Instagram Tips for Small Public Libraries – Photos

There are a lot of factors to consider when running a public library’s Instagram account: content, style, captions, frequency of posts, hashtags, stories, and engagement with users. But the most immediately impactful aspect is the quality of your photos.

Most of the people who run their library’s social media accounts do not have degrees in photography, communication, or marketing – especially if the library is a small one. For some people, it might be the first time they ever post on Instagram. It’s hard to compete with all the other organizations vying for followers’ attentions when you don’t know what you’re doing.

I’m not a social media expert, but I am a millennial with a degree in rhetoric. I started an Instagram account at my previous library, and conducted regular analysis of the engagement. Through that experience I learned a lot about what works. Overall I learned to assess the busyness of the photo, the feature of the photo, and the professionalism of the photo. Followers should be able to glance at your photo for a split second and a) find it pleasing and stylish and b) know what the photo is about. Ideally they would also c) feel compelled to use the library more or d) strengthen their positive perception of the library.

This post is for anyone who finds themselves posting on their public library’s Instagram account – particularly small libraries. Below are my tips for posting engaging, impressive photos, even if you have little to no experience! All of the examples are photos that I took using my phone.

Use a Lightbox

The best I did to improve my library Instagram posts was to buy a portable light studio. You can also make one yourself using led strip lighting, a large cardboard box, and white/black fabric.

It allows you to take well-lit photos that focus exclusively on the subject. I used this for promoting workshop or craft events, where the final product was the big draw. It also allows you to take a high quality photo of something, and easily remove the background for adding to posters.

You wouldn’t want ALL your Instagram posts to be using the light box, but it can close up elevate photos that you would otherwise take on your desk.

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Limit text in your photos

You have the entire caption to write whatever you want. Keep text out of your pictures as much as possible. Followers are looking for a satisfying image that captures their attention, and are likely to scroll past a photo block of text. This means no photos or screen shots of your event posters. Instead take a photo of the sample craft, or an item related to the event. Of course text is going to slip through from time to time, but try not to make it a habit. The Instagram algorithm might even push your text-heavy photos down on the timeline, and followers might miss them entirely.

Consider the lighting

In my experience, natural lighting always wins. If your program room has terrible lighting and no windows, you’re going to need to get creative. Buy photography lights. Take pictures outside, or in the library by a window. Worst case scenario, use a photo editing app to lighten the photo. Just don’t post dark photos.

Feature one main colour in the background

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Having one main background colour signals to the viewer that the photo is stylish and thoughtfully planned out. It will also draw attention to your featured item. Think of how your profile will look as a whole. The simpler the images are, the more inviting and informative it will look. Potential followers should be able to glance at your profile grid and immediately get a sense of your library’s “personality,” without being confronted by too much busier.

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This is the grid from my professional librarian Instagram, @ontarianlibrarian

Find patterns

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Post from Tween Club Taste Test Challenge – the gross out round.

Symmetrical patterns are pleasing to the human brain. Take advantage of psychology when you can! Finding a satisfying pattern in your library is a goldmine.

If you have a busy background, make sure one simple item is featured

Sometimes you just can’t help it. You’re going to be in a place where you can’t find a pleasing, simple background for a photo. What you can do is find a simple item, hold it close to the camera, and focus on it so the busy background blurs a bit.

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If you’re taking photos of people, only post if the subject a) agreed to the photo, b) will be happy with the photo, c) is bringing energy to the shot, and d) is well framed.

Pay attention to where the photo crops on the subject – ideally you want them to be balanced in the photo with a decent amount of space between them and the edges of the photo. Usually you want a legitimately excited look on their face, and an action shot (a kid laughing during storytime, a tween posing mid pizza bite, a parent reading to their child). And of course you want their permission to post the photo, and you want them to be happy with how they look. I found that photos of people participating with the library with genuinely joyful looks on their faces were the most successful posts overall.

Don’t post blurry photos ever

I don’t know who needs to hear this but: Just don’t. Even if it’s the only photo you got from an event. The library is an organization, not a personal account. Your followers see you on par with other businesses they follow – all of which probably have dedicated social media teams. Hold yourself to a high standard, and your followers will take you seriously.

Don’t post photos where there is no featured item

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This is not a good image for Instagram. There are too many things to look at, it’s not balanced, and it is slightly blurry.

A photo of your program from a distance, or a general shot of the room might be a good way to document an event, but it doesn’t make for an engaging Instagram shot. People are scrolling through hundreds of images. They should be able to glance at your photo for half a second and know what it’s all about.

Don’t post book covers every day

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It’s an easy way to fill an Instagram post requirement, but it’s not enough. If you are going to post book covers, make sure you have good lighting and an interesting background that compliments the cover. And ensure that the entire cover is present in the photo, not partially cropped off. If you need ideas, just look at #bookstagram.

Basically, be creative and have a good time.

Whether you know it or not, your library has a “brand,” or a “personality.” Your social media presence is a part of that brand. Every time you post, ask yourself if you are contributing positively to your story. For example, a well-framed photo of a toddler excitingly playing with your interactive wall conveys a sense of welcoming, wholesomeness, playfulness, and education. A blurry photo of a dark program room with no clear featured item conveys a sense of chaos, unprofessionalism, and drabness. Some elements of library personality that you might want to convey are: fun, knowledgeable, innovative, professional, exciting, creative. (I’m working on a blog post about marketing for small libraries, so look out!)

Other resources for libraries using Instagram:

This post focused on posting impressive and engaging photos. What other topics related to Instagram posts would you be interested in?

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