Linda Poon is an assistant editor at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
The whimsical Insta Novels program wants you to reconsider the roles of libraries and social media.
You might not think to pick up a copy of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland from your local library. But the New York Public Library is willing to bet that if you can access it with the tap of your finger—on an app you probably already have open—you just might find yourself falling deep into the alternate universe dreamed up by Lewis Carroll in his beloved novel.
That’s part of the thinking behind Insta Novels, NYPL’s latest program to bring literary classics to the digital masses. As the name suggests, the library is taking advantage of the popularity and wide reach of Instagram by uploading literary classics in their entirety into the app’s Stories feature—essentially turning the library’s account into a digital bookshelf. The stories live on in the “Highlights” section on NYPL’s Instagram page, so they don’t disappear after 24 hours. The program launched Wednesday with part one of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Two other literary classics are queued up to be added over the next few weeks: the short story “The Yellow Wallpaper,” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and the novella The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka.
If the titles aren’t enough to get you thumbing through the stories, the library also teamed up with the ad agency Mother to find illustrators to bring the stories, and even the words themselves, to life. On one page of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, stars twinkle at the bottom; on another, the words of the Dormouse character scroll up in whimsical fashion, mimicking the tail of a mouse.
The selection of stories was chosen for diversity in subjects and formats, said Richert Schnorr, the director of digital media at NYPL. But they also followed a theme: “There’s a theme that started with Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland about transformation, about not knowing what reality is, and turning things upside down,” he said.
That theme can also describe how libraries have had to adapt to the digital age, and how their roles have changed at a time when literary reading is declining and when social media has become a major disseminator of information—accurate or otherwise. Libraries are now offering more than just books; they’re increasingly connecting communities to the web, and transforming into incubators for startups and refuges for the homeless. They’re dipping their toes into the digital space; before teaming up with Instagram, for example, NYPL launched an e-book app to make their books more accessible, as well as two podcasts.
In a way, it makes sense for NYPL to pivot more toward mobile engagement. The latest research from the Pew Research Center shows that 77 percent of Americans own a smartphone. Zoom into urban areas like New York City, and that number jumps to 83 percent. Meanwhile, Instagram recently hit 1 billion users, giving NYPL the potential to reach people way beyond the city’s borders. (Though, there is a valid argument that such digitizing of the library fails to reach some underserved communities, as Michael D. D. White of Citizens Defending Libraries told the Wall Street Journal.)
At the end of the day, Schnorr said this latest project is to use an element of surprise and whimsy to inspire people to pick up a book, to get them to excited about reading, and to visit their own libraries—if not New York City’s. The project doesn’t go as far as “reinventing the wheel,” he said, but it does turn the idea of social media being a fast-paced medium on its head. The theme of the selections “dovetails so nicely into the concept of transforming this kind of fast, twitching medium into something that’s a little more contemplative and long form,” he told CityLab. “It asks for a little bit more attention from the users.”