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Milwaukee Public Library is gaining global attention because of its social media


Libraries in recent years have had to deal with a staffing shortage and controversies over what books should be on their shelves. The public library system in Milwaukee decided to use humor and some very popular social media posts to try to get past that trouble. Maayan Silver from member station WUWM in Milwaukee reports.

MAAYAN SILVER, BYLINE: In between mindless scrolling on TikTok and Instagram, some videos just stand out. The Milwaukee Public Library's video about manga, those Japanese graphic novels, shows an older woman checking out the books. A message flashes on the screen. You're 78. You can't read manga. Her response? I'm 90. She sticks her tongue out, flips the bird - you know, that rude hand gesture. Then she walks away with the book. The masterminds behind the video are Fawn Siemsen-Fuchs and Evan Szymkowski. The video features Siemsen-Fuchs' grandmother, Betty Siemsen.

FAWN SIEMSEN-FUCHS: She has a history of flipping the bird, so we thought it was a natural addition (laughter).

EVAN SZYMKOWSKI: It was too good (laughter).

SILVER: Szymkowski says that post garnered more than 8 million views and nearly a million likes on Instagram alone.

SZYMKOWSKI: It resonated with a lot of people...


SZYMKOWSKI: ...I feel like - the whole video. Yeah.

SILVER: The library's TikTok and Instagram accounts have more than 250,000 followers. One user calls it their favorite non-dog Instagram account, another - the greatest artistic collective of our time. And Siemsen-Fuchs and Szymkowski work to apply a Gen Z sensibility to their creations, especially when it comes to historical figures. So in one video, there's Siemsen-Fuchs portraying the Russian mystic Rasputin with wild hair and a long black beard. She does some spirited dance steps and creeps out a woman who's reading a book.

SZYMKOWSKI: You practiced beforehand - right? - the day beforehand in your driveway (laughter)...

SIEMSEN-FUCHS: I did practice (laughter).

SZYMKOWSKI: ...With your husband and your daughter (laughter).


BONEY M: (Singing) Ra-Ra-Rasputin, lover of the Russian queen...

SILVER: And then there's that fake spider used to highlight Stephen King novels.

SIEMSEN-FUCHS: We'll have comments on our videos like, oh, the production value and, like, their budget must have gone up. It's like, nope.


SIEMSEN-FUCHS: It sure hasn't.

SZYMKOWSKI: Someone was on top of a ladder to...

SIEMSEN-FUCHS: Yeah (laughter).

SZYMKOWSKI: ...Make the spider look like it was crawling up a wall.




SILVER: It may all seem like fun and games, but Siemsen-Fuchs and Szymkowski are working to counter controversy surrounding libraries, including the fight over book bans. So in one of the library's posts, the local women's roller derby team, the Brew City Bruisers, skates through the library after hours holding targeted books.


WEEZER: (Singing) I'll eat my candy with the pork and beans...

SILVER: A message flashes - keep your bans off our books. Szymkowski says some posts promote the library's services while others show how inclusive the library is.

SZYMKOWSKI: You come into the library, and you just know it's a safe space. You know it's a place where you can ask questions, and you won't be judged by those questions. You can read the books that you like to read, and you can exist as who you are.

SILVER: The videos have gotten some Milwaukeeans to visit for the first time ever, say library staff, and comments on the videos show they've inspired people elsewhere to visit their own local libraries. Vivian Camille is one of them. The Philadelphia mom follows the Milwaukee Library's social media accounts with her 10-year-old daughter.

VIVIAN CAMILLE: It brings up conversation between us, you know? Like, she'll be like, Mom, what book is that? Or, like, what are they talking about?

SILVER: And the videos have made Milwaukee a top destination.

CAMILLE: I would love to just take a trip to Milwaukee, me and my little girl, and just tour that library 'cause, yeah, it's rocking.

SILVER: That's just what Milwaukee's library staff likes to hear. For NPR News, I'm Maayan Silver in Milwaukee.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Maayan Silver is an intern with WUWM's Lake Effect program. She is a practicing criminal defense attorney, NPR listener and student of journalism and radio production.
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