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Magazines > Marketing Library Services > March/April 2024

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MLS - Marketing Library Services
Vol. 38 No. 2 — Mar/Apr 2024
Bringing the Archives to Life Through Short-Form Video
by Keith Kesler
Krystal Ruiz monitors the equipment while recording a video with map librarian Peter Hauge at Los Angeles Public Library.

Krystal Ruiz monitors the equipment while recording a video with map librarian Peter Hauge at Los Angeles Public Library.

On a Mediterranean cruise, a German immigrant with a passion for photography meets the love of his life. They move to Los Angeles during the Depression, making a home there and obsessively documenting the city during this pivotal time in its history. Always looking for adventure, this German photographer takes a solo trip to the South American jungle, never to return. His wife continues to live alone in the house they designed together, never remarrying.

No, this isn’t the plot for a new fictional bestseller, but instead the true-life story of one of the photographers featured in our archives. Casually searching through your library archive, it may appear like a collection of old documents and dusty black-and-white photos, but there are fascinating stories you can bring to life and share to the community through social media (https://www.instagram.com/p/Czuezx9PWqn).

My name is Keith Kesler, and I manage the social media for Los Angeles Public Library (LAPL), which serves 3.8 million people via 73 libraries across the city. I started working in library social media more than a decade ago, and it’s been a fascinating ride, seeing social media develop from a curiosity that was handed off to an intern to the primary way the library communicates with the public.

When I started in social media, the extent of my interest in our archive was quickly searching for a photo to post for #ThrowbackThursday or hoping to find something that would work for #internationalcatday. Those were simpler times with substantially lower expectations. Things evolve, and the engagement for single-photo posts has continued to decline as short-form video has become the ticket to higher engagement. But what kind of video content can we create when so much of an archival collection consists of images?

Humble Beginnings

I’ll answer that, but first some backstory. My introduction to the archives at LAPL came when I posted an external article on our Facebook about special paperback editions that were created for soldiers in World War II. Seeing this post, the manager of the history department wrote to me to say that our library had these books in our collection, and there was no need to use an external article when we had staffers who were willing to write and speak on the topic.

Although this wasn’t the greatest of terms for an introduction, I took up the offer to meet with Kelly Wallace, our California history librarian, to learn more about the contents of our collection. While going through the archive and hearing all of the background, it became evident that highlighting it with static photos wouldn’t cut it. To tell these stories, video would be the best medium. That was the beginning of my journey creating short-form video content about the archive. Don’t judge, but here’s how I got started: https://www.facebook.com/lapubliclibrary/videos/10155008289666114.

It's vital to find a spot with the right lighting, as author Keith Kesler demonstrates in this series of photos.

It’s vital to find a spot with the right lighting, as author Keith Kesler demonstrates in this series of photos.

The Real Work Is in the Planning

Generally, when I talk to people about creating video, they immediately jump to technical questions about camera gear and editing, but that’s skipping about seven steps ahead. Before I even start shooting, most of the work is done, so let’s dive into the planning process.

Before I get into any of the details of what to record, I like to meet with the library staff member for a tour of the collection to get an idea about the scope of what we hold, while making sure to note what personally excites them about the collection. After the overview, I like to brainstorm with the staffer on all of the video topics they may be interested in recording. Knowing that the videos will generally be less than 2 minutes in length, we often break down larger, more in-depth topics into several videos.

At this point, we’ll have a whole host of choices, so we try to narrow it down to one or two videos. I like to start with what the staff member feels most comfortable speaking about or something that may be timely that we can highlight with our collection. Once the choice is made, I provide the tried-and-true template I’ve perfected over the years:

  1. Catchy hook or question about the topic
  2. Introduce yourself with name and title
  3. Body of the video with three items from the collection
  4. Conclude with how people can learn more

This isn’t set in stone, and sometimes I’ll mix the order or drop one step, but, generally, having a basic template written out will ease the staff members’ anxiety about participating in a video. (If they really don’t want to be on camera, that’s fine; I mention other options later in the article.) The other side benefit is the template helps ensure that the scope of the interview doesn’t grow beyond what can be covered in a few minutes. To see the template in action, look at this quick video about the bond that was put on the ballot in 1921 to fund the Central Library: https://www.instagram.com/reel/CqEBmTDAzX9.

Let’s go over each of the steps of the template a little bit more. If you look at the analytics of almost all of your videos, there will be a steep drop-off around the 6-second mark. No matter how engaging the video, this will always be the case, but my goal is to keep as many eyeballs on the content as possible. That’s why the first 6 seconds of a video are the most important and are critical to making or breaking it. I try to create a hook that will pull in the viewer. This may be a question, an interesting fact, or a fascinating visual.

Next up is a short introduction. The goal is to make the staff member relatable and give some cachet to the content. Anyone can talk about the history of a city, but this video is coming from the expert on the subject. For the body of the video, I try to keep each section tight and avoid going off on tangents. We all love librarians, but there can be a tendency to get into the weeds and lose the top-level story. I try to put myself in the shoes of viewers and think about what they might find most interesting. Finally, I conclude the video with a call to action, such as “View more in our online archive” or “Stop by the library to view the collection in person.”

Not leaving anything to chance, I like to scout out my locations and visit at the exact time of day we are planning to record. Does that seem like a little much? Well, what I’m looking for is a relatively quiet area, an interesting background, and light shining on the subject rather than behind them. I don’t know if those conditions exist unless I visit at the exact time scheduled for the recording.

Equipment (or Lack Thereof)

Now for the popular topic of equipment. In all honesty, I personally use a Sony FX3 camera with a 24–70 mm Sony G Master lens, a Sennheiser AVX wireless lavalier microphone to capture sound, and an Aputure 120d for lighting. Some may consider this overkill for social media videos, but I have my standards.

But by no means should a lack of equipment scare you away from creating content, and as you probably know, all you really need is a phone to get going. That being said, there are a few small investments that you can make to level up your equipment. If I could only buy one thing, I’d invest in a tripod to hold the phone steady and in place. Second would be a Bluetooth lavalier microphone to improve the sound. Third, I’d choose a small LED light to make it easier to shoot in various locations. Only after I had all of those pieces of equipment would I jump from a phone to a camera.

Now for the video settings: Your phone is probably already 90% of the way there out of the box, but it’s good to double-check. You should record in 4K at 30 fps, and I think the image looks more natural with HDR turned off. Everybody in cinema initially fought vertical video, but for social media, the debate is over: Shoot vertical to get the most amount of real estate in the feed. With those settings in place, you should be good to go.

The simple setup of a phone on a tripod, a wireless microphone, and an LED light

The simple setup of a phone on a tripod, a wireless microphone, and an LED light

The Day of the Shoot

The big day has arrived. I always show up early to the location to get my equipment set up ahead of time. Having everything ready to go lets me focus on the subject and overall lowers the stress level for everyone. Instead of jumping right into the recording, I like to talk through all of the template steps to help the staff member feel more comfortable. I explain that we don’t need to nail it on the first try. There’s also no need to do the whole video in one continuous take. I find that pausing after each section helps the staffer feel less overwhelmed and makes it easier to really dial into each part of the video.

Once the recording starts, I have two big responsibilities: to make sure everything technically looks good and to ensure that the content is coming across. I sometimes provide feedback and ask follow-up questions. I’ve found that the best take usually isn’t the first and that subjects tend to get more comfortable as the shoot goes along.

What ends up happening most often is that we need to condense sections and remove unnecessary details. What I’m striving for is the clearest and simplest explanation. I also try to keep in mind that the more work I do now trying to get the cleanest interview, the less time I’ll spend editing. Once everyone is happy with all of the takes, I grab some photos and video of the items discussed. These can be overlayed when I edit the video to give viewers a closer look at items discussed and to break up the monotony of one person talking into the camera.

I can hear MLS readers saying, “That’s all fine and good, but I can’t find anyone who wants to be on camera.” Do not fear, all is not lost. Some of my most popular videos have actually been shot in point of view (POV) style with a voiceover instead of showing someone on camera. In that situation, everything will be pretty much the same as discussed earlier, but instead of capturing footage of a person, I’ll focus on recording the items. When I go this route, I need to be more creative in shooting to keep viewers’ interest. Another side benefit of this style of video is that the staff member can write out and just read the script for the video since they aren’t on camera.

Here’s an example of a POV video that looks at directories for the early internet: https://www.instagram.com/p/Cyg_eWGynFz.

Putting It All Together

I use Final Cut Pro to edit all of my videos. Professional editing software really gives you the most options to go in and tweak small details and to have the most flexibility, but I know that’s not an option for everyone. If it’s not banned in your state, I actually find that TikTok has one of best mobile editing interfaces, but another free alternative is CapCut. Both CapCut and TikTok have visual interfaces that make editing as easy as possible, and they are available for free in the Apple and Google app stores.

The first step in the editing process is taking a look at everything I’ve recorded and picking the best take for each section. Once that’s done, I add the clips to the timeline and make small adjustments to the start and end time to remove pauses. Next, I overlay the photos and videos of the items, and the piece should be taking shape. For an example of how it can look all put together, this is a video on the Brockman Gallery archive: https://www.instagram.com/reel/CzUk2dIP9IN.

One piece I can’t forget about is captioning the video. Captioning serves the super important goal of making a video ADA accessible so anyone can understand and enjoy the content. The side benefit is that captioning also increases engagement because so many people view videos on social with the sound turned off. The good news is that both Instagram and TikTok now offer decent captioning options in their apps, but the feature can be slightly confusing. I never rely on the auto captions but instead find the “editable caption” option and make sure to go over the text carefully, since there are bound to be errors.

Once the video captions look good, there’s only one more step: Craft the text for the post, focusing on giving some background to entice views and encourage comments. It never hurts to ask the audience what they found most interesting or if they have other topics they’d like to see covered.

The Final, Post-Posting Tasks

Even after I post the video, my job isn’t completely done yet. I always monitor the comments to see if people have questions or suggestions for future content. Responding to comments is a great way to fuel engagement, and, in turn, increase your reach.

The other work to be done after the video posts is reflecting back on the process and analyzing the data. Even to this day, I find that after finishing a video, there are always a few things I wish I could have done differently. To enable constant improvement, I make note of the areas I want to work on so I can focus on cleaning up those details for my next project. I also analyze the data to see what story it tells. Maybe there’s a section where viewership drops off, and I’ll look to see what I could have done differently to keep the viewers. I also like to compare the stats of my video posts to those of photos. On average, I’ve found that my videos reach twice as many people—but more importantly, they receive seven times as many comments, indicating a deeper level of engagement with our followers.

Jumping into these types of videos can seem intimidating, but remember, nobody is ever perfect on their first go-around. Creating these short videos can bring the library’s collection to life and can build engagement not only online, but also by bringing people into the library to see the treasures for themselves.

In this screenshot of editing in CapCut, the footage of the interview is overlayed with a photo from the collection.

In this screenshot of editing in CapCut, the footage of the interview is overlayed with a photo from the collection.

Keith Kesler is a librarian at Los Angeles Public Library in California. He holds an M.L.S. from San Jose State University in California. Kesler has worked in social media for a decade and has had his work featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Rolling Stone, and the Los Angeles Times. He’s also won two Webby Awards for the Linda Lindas video of “Racist, Sexist Boy.” His email address is keslerkeith@gmail.com.
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