-design as well as editing. They work on a minimal budget and juggle other full-time jobs at the library at the same time.

In addition to choosing where to shoot — from the sweeping vistas of the central downtown library, dozens of explorable rooms and 12 other library branches — the team picks from a diverse staff of around 300 people to act out the TikToks.

“It’s such a vulnerable thing to put yourself out on social media,” Siemsen-Fuchs notes, explaining that they’re always respectful when asking colleagues to participate and sensitive about coaching them through it. Even better? If a colleague has hidden talents. The two keep an internal checklist: this co-worker does karate, another knows how to skateboard, a third plays the ukulele. “Fawn and I always joke about like, ‘You guys better be careful what you tell us because we might ask you to share it with us in a TikTok video or something!’” chuckles Szymkowski.

Two people smiling
Samer Ghani
Fawn Siemsen-Fuchs and Evan Szymkowski lead the Milwaukee Public Library's viral social media platforms, a side gig to their other full-time jobs at the library.

The TikTok fame has bonded the team. “We do kind of try to throw people together who normally don’t get a chance to work together,” says Siemsen-Fuchs, as staff from far-flung areas of the library get to collaborate. “It's [also] like a conversation starter in the elevator like, ‘Oh, you are Amelia Bedelia’ or something like that. So that's been that's been really nice.”

Love for videos, for Milwaukee, for libraries

Social media users are overflowing with love for the videos, which range from thought-provoking to sensitive to funny. Many support the content team getting a raise. Others thank the library for making their day. The videos have brought international attention to the humble city of Milwaukee, with some global viewers who’ve never visited saying it’s now on their destination list.

“It's been such a wonderful surprise,” says Joan Johnson, director of the Milwaukee Public Library. “We really felt this could be a really great way to help not only elevate just Milwaukee Public Library, but really, as we started hearing that kind of feedback, and we thought, ‘You know, this can help elevate all libraries.’”

Libraries have seen a huge drop in use coming out of the pandemic. They’ve also had staffing shortages. “We had a lot of frontline staff that we lost, and facilities staff, leadership roles,” says Johnson. “It's difficult to rebuild when it's a job seekers market.”

Johnson says while the social media buzz may not be entirely from Milwaukeeans, the library’s central target, she considers it a win even if it’s encouraging people to visit their own libraries down the street.

Philadelphia mom Vivian Camille is one such follower. After one post featured the Milwaukee Public Library’s laptop check-out service, Camille went to her local library to see if they offered that as well. “I was like ‘Hey, I saw on Instagram that you could check out a laptop computer, is that true? And the librarian was like, ‘Yes!’” She says her friend, a stay-at-home mom, had been trying to get a work-from-home job. “And I got the information for her.”

“Everything’s at the library. Why aren’t we using the library more?” she reflects, noting that she and her daughter watch the content together, and it gets them talking. “Definitely during Pride Month, I saw a lot of solidarity. It reminds me that there’s good stuff on the internet. It’s not all bad.”

Inclusivity in a time of book bans

These efforts come at a time when public libraries are facing an increasing number of book challenges, many of them about the LGBTQ community and from writers of color. One user commented on the Pride video: “We just had a library patron stage a protest at our St. Peters Missouri local library because a male librarian was wearing nail polish and makeup. It was wild!”

Another user wrote: “Wish I could’ve done a pride display at our lil library without blowback like none other.”

“In 2022, library staff in every state faced an unprecedented number of attempts to ban books,” says Sonia Alcantara-Antoine, president of the Public Library Association, a division of the American Library Association. “[In 2022] the American Library Association has tracked the highest number of attempted book bans since they began compiling data on library censorship more than 20 years ago.”

“[Book bans are] undemocratic, unpatriotic and un-American,” says Alcantara-Antoine. “We believe that everybody has the right to choose materials that's appropriate for them and their families. What's not appropriate is to make those decisions for other folks who may want to access that information.”

As Evan Szymkowski, one half of the content team at the Milwaukee Public Library, puts it: “You come into the library, and you just know it's a safe space. You know it's a place where you can ask questions, and you won't be judged by those questions. You can read the books that you like to read, and you can exist as who you are. That's what makes it special.”

It’s a message that’s resonating— alongside TikTok’s latest trending sounds.

@milwaukeepubliclibrary The library is a safe place to help you get the resources you need. We have books on sensitive subjects available both in-person and digitally (on the @libby.app and the @hoopladigital app). Need something? Come on in! Helping people is our pleasure and our purpose and we'd love to see you.#Librarian #LibrarianLife #LibrarianStyle #LibrariansOfTikTok #Librarians #LibrariansRock #LibrariansOfBookTok #PublicLibrary #PublicLibraries #Milwaukee ♬ original sound - darcy stokes

Maayan is a WUWM news reporter.
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