Hyperlinked Librarian

How to Make the Library “Go Viral” in Six Easy(ish) Steps

Posted on: September 14, 2019

Public libraries today not only provide access to materials, but also act as a community hub for learning and connecting. However, many people still view the brand of the library in limited terms of “library=books.” This narrow perspective is problematic for libraries, which actually have so much more to offer than books. How can we rebrand the library so that when people think of the library, they think of the many valuable services it offers? How can we show people that the library is “the place to be”? In other words, what can librarians do to get the library to catch on?

In his book Contagious: Why Things Catch On, Jonah Berger (2013) explains why some things catch on – or why things become popular, viral, and trendy – and other things fail to do so. Berger asserts that products and services that “go viral” tend to have six things in common when they are marketed: social currency, triggers, emotion, public visibility, practical value, and stories.

Libraries need to tap into Berger’s core principles that make things catch on. A focus on participatory culture could be the key to libraries’ success. If libraries partner with current users, more interest and popularity could be stirred up. The following paragraphs outline three examples of ways to make things go viral, which are paired with Library 2.0 principles. Fusing Berger’s tenets of virality with Library 2.0 principles has the potential to make library services catch on.  

Social Currency and Radical Trust

Part of participatory service includes “radical trust” (Stephens, n.d.). In this service model, users are encouraged to participate based on a foundation of trust. Radical trust can be observed in libraries experimenting with automated self-service technology, like Gwinnett County (Ga) Public Library (GCPL), which opens its doors to the public before normal hours of operation. The idea of self-service relates to social currency because of its exclusivity. Social currency refers to how we share things to make ourselves look interesting or “in the know” in social settings. Exclusivity makes people feel like insiders, which is a type of social currency (Berger, 2013, p. 51). Only people with library cards can get into the Gwinnett County Public Library after hours. Exclusivity therefore creates an incentive for people to get library cards and use library services before the library is open to the rest of the public. For this type of social currency to work in libraries, however, radical trust – a product of participatory service – must be present.  

Practical Value and Reaching New Users

According to Berger, “people like to pass along practical, useful information” (Berger, 2013, p. 158). Moreover, people like to share information that will help out a buddy or two (ibid). This is why YouTube videos that depict practical information often go viral. Not surprisingly, practical value also includes saving a few dollars (Berger, 2013, p. 160). A good example of libraries tapping into the power of practical value is Rock County Library’s (Mn.) receipts, which display how much money the patron saved by borrowing books from the library. Showcasing money saved is exemplary of Library 2.0 because it is a way to potentially reach out to new users (Casey & Savastinuk, 2007. p. 37). If someone shares how much they saved at the library – perhaps via text, Facebook, or Instagram – the library has effectively used its current patrons to advertise library services.

Stories and Participatory Culture

Berger states that “Stories […] give people an easy way to talk about products and ideas” (Berger, 2013, p. 189). The author describes a story as a type of “trojan horse” that transmits information (ibid). Thus, libraries need to encourage people to tell their stories relating to library services. The Pikes Peak Library District (Co.) (PPLD) tries to home in on this idea of storytelling through its website. On PPLD’s main page, there is a link that says, Share Your Library Story! Below the link there are blog entries of people who have participated in the website’s storytelling feature. By drawing upon participatory service, whereby consumers are transformed into participants, PPLD has created a space where people can tell their stories about the library. People who visit the library’s website who notice the stories will ideally be drawn in enough to try out a service at the library.


Contagious provides a way for libraries to catch on, to become popular, to become the next new thing. If libraries can combine Library 2.0 principles, like participatory service, with marketing strategies like the ones Berger discusses, then they might be able to change their own brand from “library=books” to “library=people.”


Berger, J. (2013). Contagious: Why things catch on. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

Casey, M. E., & Savastinuk, L. C. (2007). Library 2.0: A guide to participatory library service. Medford, N.J: Information Today.

Stephens. (n.d.). The hyperlinked library: Participatory service and transparency. [Lecture].

Picture Credits

Contagious book cover. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/15801967-contagious

Gwinnett County Public Library (n.d.). Key to Library. Retrieved from https://americanlibrariesmagazine.org/2019/09/03/automatic-people-self-service-libraries/

Hamaiti, B. (n.d.). Dandelion blowing. Retrieved from https://fineartamerica.com/featured/2-dandelion-blowing-bess-hamiti.html

Rock County Library. (n.d.). Receipt. Retrieved from http://rockcountycommunitylibrary.org/

Pikes Peak Library District. (n.d.). A million stories. Retrieved from https://ppld.org/whats-new/share-your-library-story

5 Responses to "How to Make the Library “Go Viral” in Six Easy(ish) Steps"

I might need to also read this book! I think you did a great job of connecting viral media and libraries. I didn’t realize it before now, but when something that a library is doing goes viral, it definitely makes people more likely to go there. The example with the receipt of how much a person saved by using the library is probably exceptionally popular since people love saving money, especially when they don’t have to spend any money to do so.

Hi Melina,

I love your idea that libraries using a participatory approach to their services could shift the paradigm of “library=books” to “library=people”. Reading it made me think of Bryan Kenney’s piece “The User Is (Still) Not Broken” where he says “we are not a format, we are a service.”

The examples you presented for ways that libraries are already using participatory services were interesting. In fact, Rock County Library’s receipt showing how much money a patron saved by using the library is pretty clever. I am forever telling people to use the library; it’s such an amazing resource! Maybe if more folks saw a receipt like that it would help to drive home what a service the library provides.

Hi Melina, great post! I particularly liked your example of the receipt paper with . My library has been doing this for about a year and the patrons LOVE the feature. It’s a great example of the library making a unique connection to people. Thanks for sharing!

Hello Melina,

I think you post wonderful questions indeed! It’s something libraries really do need to think about. These days we have access to incredible technology and that’s when libraries really need to get creative.

I like learning and getting inspiration from many resources and this sounds like a wonderful resource indeed. It’s easy to get stuck and think well what can I do? That’s when reading a book like this can help.

I loved learning about the three examples you shared and they certainly are a great blend between what we’re learning from our lectures and foundational reading and the text you chose.

One of the ideas you shared that I appreciate is practical value and reaching new users. I loved the photo you shared with the example of ‘you saved _insert monetary amount here_’ I love that because it feels like you’re saving money! I’m a bit silly that way so I love the creativity. I love Rock County Library for doing that. It’s a great way to get people to use the library and have more fun doing it.

Thanks for sharing the Pikes Peak Library District’s Share Your Library Story! Do you happen to know if they’re collecting these stories for a project and intend on displaying them to the public?

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