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Magazines > Computers in Libraries > September 2014

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Vol. 34 No. 7 — September 2014

Tumblr: Extending the Reach of Library Websites
by Amber Welch

Sharing archival resources, digital collections, books, and special events notices are all examples of how Tumblr can extend the virtual reach of a library website.
Tumblr is a blogging platform that has gained some traction among social media users in recent years. Containing elements of both social networking and blogging, it is frequently referred to as a microblog. Although Tumblr has not gained extensive popularity in the academic library world, there is a strong representation on Tumblr of academic librarians, and there is a growing public and academic library presence on Tumblr. The Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) joined Tumblr in early 2014 and has been using the platform to share images from partner institutions. More recently, President Barack Obama hosted a Q&A via Tumblr, exemplifying the use of Tumblr as a novel communication tool. Sharing archival resources, digital collections, books, and special event notices are all examples of how Tumblr can extend the virtual reach of a library website. The serendipity of finding an inspiring archival image via Tumblr is akin to browsing the shelves and stumbling upon a book that quickly becomes a favorite.

Case Study: Mount Holyoke College

Tumblr can assist libraries in exposing a significantly wider audience to library collections and resources than traditional print and website-only communications, and it can increase the diversity of the audience accessing these resources via social media accounts, particularly among the 18- to 29-year-old demographic, according to a recent Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project report. A 2014 study (in The Journal of Academic Librarianship) examined the use of social networking sites among 833 undergraduate students and found that 25% regularly use microblogs as a source of information and cited them as a social media outlet to watch for increasing relevance as a source of information for college-age consumers (Kyung-Sun, Sei-Ching, & Tien-I, 2014).

Items posted under the Study Abroad tab include photos of foreign lands and travel resources such as subway maps for major cities.

At the beginning of the 2014 spring semester, a student staff member proposed the idea of adding a Tumblr account to the list of social media tools used by the Language Resource Center (LRC) at Mount Holyoke College (MHC), which is a small, liberal arts college with approximately 2,300 students. Library, Information, and Technology Services (LITS) is the on-campus library system at MHC, and it is a blended library and IT organization that supports the campus at large. Many of the service points managed by library staff are located outside the physical space of the library. The LRC is an example of this type of space. A language learning lab that provides technical support to faculty, staff, and students, it is serviced by approximately 12 student staff members and several liaison librarians. In addition to managing a small collection of circulating items and providing technical support, the student staff also contributes to social media accounts including a blog, a Facebook account, a Twitter account, and a YouTube account. These tools are used for the promotion of language-learning resources and events and to share cultural and geographic information that is associated with languages that are taught at MHC.

The staff at MHC is frequently charged with developing outreach initiatives that will align with the interests of current students. As an institution, MHC also prioritizes the goals of engaging alumnae and attracting prospective students through outreach channels. Diversifying outreach initiatives through the use of multiple social media tools can extend the virtual reach of library websites and services and integrate virtual visitors into new virtual and physical worlds. With an attitude of experimentation, the staff member charged with managing the LRC agreed to add Tumblr to the social media ecosystem.

Since its creation, the LRC Tumblr site has increasingly been used as an informal information resource via the “ask me” feature that is managed by student staff. Considering the high population of Tumblr users that fall into the traditional college-age category (18–24), it is worth considering the addition of a Tumblr account to the social media ecosystem of cultural and information organizations.

Student and Staff Roles

From the initial proposal to create a Tumblr account to the design of the landing page and content curation, the LRC student staff spearheaded the development of the Tumblr account and quickly incorporated the account into the social media life cycle of the LRC. Student staff was responsible for creating a first draft of guidelines for internal staff to reference when acquainting themselves with Tumblr posting procedures. These guidelines outline basic steps to be used by all students and staff that contribute to the Tumblr account and provide direction on how to assign tags and add posts to the Tumblr queue. Close monitoring of the Tumblr queue and post tags is vital for ensuring that posts are aligned with the content scope and for increasing the findability of the posts. As previously mentioned, patron communications are funneled through an “ask me” feature and archived with the use of an #ask tag (

The liaison librarian that manages the student staff was responsible for guiding the process of creating a Tumblr account and for ensuring the development of accurate and relevant internal documentation. The initial account creation process included discussing social media strategy and clarifying what constitutes appropriate content. Discussions regarding departmental use of social media were particularly helpful for extending the vision field of the student. Initially, the student that was charged with creating the account viewed Tumblr as an independent virtual space that was affiliated with the LRC, but the student did not recognize that the account also represents the institution at large. Developing increased awareness of complex organizational social media strategy is an important educational opportunity for students, and in the case of the LRC Tumblr project, it led to the development of a more refined visual display of information and more professional header language for the account than was initially proposed.

Suggested Best Practices

If you are considering starting a Tumblr site for your library, you should consult the help documentation that is available via Tumblr ( and use the guidelines below as a starting point. You might also consider doing some basic search engine queries for “search engine optimization” and “Tumblr” to find articles that provide optimization tips for those interested in exploring and using custom coding on their Tumblr site. Here are some quick tips for using Tumblr in a library:

  • Determine the primary target audience(s)
  • Integrate Tumblr into your organizational social media strategy -
  • Develop a content scope for what will be published on Tumblr
  • Create internal guidelines for teams managing and monitoring Tumblr
  • Schedule posts using the queue feature

Social Media and Distributed Teams

Tumblr can be collaboratively managed with the help of distributed or virtual staff. In the case of the LRC, one staff member was charged with Tumblr oversight and, in turn, delegated specific posting activities to other staff members. Staff members post entries into a queue, which is reviewed by the project lead. The LRC queue is set to post daily blog entries between 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. Since the majority of the account management is virtual, a distributed support model could easily be replicated at a public or academic library system that is much larger than MHC. This model holds particular promise for large research or public library systems where branch libraries are the norm.

Although branch libraries generally all report to a central public or university library system, all too frequently social media messaging is fractured by the overuse of social media channels, limited oversight of posting frequency, and lack of content curation. Overuse of social media accounts can result in an overall dilution of the central message that a library system is attempting to communicate to virtual visitors. Funneling multiple voices to one Tumblr page that represents the entire library system is an alternative that could be considered when determining which model of account management might be most effective.

Close monitoring and use of the queue feature can ensure consistency in post frequency and an even distribution of subject matter. Publishing powerful content or stories at high-traffic times provides social media team members with the opportunity to increase the total number of visitors that are connecting with library resources. Through the use of website analytics, library web teams can determine what posts are driving the most visitors back to content hosted on library websites and can advise social media teams as they attempt to determine what time slots should be used for publishing based on the target audience. If most college-age visitors are engaging with Tumblr content between 9 p.m. and 11 p.m., it doesn’t seem wise to post content about special events targeted at this age group at 9:00 a.m.

Tightly editing the total amount of social media communications published can reduce the likelihood of visitors simply ignoring posts because of overabundance. Website analytics can assist web teams in the ongoing assessment of the value of various social media accounts when compared to the amount of energy expended on maintenance. Combined, these approaches can begin to inform the creation or improvement of an organizational social media strategy.


The LRC Tumblr is focused on three primary audiences: current MHC students, prospective MHC students, and language-learning enthusiasts. Current MHC students can use Tumblr as an informal backchannel for language-learning questions they may be hesitant to voice in class, or they can simply follow the account and interact through reblogging. Some classes and campuses have had success with the use of social media as a secondary level of support for learning activities. According to a 2010 EDUCAUSE report, “Hotseat, developed at Purdue University, showed enthusiastic acceptance among students in early pilot studies where 73 percent used the tool, often to ask questions about material that they didn’t feel comfortable asking about publicly in class.” There are numerous examples of classes using Twitter for in-class discourse and information archiving purposes.

In addition to engaging affiliates, microblogs can promote a valuable information exchange and extend discourse to the general public and potential students. Prospective students frequently engage in social media mining as they search for a future academic home. This type of searching informs them about campus culture, allows them to assess the climate of an institution, and helps them determine the potential fit of a college or university campus by connecting with students currently at the institution. The LRC staff observed prospective students connecting on Tumblr through the use of the #ask tag. During the first 5 months that the LRC Tumblr was live and open to the public, student staff made 160 posts, received four questions, and gained 30 followers. This number is expected to increase with the start of the fall 2014 semester when blogging activities resume.

Social Media Strategy

Libraries interested in creating a more visible social media presence should step outside the confines of consulting social media strategy information that is strictly created by or for libraries, museums, archives, or cultural institutions. When developing a social media strategy for your library, consider adopting or modifying strategies that are used by those in the blogging or social media industry. Even though cultural institutions are not profit-driven, there are valuable insights to be gained from for-profit industries when attempting to edit a virtual presence. An interview with Grace Bonney on (After the Jump, Episode 67: “Expressing Your Voice Through Social Media”) is particularly helpful for thinking outside the box about social media strategy and could easily be applied to any institution. Design thinking coupled with strategy will result in pleasurable experiences for virtual guests, will purposefully connect them with content, and will hopefully drive them back to library websites—and perhaps even encourage a library visit.

In addition to reading up on social media strategy, it is worth examining and clarifying what your patrons expect to find from you in online social spaces. Casual conversations and focus groups could shed light on opportunities for virtual growth. Ask patrons to provide specific examples of library collections discovered through social media, and ask them why the discovery was memorable. Cross-referencing website analytics with user interviews will illuminate areas of ambiguity and promote the use of social media in ways that best leverage the power of each tool to help your organization expose collections and increase the use of digital resources.

Beyond the Basics: Media Literacy

One unexpected outcome of the LRC Tumblr pilot was the richness of discussions that occurred during the project planning and blog design phase. Allowing student staff to take a leadership role in the creation and maintenance of a Tumblr account provides an outlet for practicing social media account management on behalf of an organization and fosters critical-thinking skills about social media strategy. “Metaliteracy is especially relevant to this discussion because it expands the standard conception of information literacy to include social media, online communities, and open learning as central concerns. … Metaliteracy, however, makes the connection to technology more overt … by promoting the creative production and sharing of information through collaborative social media” (Jacobson & Mackey, 2013). These experiences can be key for undergraduate students to critically evaluate their participation in team activities and link this experience to professional goals and interests. The students that manage the LRC Tumblr are all encouraged to list the project on their resumes and virtual professional accounts, such as LinkedIn.

Students that assist in the management of a Tumblr account and associated tags can immediately see how information categorization can affect user engagement and content findability. They can assign greater relevance to posts by virtue of assigned tags and can create new pathways to connect visitors to resources managed by the college. Driving Tumblr visitors to the LRC blog is just one example of a pathway that leads virtual visitors from a less academic to a more academic environment in seconds. A slightly more scholarly resource for language learning, the LRC blog frequently receives traffic from both Facebook and Tumblr. Blog posts contain links to collections and resources managed by the MHC library.

The spirit of lifelong learning and knowledge sharing is embodied in a project such as the creation of a Tumblr account for a library, particularly when the implications for future use of social media in and outside the classroom are considered and when students are invited to participate in the process. Libraries should reconceptualize the use of Tumblr as a portal and presentation space for collections and as a backchannel for students and members of the general public. Those charged with social media management in libraries should place social media on the spectrum of valuable outreach initiatives that deserve thoughtful attention rather than seeing social media as an add-on to higher-­priority work. Reverse engineering the way that external audiences discover library collections and communicate with library representatives is just one way of rethinking the way libraries publicize services and resources and harness the power of social media to connect patrons to collections, people, and resources.

Selected Resources

Bonney, Grace. 2014. After the Jump.

Digital Public Library of America’s Tumblr.

EDUCAUSE. 2010. “7 Things You Should Know About…Backchannel Communication.” EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative. Accessed May 9.

Hofer, Amy R., Townsend, Lori, and Brunetti, Korey. 2014. “Troublesome Concepts and Information Literacy: Investigating Threshold Concepts for IL Instruction.” portal: Libraries and the Academy, 12(4): 387–405. Accessed April 17.

Jacobson, T., and Mackey, T. (2013). “Proposing a Metaliteracy Model to Redefine Information Literacy.” Communications in Information Literacy, 7(2): 84–91. Retrieved June 11. article&op=view&path%5B%5D=v7i2p84&path%5B%5D=165.

Kim, Kyung-Sun, Sei-Ching, Joanna Sin, and Tien-I, Tsai. 2014. “Individual Differences in Social Media Use for Information Seeking.” The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 40(2): 171–178. DOI:10.1016/j.acalib.2014.03.001.

Duggan, M., and Brenner, J. 2013. “The Demographics of Social Media Users 2012.” Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project.

Mount Holyoke College’s Language Resource Center’s Tumblr.

Amber Welch ( is an instructional technology consultant in Library, Information, and Technology Services at Mount Holyoke College. In this role, she provides research support to students, faculty, and staff; she also supports the use of technology in the classroom. Welch maintains an online presence at