Creativity + Collaboration at Milwaukee Public Library
It all started with deciding to employ a different social media approach: dreaming up engaging content first and finding ways to tell stories about the eclectic offerings of the Milwaukee Public Library system through that content. As the team of employees across different departments embarked down this path to try to drive reengagement with Milwaukee libraries after pandemic lockdown, they were encouraged by leadership to think outside the box, to lean in to their creativity and the collaborative process.
Today, the MPL boasts over a 100,000 social media followers on Instagram, and has many videos with millions of views and likes. The productions are spearheaded by Fawn Siemsen-Fuchs and Evan Syzmkowski, but they are a team effort.
Together, library staffers across many areas ideate, work, plan and create. They act as prop people, performers, videographers (using iPhone cameras) and directors. Drawing on topical trends on social media, the staffers capitalize on their talents and the popularity of themes and use them to leverage and showcase aspects of the library system.
The goal of these videos is to, in City Librarian Joan Johnson’s words, “to elevate all libraries” and broadcast them as vibrant cultural spaces. But the MPL’s creativity doesn’t end with social media. In fact, it’s just the tip of an iceberg. Milwaukee Zinefest, presented in partnership with the Bindery, makerspaces for artists, and regular exhibitions of art created by community members; these are just a few of the successful artistic programs that the libraries host. Today, MPL even has a secondary Instagram dedicated entirely to creativity — MPLCreates.
In the conversation below, Creative MKE host Elisabeth Gasparka and MPL's Joan Johnson, Fawn Siemsen-Fuchs and Evan Syzmkowski discuss the fact that, though Milwaukee may not be known worldwide (yet) for its arts scene, those who live here understand that Milwaukee is a community brimming with an abundance of creative energy and output. The endless supply of music, murals, artists of many disciplines in this community together provide natural fodder to support the work of MPL. But, the library still needs the public to engage beyond social media as the future of its funding hangs in the balance.
You can help! Share feedback about the Milwaukee Public Library system through their Get Loud for Libraries Campaign.
Full Episode Transcript (Click to Expand):
Elisabeth Gasparka, Imagine MKE: Welcome to Creative MKE, a conversation show from Imagine MKE, where we talk to creative leaders in Milwaukee to highlight all the incredible transformative power of their work in our region. We hope that after listening, you'll be able to imagine our city's arts and culture ecosystem and all the awesome artists, organizations, and creative assets within it in a new way.
I'm your host, Elizabeth Gasparka.
Hey there! Welcome to Creative MKE, a production of Imagine MKE. If you're new to the podcast, thanks for joining me. If you're joining me again, I'm so glad you're here today on Creative MKE. You'll hear from Milwaukee Public Library staffers, Joan Johnson. City Librarian Fasson Fuchs, volunteer Coordinator, and Evan McKowski, an accounting program assistant.
The three of them joined me to discuss the ways in which creativity is at work in the Milwaukee Public Library system. Including the runaway success of MPL's social media content, which has over 100, 000 followers, has racked up millions of views, likes, and shares, and has garnered attention from national media outlets, including the Today Show.
If you're a resident of Milwaukee, you may know that in addition to its vast, eclectic collection of media and books, MPL offers a range of opportunities for artists to showcase their work and develop professionally. But the library has become known around the nation and the world for its topical, delightful social media productions, largely produced on iPhones with library staffers working as the actors, dancers, directors, costumers, prop people, and editors.
In our conversation, we will discuss the magic and the process behind generating these viral hits and the range of artistic offerings that MPL has for artists and the whole community. We'll also discuss the ways in which Milwaukee's culture uniquely supports and inspires the creativity that's at work in these videos and in library programs.
Listen on for this fun conversation. Before we jump in, I want to express my gratitude to WUWM for the opportunity to share this episode and more episodes of Creative MKE Over the Airwaves this summer. Thank you. Creative MKE is supported through a partnership with Shepherd Express. For more than 40 years, Shepherd Express has proudly advocated for arts and culture in the Milwaukee area.
You can hear more podcasts like this one at shepherdexpress. com. If you enjoy this episode of Creative MKE, I hope you'll like, share, and subscribe to support this work. You can find the back catalog as well as future episodes streaming wherever you stream podcasts. You can also tune in here for the rest of the summer on Sunday nights at 7 pm. Central Time to hear more conversations with extraordinary Milwaukeeans who are making our city's arts and culture so vibrant and special. Please join me and my colleagues at Imagine MKE as we shine a light on arts leaders making an impact in our community. And now listen on for my conversation with Joan Johnson, Fawn Seamson Fuchs, and Evan Shimkowski from Milwaukee Public Library.
Welcome to Creative MKE. Would you mind taking a moment to start by introducing yourselves to our audience and share a little bit about the work that you do?
Evan Syzmkowski, Milwaukee Public Library: My name is Evan Syzmkowsk. I work for MPL and I am working in their accounting division.
I do also have a part in the social media. It's been a very, very fun experience for me. Unexpected when I began, but very welcome nonetheless. So I work primarily doing accounting for the accounts receivable So that's processing pretty much all and every transaction that comes through into the library and rerouting those things where they need to go.
Fawn Siemsen-Fuchs, Milwaukee Public Library: My name is Fawn Seamson Fuchs and I'm the library volunteer coordinator. And I started on the social media committee in 2021 because I, my position was housed in the communications and marketing department. So I was doing photo content and then Derek Riley and myself started doing the. video content when it first started, and then we brought Evan on to help with that.
Joan Johnson, Milwaukee Public Library: And I'm Joan Johnson, library director, and I oversee over 300 fabulous employees who have been extremely productive and creative and delivering services to the city and helping people read, learn, and connect.
Elisabeth Gasparka, Imagine MKE: Well, imagine MKE. Believes in Milwaukee as an art city, as a destination, as a hub for creativity and innovation.
And I'm just curious if you all might weigh in a little bit on how Milwaukee Public Library plays a role in our arts and culture in Milwaukee, broadly, and then also on the level of individuals and families.
Fawn Siemsen-Fuchs, Milwaukee Public Library: So in terms of the arts and culture community, I think many of our employees had liberal arts degrees.
Evan's a theater major, I was an art major, and a lot of the people we work with and who perform in our videos just have a very creative background. I think the library just naturally houses a lot of creative people. So I think that We reflect that in our social media, of course, and then also in our programming in our collection.
I think it's just a very naturally creative, eclectic place.
Elisabeth Gasparka, Imagine MKE: Absolutely. So of course, listeners may not recognize the voices here, but certainly if you've been following the massive success of the TikTok videos produced by Milwaukee Public Library, you would definitely recognize the faces here. So tell our listeners about the ascension of Milwaukee Public Library's social media campaigns.
Fawn Siemsen-Fuchs, Milwaukee Public Library: Yeah, so I could start with that. So we started doing a different approach with our social media videos in probably March of last year on Instagram. And we were taking a pro an approach that was more content first and the ask later as opposed to like come to this program first. It was like, how can we make this engaging and Like, anyone could enjoy this video whether they're doing this ask for us or not.
So we started with that approach on Instagram in March of last year, and then we started our TikTok the last day of June last year. And we started off really slow on TikTok. One of our videos that eventually went on to have like millions and millions of views had like 10 likes for several weeks, like, because like we had just started that platform, but we really saw success very quickly, something that we probably weren't really anticipating where we would have, you know, viral videos pretty fairly frequently or semi viral videos in response to that approach.
Evan Syzmkowski, Milwaukee Public Library: Ditto to what Vaughn was talking about. I began in March of last year. So I began right as you know, this rebrand was going on and it was definitely an effective strategy. I would say, I remember the first video that I was a part of, it was a very fun, exciting experience working with Vaughn and Derek who was there at the time as well.
There was a lot of encouragement to be creative thinking outside of the box for putting that video together. Yeah. So I think that was the best approach for, for at the time, obviously, I mean, it turned out pretty, pretty okay.
Elisabeth Gasparka, Imagine MKE: Amazing. And which video was that?
Evan Syzmkowski, Milwaukee Public Library: That was, okay. So there was a video. It was about squirrel and cider soup.
Well, it was actually about our historic recipe file. And so we were looking at recipes that people could make using that. And We just decided to throw in like one that was just revolting and that was the Squirrel Insider Soup aspect of it. Yeah. And I had a pretty visceral reaction.
Elisabeth Gasparka, Imagine MKE: You got to draw upon your, your theater background.
Evan Syzmkowski, Milwaukee Public Library: I did. I did. I did. It was a welcome surprise when I started. Literally two weeks after I began. That's when, that's when they asked me first.
Elisabeth Gasparka, Imagine MKE: Well, I want to dig in in just a moment to the process. I'm so fascinated about how the library has been able to create an infrastructure to churn out all of this amazing content, drawing on people from all different areas of the library who may have just different backgrounds that already been connected to the work that they're doing.
Joan Johnson, Milwaukee Public Library: And I can say a little bit about the structure of that. So the first thing was that once I started to see. the success of this work. I wanted to make sure that I didn't get in the way of it. So as a director, you sometimes you just have to know when it's time to get out of the way and let your team create.
I needed to make sure that we had our communications director, a person of authority who was on my administrative team be in place to just. Make sure that there are some guardrails, but otherwise to let the team create and then there is a social media Committee that is made up of staff from various parts of the organization and together They work and plan and create.
And so Evan and Von have been amazing. We are so fortunate to have them as the leaders of that creative team. So thank you.
Evan Syzmkowski, Milwaukee Public Library: Thank you. And yeah, Joan, you've absolutely given us the space to create and to do that. And to answer the question, like we've, we've expanded now to working with different organizations around the city and that's influenced the creative process a lot.
Most of it is we. One of us will send the other an idea on Instagram or on TikTok like shares a video and then we'll say, Hmm, how can we make this library related? How can we connect it to the library? So that's really the root of of what continues to become something that's much greater.
Fawn Siemsen-Fuchs, Milwaukee Public Library: Yeah, absolutely.
I also want to just say thank you to Joan and the administrative team because it was a really brave decision to kind of let us run with being a little more, you know, thinking outside of the box, I think prior to this, our strategy and many other organizational strategies, I think what you're taught in more like a marketing school is like, Oh, it has to be like this more like a corporate voice.
This is done in the voice of the library. But if you're Thank you. Trying to reach people and your whole feed is kind of sounds more of like a commercial than like that engagement factor is lacking. So I think it was really brave of our administrative team to kind of let us take a different approach to reach people.
And this kind of came out of the pandemic and wanting to bring people back and wanting to reach a younger audience. So that was kind of why we really wanted to make a radical change. And in terms of our process, Evan touched on this before, but we share ideas, and we say, you know, yes to this and no to that, and what puts the library in the best light and sends the best message, and what's the most engaging, and then we pull together.
All of our props and people and we do location scouting. Yes. And some of them are very simple. Like it's like, Oh, this is a trend that this week. Let's hop on it before it's too old. Like, let's just do a quick, it'll take five minutes. And then there are ones that are more cinematic and there are more shots and more people and more props.
And it takes a little more organization.
Evan Syzmkowski, Milwaukee Public Library: Yeah. There's a lot of contemplation that has to go into those ones, but it's like working on a project. You know, you're coming together and you're all sort of adding to a particular project. It's not one person doing one thing, like everything rather, it's all like you are starting with an idea and you're each adding something to improve it.
That's the trick to, to it, I think.
Fawn Siemsen-Fuchs, Milwaukee Public Library: Oh, 100%. I think it really works because we're such a collaborative team. And if it was just one person doing it, we wouldn't have that like leveling up of ideas. Like every single person is adding, like even our actors, like we'll get there and they'll be like, Oh, I brought in this funny prop I thought would be a good addition.
Exactly. Yeah. It's just a very collaborative team. And I think that's one of the reasons it just works so well. And I think it's also very like an eclectic mix of videos. Like there are some that are more sentimental. There are some that are really funny. There are memes. There are like spoofs. So I think people enjoy that.
It's like very, very eclectic too, in terms of content.
Elisabeth Gasparka, Imagine MKE: You just said the word eclectic for the second time. The first time was when you were describing the libraries. collection and the programs. And I just love how these, these videos just do a fantastic job of conveying the values of Milwaukee Public Library, right?
In this real, kind of more visceral, more playful way. Because I think, you know, by and large, people think of libraries the way they think of museums as spaces where you have to be kind of hushed. and well behaved, and I guess the truth is that you want people to be engaged and you want people to be inspired and be playful when they're there.
Joan Johnson, Milwaukee Public Library: So we, we hope that these, this content does help change people's perceptions of not just Milwaukee Public Library, but of libraries in general. So hopefully what we're doing is helping to elevate all libraries.
Evan Syzmkowski, Milwaukee Public Library: Yeah, and we see so many comments from people saying, Oh my gosh, we want to come visit your library. We want to come to Milwaukee just to see your library. So it's definitely, it's nice seeing that feedback as well, reflecting that.
Elisabeth Gasparka, Imagine MKE: So it sounds like your culture, your internal culture at the library just is in this incredibly synergistic mode where you're, you're really in the flow with each other.
You ideate together, you start creating. There's not one director who's kind of leading the charge, but everyone is. is giving input. But these, these duties fall outside of your your regular day jobs. So is there a specific time during the week when you all kind of brainstorm around this or that you allocate towards the creation of the videos or is it more spontaneous than that?
Fawn Siemsen-Fuchs, Milwaukee Public Library: Yeah, I think this is something we're still figuring out because it's a relatively new thing to, to the library. So the library is working hard to make sure that we have, you know, time in our day to make this happen because I think they see the value of it. I think there, there's a little bit of, a little bit of everything in terms of collaborating.
Evan, Derek, and I had our desks in a triangle. So like in between meetings, something would occur to us and we'd just be like, Oh, what do you think about this? Like really quick. And we text each other. Call each other on our desk phones like, Oh, I just had a quick idea. What do you think of this? And then where the scheduling really comes in is most of the other library workers have like a desk schedule, or if we're doing like a branch visit, how can we go on a day where like most of the staff who wants to participate is there?
And that's when. More of the scheduling comes in where it's like, Oh, we have to have it down really tight to like fit that in.
Evan Syzmkowski, Milwaukee Public Library: Yeah. Yeah. It is a challenge balancing this with, you know, accounting. And I think the pace at which this has all accelerated has been, well, for us, it's been unprecedented. So.
The structure is very much like Fawn was saying, it is being formulated still and, you know, things are being set in place so that we do have the space and we do have the time to allocate to this. But so far, I think we've all done an excellent job at managing ourselves, managing our team to make sure that we all are getting.
The work that we need to get done completed.
Elisabeth Gasparka, Imagine MKE: Yeah. That shows a high degree of trust within the internal culture of the Milwaukee public library system, which is amazing. And I think it shows what fantastic things can happen when staff people are trusted to lean into their talents. and work collaboratively.
I want to speak to beyond the library's internal culture and think about with you all a little bit or invite you to think about how Milwaukee's culture might be the right place for this to have happened, right? So like conditions lined up so that this team of people gathered at Milwaukee Public Library and was able to set this in motion.
Is there anything about Milwaukee culture in particular that you think lends itself to this kind of creativity and collaboration?
Evan Syzmkowski, Milwaukee Public Library: You know, I think everything about Milwaukee culture lends, lend, has lent to this opportunity for us. A lot of it has been happenstance, circumstance, like it's very fortunate that we were all in this right place at the right time.
But you know I feel like whenever I talk to people who are outside of the city, no one really knows what Milwaukee's arts culture is. We all know it in here, especially those of us who are a part of it. But even I see online the comments like, Oh my gosh, I had no idea Milwaukee was like this. I think that has lent a lot to our success in the same way that the library has been successful on TikTok and Instagram and that no one expects a library to be posting this kind of thing.
No one expects Milwaukee to have this kind of imagination. So I think the unexpected aspect of it is, has been a very fortunate tool that we've been able to use. And we're absolutely great. And we're absolutely glad to share this with the rest of the world too.
Joan Johnson, Milwaukee Public Library: Yeah, and I think as Milwaukee citizens, you know, we're, we are immersed in a city of, that's rich in the arts, you know, I mean, just look at what happens every summer, you know, with pretty much any park you go to is going to have live music happening at least once a week.
And we have museums in every part of the city and we have pop up art happening all over the place when you drive down. Valide Street, or going across town, you'll see murals that weren't there last week. So I think, you know, we, I think we are all, in a way, we get stimulated by the art around us. And there's a lot of art being created on a pretty regular basis in this town.
So I think it just helps everyone be in, in a creative mindset as well. So so Milwaukee as a whole is very rich in its arts culture. And I think that can be kind of subliminal an inspiration to us.
Fawn Siemsen-Fuchs, Milwaukee Public Library: And I also just want to add to that, that I think that our, our library really contributes to the art culture in, in the city.
Like we have maker spaces that we keep adding to libraries and we have art in the libraries, like sculptures and things like that at every branch. And so it is just a, I think our, our library really is a part of that beyond social media too.
Evan Syzmkowski, Milwaukee Public Library: I like to think that we all inspire each other and beat off each other.
And that lends to everyone doing better.
Elisabeth Gasparka, Imagine MKE: You beat me to the punch on my next question, actually. So very related, but I'd love if you could all share a little bit beyond the success of social media. How else is creativity manifesting in library programming? Give us a sense of some of the other.
Innovations that are underway.
Joan Johnson, Milwaukee Public Library: I can expand on that. What we started talking about before Fawn mentioned the Makerspaces. One of the most successful programs that the library did was with grant money from the National Endowment for the Arts. It was the Our Town grant and we worked with other artists in the community to submit an application for a program called Gathering Art Stories in Place.
And the end. Branch that was the home base for it was Mitchell Street Branch and we employed an artist in residence as part of that. We had two artists in residence at, as part of that. And we were lucky enough to have two amazing artists. So Eric Ledesma and Celeste Contreras were our artists in residence and each of them created permanent art.
Mm. That will be in the library in perpetuity now. And the work was created in, in a communal way, intentionally to, to engage again, once again, engaging members of the community to come into the library and create with artists who are also community leaders and to be able to point to something. 20 years from now saying I created that with the library and we also, we also did the creative economy as well.
There was, we did a series of programs as part of that, that were focused on artists in the community who are trying to be successful in a business way, in an entrepreneurial way, and to bring them together to share with each other what was working and what wasn't working. So it was another way to really lift up and support creatives all across the city.
Fantastic. The other thing that we do regularly is we do support artists as well by putting up exhibits. The Milwaukee Area Teachers of Art, they have their annual art exhibit at the Central Library and it's always up for at least four weeks and it's, it's always such a fabulous show.
Elisabeth Gasparka, Imagine MKE: Evan or Fawn, would you like to add anything to what Joan was speaking about?
And just to remind you, she was reflecting on other ways that innovation and creativity have manifested in library programs.
Fawn Siemsen-Fuchs, Milwaukee Public Library: In addition to the, like, more physical art, we also do a lot of programming around National Novel Writing Month, affectionately known as NaNoWriMo.
Elisabeth Gasparka, Imagine MKE: It just rolls off the tongue.
Fawn Siemsen-Fuchs, Milwaukee Public Library: We also have poetry contests for our teens.
We also have a poet laureate, Mario the Poet Willis, who does a lot of programming for all ages. And we're also going to have, speaking of art exhibits, for our 125th anniversary, we're actually doing a staff art exhibit that's kind of celebrating the libraries. Like I said, so many of our staff members are just so creative, so I'm really excited to see all the art.
Joan Johnson, Milwaukee Public Library: And another, another great program that we have every year. To not forget, as we partner with The Bindery to present Zine Fest. It's book arts, it's graphic arts, and there are dozens of entries for booths, booth space. And we have hundreds of people coming to Zine Fest every year now.
Fawn Siemsen-Fuchs, Milwaukee Public Library: I want to mention just one more thing.
We have an Instagram account that's dedicated to creativity. It's called MPL Creates. So it's at MPL Creates. So in addition to our other social media, we also have these just outstanding platforms. So we have that one that really highlights that kind of creativity, like. Art and what's going on in the maker spaces and the idea is MPL creates opportunities MPL creates art MPL creates everything that MPL creates so that's another great account to follow.
Elisabeth Gasparka, Imagine MKE: Fantastic. Well, it sounds like you all are just doing such phenomenal work across the board in terms of supporting creatives in our region, inspiring creatives and I think just really adding to a pride of place. I loved what you said earlier about how we're all taking in. the artfulness that's happening all around us in Milwaukee, and you guys are just putting an amazing face forward for, for our community.
So thank you for everything that you do. Before I let you go, how can the public support the work that you're doing both here in Wisconsin and beyond?
Joan Johnson, Milwaukee Public Library: I'm so glad you asked that question, Elizabeth, because we are at a critical moment right now where the city is facing some very significant budget challenges, and there is going to be within the next couple of weeks, some important decisions that have to be made about whether or not the city will benefit from some recent legislation passed at the state or not.
And if we are forced to have to make some really difficult choices in response to an inadequate budget allocation. We, you know, we would, we would have to cut services that we really don't want to have to cut. So so members of the public who are, you know, love their libraries and want to show support.
We have been doing community engagement work. All year to get feedback from all of you to have a much better understanding of what community values about the library, what services, what programs are most important to them, how they use the library now, and how they want to keep using their library.
So I really, really am hoping that we can get more feedback and would invite patrons to Come to the library's website at npl. org and there will be a pop up that will invite you to go to our Get Loud for Libraries landing page and there you will have an option to either take an online survey to give us more feedback.
If you only have a minute instead of five minutes, you can leave a comment. You can leave a comment that's an audio comment or a written comment and we also ask that you help share and spread the word. From that page, you can you can share our community feedback page. So I would love to have more Participation from the community through the library's website.
Evan Syzmkowski, Milwaukee Public Library: Yeah, we're so thankful for all the support that we've already received From so many kind people and I think that yes, absolutely if you're able to Please do leave feedback through that link on the website or through that specific area on the website. Yeah, and just remember, we're around here. Your local library does exist.
It's still here for you.
Fawn Siemsen-Fuchs, Milwaukee Public Library: Our videos were really started because we really wanted to see more engagement with our patrons and we wanted to reach more patrons. So I would just say, you know, get a library card, use your library card, and we could really use library advocates right now. Tell your family and friends about the library.
That's really how we... You can best support us.
Evan Syzmkowski, Milwaukee Public Library: A lot of people always say like, comment, and share.
Elisabeth Gasparka, Imagine MKE: Awesome. Well, thank you so much for your time today.
Thanks for listening. If you enjoyed this episode and you'd like to help support the show, please share it with others. post about it, leave a rating or review, or contact us. Creative MKE is hosted, edited, and produced by me, Elizabeth Gasparka. It is recorded in beautiful downtown Milwaukee with engineering support from the good folks at PodCamp Media.
Creative MKE's theme music was written and produced by Bobby Drake. To get involved or learn more about the work of Imagine MKE, you can find us on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, or visit us on the web.