When was the last time you read a book? If you’re like 27% of American adults, you haven’t read a book (in whole or in part) this past year. But when was the last time you checked Instagram? If you’re anything like 63% of the social network’s users, you’ve already scrolled through your feed at least once today.
Recognizing this disparity and the new stronghold technology has on our everyday lives, the New York Public Library set out to rewrite the way modern readers consume the written word.
Partnering with the creative agency Mother New York, the library’s digital media team created Insta Novels, essentially “hacking Instagram to reimagine the art of reading.” Using Instagram Stories—a format typically reserved for fleeting footage from last night’s dinner out or a beauty blogger’s makeup haul—the team began uploading something they had no shortage of at the library: stories.
Suddenly, followers of the New York Public Library’s Instagram account could access entire works of iconic literature via their Instagram feed. Each Story contained the full literary text, original illustrations and pages designed specifically for Instagram.
As host Lulu Garcia-Nacarro explained in a segment for NPR, “The Insta Novel texts are the same as what you'd read in a musty volume from the public library stacks. But thanks to design firm Mother NYC, they also offer a visual reward,” she said. “Wax rolls down a candlestick on the screen as readers page through the Charles Dickens Christmas classic. The famous nevermore flashes in bold face as the verses of Edgar Allen Poe's ‘The Raven’ fly by.”
Since launching in August 2018, they’ve posted five works of literature on Instagram: "Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland," "The Yellow Wallpaper," "The Raven," "Metamorphosis" and "A Christmas Carol."
And the response has been tremendous. In addition to winning Webby awards for the project, the library has grown its Instagram follower base by 155,000, or roughly 75%. The five Insta Novels have been read more than 300,000 times.
What’s more, the Insta Novels project exemplifies how a 120-year-old institution can embrace technology to appeal to new and wider audiences. As Richert Schnorr, the library’s director of digital media, said in an interview with Adweek, “We’ve been around a long time, and we have a reputation. So when we sort of subvert expectations, I think it really delights people.”
If the reaction of this anonymous reader is any indication, the library’s plan is working: “Even though I might not read a whole book via Insta Novels, I did feel inspired to pick up a physical book. Reading the snippet from Lewis Carroll's "Alice In Wonderland" reminded me of how much I enjoy getting absorbed into a book.”
For all those who see young people on their smartphones as cause to bemoan the death of literature, the New York Public Library would like a word with you.
For Lynn Lobash, manager of reader services at the New York Public Library, that’s precisely why Insta Novels appeals to her, as well. “The thing that I like the most about this project is that it would produce this moment where you would, you know, be looking at your feed and say, oh, yeah—and sort of sink into the book and be like, I remember—I really like reading,” Lobash said. “Like, I remember this feeling. Maybe I hadn't done it in a while. And then that surprise would lead you to, you know, read something else. And this, like, catching fire of the habit again was my favorite part of the project.”
So, the next time you see a young person fixated on her smartphone, eyeballing her Instagram account, perhaps it’s best to reserve judgment. After all, instead of “liking” yet another cute puppy pic, she may in fact be absorbed in a classic work of literature. If she’s following the New York Public Library, she may have taken them up on their invitation to “join them down the rabbit hole” to read “Alice's Adventures in Wonderland” in a whole new way.
And if you’re one of the 27% of adults who’s long overdue for some quality time with a book, maybe you should take a trip down that rabbit hole, yourself. Simply head to the library’s Instagram account, where the literary works can be accessed via the highlighted stories.
The folks behind Insta Novels have a hunch you’ll really “like” it.