The New York Public Library’s YouTube Channel: The Gold Standard

30 Nov

I’m sure it won’t come as a surprise to anyone that the most hip, stylish, and exciting example of library participation on YouTube comes from New York City- at least that I’ve encountered. Indeed, the New York Public Library’s YouTube channel is something for libraries everywhere to aspire to.

Of course, right off the bat I should acknowledge that few libraries in the world have the kinds of resources that NYPL enjoys, and many of its programs are out of the reach of most public libraries. That said, there’s no reason we can’t look to NYPL’s success for inspiration and guidance, and learn from it in order to work similar strategies into our own library 2.0 projects.

Again, perhaps not surprisingly, NYPL’s website is a thing of beauty, both to behold and to use. Its homepage offers a brief but comprehensive menu at the top, where users can easily find and navigate to the “Blogs, Videos & Publications” page. From here, all of NYPL’s blogs and other 2.0 pages are available for users to explore, including a link to its YouTube channel.

Its YouTube page is informative and professional-looking, clearly and effectively separating it from the more low-brow content that YouTube is generally better known for, and that could potentially turn off some patrons. This is also achieved by NYPL having and enabling easy access to its own channel, rather than just posting separate videos to the site that are easier to link or relate to other videos posted by other users, including those with which the library may not wish to be affiliated.

NYPL YouTube channel

http://www.youtube.com/profile?user=NewYorkPublicLibrary#p/u/171/ui5P78HJWmc

This is an important and notable success. There has been much attention paid to the debate about whether libraries belong in social networking spaces, or whether their presences there are inappropriate or uncomfortable for users. This post on Meredith Farkas’ “Information Wants to be Free” blog provides many interesting links on the subject. I would argue that this idea could apply to a site like YouTube as well; most users have fairly specific expectations about what kind of content is found on YouTube, and they usually don’t include serious library materials or subject matter. While it’s no doubt a positive thing that NYPL can contribute to broadening users’ horizons and expectations, and participate in such a pervasive and important method of communication, there also needs to be an effort to strike a balance with different kinds of users and to maintain a level of seriousness with regard to the library’s identity and mandate. We are, after all, talking about public institutions, pedagogical icons dependent on tax-payers’ support and funding.

Anyway, I’m getting off-topic again. Suffice it to say that NYPL does a very good job of striking a balance between conveying a serious, professional image appropriate to a library, and keeping up with the light, social tone of the YouTube community

Moving on to content, the videos themselves are really what impressed me. As I’ve mentioned before, there are far too many examples of libraries (mis)using YouTube, examples that merely confirm growing suspicion that the library is hopelessly out of date and –let’s face it- just… lame. Seneca Library provides an excellent case study:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cMVMgDWnoaA

Videos like this are why I was so relieved and impressed to find the NYPL channel. Its videos demonstrate that libraries really are capable of using Web 2.0 tools to engage with the public and promote the library in authentic and relevant ways, without sacrificing their dignity and professionalism. While libraries should, as many have pointed out, go out and engage with users where they are, they should go out into these (often virtual) spaces with their sense of self-worth still intact. Libraries are inherently valuable and relevant institutions, and they should own this fact not by imitating pop culture they can’t hope to compete with or degrading the complexity of library services, but by presenting themselves in genuine, honest, and respectful ways. Likewise, it does a disservice to users to assume that they can’t or won’t listen to what the library has to say unless it puts a dumbed-down, kitschy spin on its message. Personally, I find many of these videos not only saddening but also condescending and even alienating.

NYPL’s videos, on the other hand, promote the library in ways that feel natural and inoffensive, provide content that is actually informative and useful, and maintain that serious, professional tone that I’ve been going on about. Some are resources in themselves, offering patrons the chance to learn from experts about things like calligraphy without even leaving the house:

http://www.youtube.com/profile?user=NewYorkPublicLibrary#p/u/5/XwUNxsEIP6I

Others provide recaps or behind-the-scenes looks at events and lectures held at the library, promoting attendance and allowing those unable to attend a chance to feel involved. Still others make up television-like series that showcase library-sponsored projects like “Anti-Prom” and “Design by the Book,” which involve members of the community and local events. Some also examine specific resources and collections in the library to promote awareness and increase circulation. All of these are done tastefully while still managing to fit in with the fresh, hospitable, and laid-back spirit of YouTube and Web 2.0.

To any libraries interested in creating a presence for themselves on YouTube, I highly recommend a visit to the NYPL channel first.

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