Failing Miserably at Social Media for Special Collections

I had some feels about this talk, “How to destroy special collections with social media,” when it first came out. Finally, I have some time to figure out just what bothered me about it….

We have to start with the title: I get that clickbait-y headlines are all the rage now, but I’m not sure it’s really in the best interests of the profession to assert that special collections can ever be “killed,” and if they can, that the cause can ever be “social media.” Cutesy and hyperbolic talk titles do us a disservice: a profession with low visibility isn’t doing itself any favours by seeming overreactive or dismissive and flippant.

… Man I sound like a cantankerous old coot. Let’s try this again: the title has nothing to do with the content of the talk. The talk lays out ways in which special collections in their current form are generally incompatible with how the majority of the world uses social media. So, an accurate title would be “How to fail before you begin at social media for special collections.”

To summarize the points of Werner’s talk, based on the blog post:

  1. We aren’t digitizing enough content.
  2. Our image database interfaces are crummy.
  3. We make a lot of baseless assertions about our copyrights; maybe our users mistakenly believe us, which would be bad.
  4. We could use our images as opportunities for learning, but we don’t.
  5. Citations are tough! Especially with character limits!
  6. “Educating” on social media seems to happen in communities that are already engaged with higher learning and subject expertise. So, we’re preaching to our choirs.
  7. Metrics are tough! We’re not statisticians!
  8. We don’t convert the metrics available into proof of value.

Here’s the concluding paragraph:

So I’ll end with three easy steps you can take, as librarians and researchers, to help special collections grow by using social media: 1) Digitize with open access licensing and easy-to-use platforms; 2) Teach your audience to think about the past instead of laughing at the past; 3) Choose your aims carefully and don’t confuse popularity with engagement.

There are parts worth agreeing with, and parts worth trying to rectify. I’m going to try not to return to the title over and over, but forgive me if I do.

1) Digitizing “with open-access licensing and easy-to-use platforms” is correct. It’s a very complicated issue, though, that is worth diving into much more deeply. Suffice it to say that so many archives and special collections have a lot of work to do to clear images for sharing (and in advocating for good interfaces that respect our materials and show them to their best advantage).

Werner here focuses on rare books and manuscript pages and illustrations, which are published, in the public domain, and not subject to much in the way of donation agreement restrictions or copyright issues. To those materials I say “Digitize to your heart’s content” (after checking first to see if a near-exact copy hasn’t already been put online by one of the major libraries, so as not to waste energy). I know paper isn’t going anywhere and there are more pressing issues, but that’s not really so crucial to a social-media and outreach discussion.

For the purposes of getting people in the door, received wisdom (and if anyone has any stats or studies to contradict this I’d love to see them) is that the most beautiful art, the funniest and most absurd one-liners, and the coolest marginalia (and any and all references to cats) are the easiest ways to drum up attention. It’s something I’ve always been a bit skeptical about, and there are many competing interests here (donors, faculty, researchers, etc.) to take into account.

Werner’s definitely right in that we use silly licensing to absolve ourselves of unforeseeable mistakes; users versed in copyright will know that the Vatican can’t assert ownership over public-domain digitizations, and will proceed as usual. We can always help by clearly labeling all PD stuff as such, even if it’s not from our collections.
Also, yes, our interfaces are often garbage.

2) Teaching one’s audience “to think about the past instead of laughing at [it]” is more contentious to me. Teaching in general is hard, as we all know, and we have a million venues for talking about pedagogy and learning styles.

Teaching on social media is extra double hard. Social media is a great way to make people aware of issues, start discussion, get some basic feedback – but intellectual engagement happens best elsewhere, on blogs and in articles (something something scholarship is a conversation, one not hampered by 140 characters).

I have no issues with teaching as a goal, but we need to be very careful here: insisting that teaching is the only goal is really really really really wrong. It’s a moral judgement, and it’s frankly selfish. The public-domain materials that you put online? They’re not yours. They’re public domain. People can do what they like. Be happy they’re using them at all, and if you happen to be around when they do, you can try to start a “more meaningful” conversation.

The other thing conflated in this talk was the idea that teaching necessarily includes people going back to your website to see the context. Enforcing your own research and authority is important to you, but it’s not more valuable than people having fun on social media (while ambiently increasing everyone’s exposure to historical objects, and increasing visual and digital and print literacy, and inspiring each other to create, and ….). If people perceive your online presence as for scholars only, that’s a barrier to entry we can’t afford.

If you’re angry about some paid jokester stealing your best bits, or profiting off your laborious curation work … um, get over it. Or write a twitter bot that responds to every tweet by those accounts with a citation and link. But seriously, life’s too short for you to get butthurt and embarrass your institution (and the profession) by conflating labour with ownership. We are not in the “digitization = modification = new work” business, we’re in the sharing-shit business.

Did you want to use Twitter as a way to grab some visual attention for a blog post or new initiative (online exhibit, newly-added collection, discovery portal, change in licensing ….) on your main website? Do that. Did you want to excerpt some of your better collections, commemorate an on-this-day event, relate your materials to a contemporary news story or trend, help people understand that there is a way to educate themselves on what’s going on? By all means.

The latter – relating your collections to things people are doing in the world – encompasses the joke+image tweet, and can be done extremely well for the purposes of driving traffic. There’s nothing wrong with the format per se. Maybe we just need to make better jokes. Maybe we need to hire copywriters, comedians, hell, even students from our creative-writing programs, to help us out. Maybe we do social-media-for-heritage badly because clear and succinct expression is not a skill we tend to possess.

I have some ideas for systemic solutions to the images-proliferate-without-attribution problem, but it’s not a piecemeal answer, and it’ll take a lot of work from a lot of dedicated institutions (and just about every major corporate website). It’s not going to be easy, but it’ll be easier to enforce attribution from the top down than by whining about it. I’m looking at you, medieval scholars.

3) Mmmmmmmmetrics. Werner’s talk contains no mention of existing research and standards into conversion, ROI, and assessment for social media metrics. Turns out, the corporate world and the heritage world want the same things: people going to our websites, signing up for our mailing lists, digging into our materials.

We don’t track sales, but we do track downloads, people who link to us, people who cite us in research and writing, uses of our images in other places. Here’s a ridiculously easy way to do the “tracking downloads” thing with Google Analytics (assuming you have decent web skills / a decent webmaster):

Keep in mind that Google Analytics only allows you to create twenty goals. Ever. So, I recommend using one thank you page for all of your downloadable content and then delivering whichever guide, e-book or check-list the person requested via email. Don’t worry; you’ll still be able to see how many leads came from a specific campaign, social network and post or ad using the techniques below.

I don’t recommend file delivery via email, but I do think you can have a thank-you splash page reminding people gently that citations are appreciated, while performing this tracking function. I found that within 30 seconds of googling about social media conversion. I bet you could find more, if you looked.

You may remember I had some opinions on this in my AAO2015 presentation: your images should be free, all use is good use, and if we want to know that we’re having an effect in the world, we might measure an item’s velocity (its speed of dissemination and the size of its reach), which would include both attributed (or “educational”) and unattributed (or “naive”) uses.

Every institution is different and it’s not easy for me to guess which statistics are going to seem most valuable to your board of directors or whoever else you report to. But I can bet that saying “We have X followers on Twitter” means little to them, whereas saying “Our images have been downloaded X times,” and showing a few examples of reshares and commentary you dug up with some choice reverse-image-searches, would work out a lot better for you.

You can automate reverse-image-searches, did you know that? And if you do some social-media work reminding other institutions that they can also do it, you can get one of those services for free!

(And hey, what if your images are increasing traffic to another institution that has the same book but hasn’t digitized it yet? What a nice thing to do!)

If you find your images are being used as stock to illustrate people’s loosely-related blog posts, rather than being used as primary sources in research, that’s not a bad thing – but if that difference is meaningful to you, you’re going to have to work on integrating yourself into the research fields your materials could support. (See also liaising half-decently.) I would hesitate to pick one of those as more valuable than the other – and I would disagree that an uncredited stock usage is somehow abusing the privilege of being able to access your shared materials.

I’ll repeat myself on the moral judgement of social media for cultural heritage: it’s not your stuff. It’s public domain. People can do what they like. Let’s have fewer talks about how special collections are being killlllllllllllllllllllllllllllllled by MedievalReacts and more talks about how we can use those perfectly normal and unavoidable patron behaviours to our advantage.

George Washington University to Host Discussion on “The History and Politics of the Armenian Genocide After 100 Years”

The George Washington University (GWU) Institute for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies (IERES) will host a discussion entitled, “The History and Politics of the Armenian Genocide After 100 Years” on Monday, September 21, 2015 at 6:00 PM. Held at the Jack Morton Auditorium, the discussion will feature welcome remarks from GWU-IRES Director Peter Rollberg and Shant Mardirossian, Board Chairman of the Near East Foundation.

The panelists include Ron Grigor Suny, Professor of Political Science and History, The University of Chicago, and Hope Harrison, Associate Dean for Research and Associate Professor of History and International Affairs, The George Washington University. Cory Welt, Associate Research Professor of International Affairs and IERES Associate Director, The George Washington University, will moderate the discussion.

“The History and Politics of the Armenian Genocide After 100 Years” will be held at The George Washington University School of Media and Public Affairs, Jack Morton Auditorium, 805 21st St., NW, Washington, DC on Monday, September 21, 2015 at 6:00 PM. A reception will follow at 7:30 PM.

Guests are encouraged to RSVP before Wednesday, September 16, 2015 at

For questions, please call 1-877-786-0947 or email

On Friday, we’ll be airing a very special episode of Sesame Street.

A hurricane has swept through Sesame Street and everyone is working together to clean up the neighborhood. When Big Bird checks on his home, he is heartbroken to find that the storm has destroyed his nest. Big Bird’s friends and neighbors gather to show their support and let him know they can fix his home, but it will take time. 

While everyone on Sesame Street spends the next few days cleaning up and making repairs, Big Bird still has moments where he is sad, angry, and confused. His friends help him cope with his emotions by talking about what happened, drawing pictures together, and giving him lots of hugs. They also comfort Big Bird by offering him temporary places he can eat, sleep, and play. Big Bird remembers all the good times he had at his nest and realizes that once it is rebuilt, there are more good times and memories to come. Finally the day has come where most of the repairs to Big Bird’s home are done and his nest is complete. As he is about to try it out, though, the city nest inspector says it not safe, yet, because the mud isn’t dry. Big Bird is sad that he has to wait another day, but Snuffy comes to the rescue and blows the nest dry and he passes the test! Big Bird thanks everyone for being his friend and helping to rebuild his nest and his home.

Please check your local listings to see what time the episode will air on PBS. (via

As we all know and are excited for, November is Native American Heritage Month! How do you plan on celebrating?

To embrace this time of year check your local PBS listings to view Native Stories such as “Standing Bear’s Footsteps”, “GRAB”, “Racing the Rez”, “Sun Kissed”, “Smokin’ Fish”, “The Thick Dark Fog” and “Barking Water”!

Jim Lehrer’s MacNeil / Lehrer Editorial Guidelines.

They are as follows:

Do nothing I cannot defend.
Cover, write, and present every story with the care I would want if the story were about me.
Assume there is at least one other side or version to every story.
Assume the viewer is as smart and as caring and as good a person as I am.
Assume the same about all people on whom I report.
Assume personal lives are a private matter until a legitimate turn in the story absolutely mandates otherwise.
Carefully separate opinion and analysis from straight news stories, and clearly label everything.
Do not use anonymous sources or blind quotes except on rare and monumental occasions.
No one should ever be allowed to attack another anonymously.
And finally, I am not in the entertainment business.


Jim Lehrer  (link to the news today)

(reposting our first ever Tumblr post. I think it is fitting ^TG)

Everyone is focusing on the media’s perception of the movement and that’s not our intention .
We are aware of our privilege .
We do want to give a voice to people who are underrepresented.
We are trying to give a voice to people who are underrepresented.
We explained several times about reclaiming the term and the repercussions being worst for sex workers .
We understand how being a black women and a sex worker intersects .
We want to give a voice to people on this platform .
We continue to say that everyday .
We continue to preach that everyday .
We spread awareness to that everyday .
I don’t want to raise conflict and be an ignorant .
I am completely receptive of criticism .
On the contrary I strongly urge people to look at the IG account @ arthoecollective to see our true intentions .
The media edits out our words and Jam and I explained that a myriad of times .
They make us sound condescending and pretentious when really we are not trying to be
We greatly appreciate opinions and stories and we are trying to be as inclusive as possible .

We don’t want people to feel they have to be and look a certain way.

We are welcoming of Trans, dark skin, disabled, NB, SW, etc and appreciate their voices

They are apart of this
We understand this whole perception you have of an “aesthetic” but it’s been generalized by people to be that way .
It’s only been a week with enforcing the collective and we are constantly improving .

Bullseye with Jesse Thorn is joining NPR!

It’s official: starting in April, Bullseye with Jesse Thorn will be distributed by National Public Radio! This is the culmination of months and months of meetings, negotiations and planning, and we’re so, so proud to make it public today. (And so, so proud of the sweet illustration that we just made (above).)

We’re excited to be joining forces with the big dogs in public radio, and excited that we’ll no longer have to spend like half of every conversation at every cocktail party explain the complicated square-rectangle relationship between “public radio” and “NPR.” (From now on, we can just be all, “yup, I do a show on NPR.” It’s gonna be great.)

We’ll be on the same team as our all-time favorites like Terry Gross and Brooke Gladstone, and our new jack favorites like Glynn Washington and Jad Abumrad. It’s an ideal situation.

If you’re a longstanding Bullseye listener, you’ve got nothing to worry about. The show will continue to be produce independently by, but now we’ll also have the cachet and manpower of NPR helping us to bring it to public radio stations around the country. Our hope is that this partnership will mean a better show, better guests and a bigger station lineup.

This is the next chapter in a story that started at my college radio station when I was 19. Twelve years later, I think our show is the best it’s ever been, and now we’re in position to take advantage of that fact.

As a great American once said… haters don’t be mad, ‘cause it’s all about progression… loiterers should be arrested.

Ad astra!

The cast of 30 Rock won’t stop until they all have a public radio show. First Alec Baldwin on WNYC, and now Tina Fey is host of The Kitchen Sister’s “The Hidden World of Girls.”

Groundbreaking writer, actress and comedian, Tina Fey comes to Public Radio to host The Hidden World of Girls, two new hour-long Specials inspired by the NPR series heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. From the dunes of the Sahara to a slumber party in Manhattan, from the dancehalls of Jamaica to a racetrack in Ramallah, Tina Fey takes us around the world into the secret life of girls and the women they become. Sound-rich, evocative, funny, and powerful–stories of coming of age, rituals and rites of passage, secret identities. Of women who crossed a line, blazed a trail, changed the tide. These specials are produced by Peabody Award-winning producers, The Kitchen Sisters (Davia Nelson & Nikki Silva), in collaboration with NPR reporters and foreign correspondents, independent producers and listeners around the world.

More public media Tumblrs!

We’ve gotten requests in the past for links to other public media Tumblrs. We’ve re-blogged some other people’s lists before.

Now we’ve finally built our own list of links to other public media Tumblrs you could follow.

Check it out!

Public Radio Bracket Madness: Down to the Elite Eight

Who you got? All Things Considered v Radiolab; Fresh Air v Talk of the Nation; The Moth Radio Hour v Wait Wait; BBC Newshour v This American Life. 

Going to be tight. Voting’s here.

If I were a betting man, I’d go RadioLab v This American Life in the finals. And then… my head explodes. – Michael

Image: Public Radio Bracket Madness by Southern California Public Radio. Select to embiggen.

The Race to Save America’s Public Media History

A new archive is trying to digitize thousands of hours of tape from TV and radio stations across the country—before those tapes disintegrate…

Over the next three weeks, The Atlantic will take you on a tour of this collection of American history, captured as it unfolded, at radio and TV stations across the country. More