For Teens, by Teens: TikTok Time

With a scarily accurate algorithm, TikTok will fill up your ‘For You Page’ with an endless scroll of videos tailor-made to your interests and humor. Chances are, if you keep scrolling, you’ll come across a library TikTok.

Illustration of three teens recording making videos on a colorful backdrop.
Do you see the potential for using TikTok as a new way to promote programs? Check in with your teens to see if they can help.

Maybe your library has a TikTok account but you’re not sure how to best use the platform. Do you want to keep the following limited to your patrons or try to appeal to larger audiences? Milwaukee (Wis.) Public Library, for instance, has reached TikTok fame with almost 3 million likes across their videos. #LibraryTok can be used for advocacy, spreading library love among Gen Z-ers, sharing book recommendations and even plugging upcoming programs.

When the teen services librarians at Longwood Public Library in Middle Island, New York realized they weren’t savvy enough to create catchy promotional TikToks, they decided to hand the content creation over to some certified TikTok pros: the teens themselves.

TikTok Time is a new program at Longwood Public Library with a unique approach — teens come to the program to create promotional TikTok videos for the library’s other teen programs. Participants can then earn community service hours in return for their creative marketing skills.

TikTok is second nature to them

“TikTok really blew up when the pandemic was at its worst and our library was closed,” says Shelby Broderick, teen services librarian. Because the pandemic put a pause on programs and school visits, the teen services team at Longwood Library was struggling to reconnect. “We found that, despite posting on Facebook and Instagram, our target population wasn’t interacting with those platforms anymore,” says Broderick. “With TikTok’s new popularity, we decided to start utilizing it as the new place to promote.”

It wasn’t an easy feat, though. “We had a lot to learn about making them,” Broderick laughs. “Last year, when the kids started coming back into the library, we started discussing the idea of having them make the promotional TikToks. Even though it was tricky for us, it’s second nature to them.”

Before the TikTok Time program officially started, the teen services team had an unofficial launch by casually recruiting some teens for an hour on a Friday night. “We brought on teens that were already using the app and were familiar with the content and trends,” says Ashley Sabatino, programming librarian, teen services. “They were producing awesome, funny stuff that we would’ve never come up with on our own. This proved to us that this could be a worthwhile program to continue.”

How TikTok Time works

Participants are placed in groups of three or four, with never more than four people per group. “We want to make sure that everyone is actively engaged and has a piece of the creation that they’re in charge of,” says Sabatino. “Before we start anything, we run through with them what the point of the program is: that the hour and a half is used to make TikToks to promote our other teen programs."

Sabatino says that they place an emphasis on how the TikToks produced from the program shouldn’t be what they would normally post on their personal accounts. That means taking into account what type of music they use and what kinds of trends they might follow.

Once participants understand the goals, each group is assigned to an upcoming program to promote. Sabatino has created a worksheet to help participants organize their thoughts before the recording begins. It also helps to limit any chaos that can happen.

When the worksheet is completed, the groups must get their ideas approved by a librarian in case anything needs to get filtered out before recording begins.

Props aren’t necessary but can help if groups get stumped along the way. “While they are filling out the worksheet, I’ll usually take out some props for them to get the wheels turning,” says Sabatino. “When we did a TikTok for our Dog Toys for Donation program, I pulled some sample dog toys that teens had made and brought in some stuffed animal dogs for them to work with.”

No “uh oh posts” guaranteed

With an app like TikTok, creativity is endless. But so are the red flags.

Library staff takes steps to ensure the final videos remain appropriate for the library’s official TikTok account.

“It’s an important first step to have the librarian OK the worksheet,” says Sabatino. “But sometimes that’s not enough. The names of audio trends can be inappropriate – even if the sound itself is fine, the name that comes up on the screen can contain curse words or other inappropriate phrases that are not needed on our library’s account. Things like that need to be double-checked.”

To guarantee that unfinished posts aren’t accidentally published, the recording is done on the library’s iPads and saved in a private dummy TikTok account. “If you do a program like this at your library, make sure that the dummy account is private,” Sabatino advises, “as teens can find anything, even if the account has no followers.”

At the end of TikTok Time, the groups save their final videos as drafts in the dummy account and then gather to watch them together. Before leaving, participants receive QR codes to the official library account so they can watch the final versions once they are published by library staff.

Broderick is the one in charge of posting the final TikToks, usually on the day registration for the promoted program opens. “Before I upload the final video, I check for things like the clarity of the audio and add a caption with more details on the program,” she says. “I don’t spend too much time editing the video content because we want it to remain an original creation of the teens.” Once the video is out in the world, Broderick says that they don’t go too “hashtag heavy.” “We’d be happy for it to reach anybody,” she says. “But these TikToks are mainly aimed at the teens in our community.”

Empowering teens through creativity

At this point, the library is doing TikTok Time every other month with new and repeat participants filling the 12-seat capacity. With so much popularity, the librarians don’t see the program ending any time soon. “I’d love to have someone come to a program because they saw a TikTok promoting it,” says Sabatino.

Broderick and Sabatino have their favorite TikToks — a lightsaber fight to promote the Advanced Division Battle of the Books program and a video that uses only puppets.

"It's empowering for the teens to take this on,” says Broderick. “They have lots of creativity to offer!”

With so many teens getting told by adults that social media and TikTok are a waste of time, this program adds something useful to it.

“They might not know it right away,” Broderick says, “but the teens are learning some great creative marketing skills with this program that really benefit the library. That’s why we offer community service.”

“They love that we aren’t taking this too seriously. If the video is too goofy for us adults to understand, that’s all good,” says Sabatino. “We want the videos to be clearly made by them and for them. I’s TikTok.”