Lessons Learned From Conducting Outreach via Facebook

“If the goal is to make a collection maximally cool, then we need to build up the context in such a way that it appeals to a wider variety of people — we’ll call them ‘the public.’  This may mean pulling in resources from many different places, even if it means that the end product contains a very small proportion of our own collection material.  This is what we try to accomplish by making an exhibit, whether online or in a gallery.”

-Matt Herbison

Matt Herbison’s blog post, Useless and Boring: The four types of archives collections, gets to the heart of archival outreach, and outreach done via social media is all about being “maximally cool.” Facebook, in particular, acts very much like an online exhibit that allows your audience to easily interact with and share your posts (i.e. reach a wider audience). And people tend to share the cool stuff.

With this in mind, I began posting content to the North End Historical Society (NEHS) Facebook page in January of 2014. At that time, the page had 414 fans.

My Goal

To organically build our Facebook audience and to increase the audience’s engagement with the Facebook page.

Where to Start?

While discussing Facebook at the March NEA meeting, Erik Bauer recommended posting photos, postcards, quotes, and trivia; these items are the most engaging to his institution’s Facebook audience. But while Bauer (and other well-established institutions) has collections from which to draw content, NEHS is only a few years old and does not yet have extensive collections. Instead, I rely on freely available content on the web.

My posts include photos, news articles, and videos that highlight some aspect of the North End. I pull content from the Boston Public Library’s Flickr sets, the Library of Congress, Google’s digitized historical newspapers, YouTube, and contemporary news sites. I have frequently found good content while conducting unrelated research, and often find excellent leads on Wikipedia.

What Works Best?

Although the North End’s history includes the colonial stories of Paul Revere, the Old North Church, and the Mathers, the most engaging posts on Facebook have been about the neighborhood’s recent history – between 20 and 60 years ago. This is not surprising – the majority of our audience consists of adults who spent their childhoods in the North End, and the popular posts allow the audience to reminisce about that time.

One unexpected hit was a post about the Molasses Flood. Although the event had been noted on the NEHS Facebook page in prior years (always on the anniversary of the event), the 2014 post went viral – it reached 2,763 Facebook users! For a page with under 500 fans, this is an extraordinary reach. It shows that there is sometimes serendipity at work, and that it’s worth marking the anniversaries of notable events every year.

The Result

As of this writing, the NEHS Facebook page has 491 fans (an increase of 18%) and a consistent level of engagement via “Likes” and “Shares.” 

Archives are to She’s All That as Libraries are to Drive Me Crazy

Drive_me_crazy_poster Shes_All_That

In broad strokes, these two movies (and institutions) are the same. Prom is coming, and the cool kid needs a date, fast! The perfect prom date is hiding in plain sight, disguised as (*gasp*) an asocial dork. The ensuing makeover makes everyone truly notice and appreciate the prom date for who he or she truly is. High school love ensues. The end.

In Drive Me Crazy, the cool kid knows the perfect prom date – he’s her next door neighbor. In fact, everyone at school knows him, but they mostly ignore him. His few friends are loyal, but they too are ignored by the rest of the student body. He’s a great guy, just not cool. There are barriers to getting to know this guy, but those barriers are not insurmountable. Really, a haircut and a slight attitude change does the trick.

Similarly, everyone knows about the library. It’s in your neighborhood, with a big sign on the building. There are a core group of enthusiastic library patrons, but there are also a great many people who ignore the library. The library does not compel you to visit it (physically or virtually). And even if you do walk into a branch, there are barriers to access – but those barriers are not insurmountable. Really, a “Kindness Audit” would go a long way towards increasing access.

In She’s All That, the cool kid knows that he wants the perfect prom date, but he has no idea that she exists. He casts out randomly, and finds the perfect date by chance only. Even then, he doesn’t know that his search was successful. The movie details a painful and complex getting-to-know-you process where the characters nearly quit several times. The only reason this movie has a happy ending is because the characters are unusually persistent.

It’s the same with almost any archives. Researchers often cast out with Google, and find a repository or collection by chance. Archival repositories aren’t easy to find (either physically or virtually), and even if you did find one on the street, you can’t just walk in. Those doors are locked and the materials are secure. A haircut and a new outfit aren’t going to dispel these barriers, but at least the makeover could get the archives noticed. And that’s an important beginning.

The Popular Perception of Archivists

Below is the text of an email I sent to the New York Times today.

Date: Sat, 1 Feb 2014 13:59:06 -0500
Subject: Re: “New York Court Archivist Isn’t Letting Retirement Stop Him”
From: Meridith Halsey <mlhalsey@gmail.com>
To: character@nytimes.com

Is it with concern and disappointment that I write to you about the article by Corey Kilgannon entitled, “New York Court Archivist Isn’t Letting Retirement Stop Him.”

The article almost touches on a pressing issue facing the archival profession today: the decision of many institutions to let their archives programs lapse. This seems as though it might be the case at the court archives in New York, but the point is left vague. A important question to answer is, are the records under Mr. Abrams’ care still accessible to the public? How will New York’s lawyers conduct research on state cases from the pre-internet era? How will journalists be able to do the same? It seemed clear that Mr. Abrams himself was happy to resign from responding to the public’s inquiries.

(Other questions that are of particular interest to archivists, but which are perhaps beyond the scope of a character study article, include: Why is there no successor to Mr. Abrams? Has funding for the archives been permanently cut? If so, why? And what is the city’s plan for maintaining the records in the event that Mr. Abrams ends his tenure as a volunteer?)

I was also disappointed by the author’s insinuation that dedicated archivists tend to be uneasy in social situations; the profession is people-focused; without people who are interested in using the archives, there would be no point in maintaining said archives. I would urge Mr. Kilgannon to visit more archivists, or visit their webpages, to get a broader view of what kind of people make up the bulk of the profession. Some suggestions on where to begin are:

- http://nixonara.wordpress.com/
- http://www.archivesnext.com/
- http://blogs.archives.gov/aotus/
- Search #ArchivesShelfie on Twitter

Finally, I was saddened to see that Mr. Abrams’ particular distaste for interacting with the public seemed to be normalized in this article. The article concludes with:

“In other words, now that he is no longer working here, he can finally get some work done here. ‘Now I can focus on important stuff,’ he said.”

On the contrary, making the holdings of the archives accessible to the public IS important stuff. I would like to bring your attention to the SAA Core Values Statement, which includes the following language:

“Archivists select, preserve, and make available primary sources that document the activities of institutions, communities and individuals.” -SAA
Core Values of Archivists

As you see, making one’s holdings available is one of the three primary duties of an archivist. Allowing Mr. Abrams’ statement to stand in a vacuum allows the reader to assume that his sentiment is shared by many or all archivists, which is a perception that archivists are actively trying to dispel. In fact, as a profession, archivists welcome and encourage the public’s interest in archives and are we are constantly trying to attract more people through outreach (e.g. the National Archives on Facebook, the Massachusetts Historical Society on Twitter, and the Archives of American Art on Pinterest).

Sincerely,
Meridith

Archives and the Entrepreneur

Tintypes are back, and you want one.

photograph of a tintype of the author and her husband

The generation that grew up surrounded by cheap, mass produced plastic is rebelling by cultivating a taste for artisanal products, creating a growing market for unique, handcrafted items. The trend is also evident in photography, where the onslaught of digital photos, from snapshots to selfies, has all but destroyed the value of any single photograph. I was not surprised, therefore, to see a resurgence of daguerreotype and tintype photography, which creates one-of-a-kind images.

It is because of this that, when the in-laws asked for a portrait of my husband and myself for Christmas, I immediately rejected the idea of going to a Sears portrait studio (and similar options). If a portrait is going to be given as a gift, I thought, it should be special in a way that most photography is not. And daguerreotypes and tintypes ARE special; each item is a unique image – there are no negatives, no options for reprints, no possibility of touch-ups with photo editing software, etc.

Photograph of the tintype camera

The Archer & Co. camera

At first, I wanted to have a daguerreotype done, but then, like most people in the late 19th century, I realized that daguerreotypes are way too expensive and opted to go for a tintype instead. (In fact, the current culture of daguerreotypes and tintypes is much like the 19th century culture; daguerreotypes, due in part to their superior beauty, quality, and cost of materials, is more of a “high art” pursuit while tintypes, which are produced with a sheet of metal and a few dollars’ worth of chemicals, is the accessible hobby of a growing number of art students and hobbyists.)

Photograph of the photographer's studio

In the 19th century, the tintype was an equalizer; until this cheap and fast method of photography was developed, photography was accessible only to a wealthy elite. The tintype allowed common people a chance to obtain a luxury item at an affordable price, and they jumped at the chance. The proliferation of tintype photographers proved that the new method was a viable way to make a living, and only fell out of favor when even cheaper, easier methods of photography were developed. In archival parlance, tintype photography helped to diversify the archives; tintypes document the working class peoples of the late 19th century – the mill workers, janitors, street car conductors – and give us a visual window into their world.

My husband found a working tintype photographer, Phillip LeBlanc, in Providence, RI and we made an appointment to drive down there from our home in Boston. LeBlanc has a portable photography studio, and has been traveling to various festivals around New England. His company, Archer & Co. Tintype Photobooth, operates in the spirit of his 19th century predecessors – he provides access to a valuable, one-of-a-kind product at a low cost.

Photograph of several tintypes being rinsed in a sink

The tintypes are rinsed after the image is developed

It goes without saying that my husband and I were thrilled with our tintypes and that my in-laws were thrilled with their gift. My husband was concerned that LeBlanc wasn’t charging enough for his time and skills, and I was concerned that LeBlanc wasn’t traveling to Steampunk conventions. We shared our concerns with LeBlanc, and now I’m sharing them publicly – we know that there is a demand for tintypes that is not being met, and I hope that LeBlanc and other entrepreneurial tintype photographers will take advantage of it.

(One archival trouble that I would love to see is the problem of distinguishing between 19th century tintypes depicting regular folk and 21st century tintypes depicting Steampunk folk. Let’s make it happen, people!)

Government Shutdown

Close up image of a memorial in Washington D.C.

When the government shutdown was merely looming, all the major news outlets were atwitter with what such a shutdown would do, and more importantly, what it would NOT do, i.e. affect any of the government’s “essential services.”

The news outlets explained:

The Post Office would still run (thanks to independent funding), but the National Parks would close. Most other offices would undergo a “partial shutdown.” This explanation was so vague that people grabbed on to the National Parks story so they could have something concrete to talk about. Thus, dire warnings of lost tourism dollars and upset vacationers made the news because they were easy topics, not because the closed parks represented a failure of the government to perform its “essential services.”

And then the shutdown came. And the National Parks closed. And the IRS put a hold on conducting audits. And some government offices did the EXTRA work of putting up a “We’re Closed” page on their web portals, just to annoy people and drive the point home.

Screen shot of the National Park Service Closed Notice Screen shot of the Library of Congress Closed Notice

And the National Archives closed (partially).

Which got no press.

As of this writing, we are in Day 11 of the Great Government Shutdown of 2013. The closed National Parks have started to become a real problem. The partial shutdown of other major offices have been met with little to no dismay (see above re: IRS). And some folks have noted that without NASA, nobody is looking out for asteroids (or aliens).

So what is essential, then? The military. And the tax collectors at the IRS, who are probably raiding the office kitchen for any goodies that the auditors left behind. And Social Security, SNAP, and unemployment benefits disbursements, so that the most vulnerable Americans can still get by.

The maintenance and continued accessibility by the people to our national memory and culture, however, is not deemed an “essential service” of the government. I was horrified by this, and then was so glad, and so proud, when veterans stormed the World War II Memorial in D.C.

But nobody seems to be complaining about reduced access to the National Archives and complete closure of the Smithsonian museums. To me, NARA and the Smithsonian are just as important as the World War II Memorial, and we as citizens ought to consider our right of access to these resources just as seriously as the veterans took their right of access to the memorial.

But, collectively, we don’t.

After all, the museums will open again. Visitors can come another time. NARA will be open again after the shutdown. But the World War II Memorial would have opened again, too.

This lukewarm reaction is how we know that we, as archivists, are not doing a good enough job on advocating, not just for our own jobs in our own institutions, but for archives as a whole as an effective tool to hold organizations, including the U.S. Government, accountable for their actions.

SAA ’13

SAA_NOLA3

Conferences hosted by New Orleans are the best conferences

SAA’13 was the my first SAA, and it did not disappoint. A few of the highlights from the conference are below.

SAA_NOLA2

Archivists value old stuff…

The forum entitled Memory and Power: How Diversifying the Archives Can Help Us Welcome the Future was well-attended and the audience engaged in truly thoughtful discussion during the Q:A period. My biggest takeaways were:

Imperative:

New archives must reflect the histories of all community members, otherwise future majorities will not find the archives relevant to their histories and will not prioritize the continued preservation of said archives.

Challenge:

There is still a pervasive feeling of “us” vs. “them” and an unanswered question: Who owns the archives? The community or the corporate entities that maintain the archives?

What we can do:

Find and support the people who are already preserving the history of their own communities.

Disappointingly, Disability: Uncovering Our Hidden History (session 310), was sparsely attended. Because I agree that it is imperative for archives to collect the histories of all community members, this seemed like a great followup to the Diversity forum, and I had expected to see a lot of familiar faces in the room. From my notes:

“Disability as a cultural concept is recent – historically, disabled people largely lived behind closed doors (parents were ashamed of their disabled children and hid them). Few places made an effort to document the lives of persons with a disability, so the historical narrative doesn’t include these stories.”

SAA_NOLA

Archivists value new stuff, too!

Finally, a speaker at the Intellectual Property Update (session 602) caught my attention when he remarked on the fact that no archives has yet been sued for copyright infringement. His follow up question was, are we being too cautious?

I think we are. From my notes:

“Libraries and Archives are interpreting law that was designed for things like Disney films, not cultural heritage. Because there is no litigation covering the types of activities that we do, we simply don’t know what the courts might say about what we do (or what we want to do but haven’t done because we’re not sure what is allowed under the law). Question that was raised during the Q:A session: Can we measure how progress in arts & sciences has been hampered out of nervousness about the law?”

My takeaway from this session was summed up by one of the speakers:

“Asking permission to share cultural resources may be an immoral act.”

Summer 2013 Semester Wrap-Up

The Internship

I spent the summer semester working on projects in diverse aspects of archival work, including outreach, policy development, and day-to-day collection management activities as an intern at the Emerson College Archives. These projects are described briefly below.

I began by creating materials for the then-upcoming Emerson College Alumni Weekend, which was a great opportunity for the Archives to perform “in-reach” to the Alumni Office and support that office’s mission to engage alumni. I used archival material (yearbooks, student newspapers, commencement programs, etc.) to create memory books for individual alumni; each book told the story of the former student’s time at Emerson and included scanned images of items such as their application photo, articles in the student newspaper, and their senior yearbook photo.

During Alumni Weekend, I was able to see these memory books in action when the books were presented to the alumni at a lunchtime ceremony. It was rewarding not only because I was able to see the final product of my efforts, but also because it offered me a different view on Alumni Weekend events (before entering the GSLIS program at Simmons, I was an Event Manager for the University of Chicago’s Alumni Weekend).

Image

Other lessons learned this summer: Climbing mountains in flip-flops is totally doable.

My next project was going to be the reappraisal and weeding of a large collection of news clippings, the Herald Clipping File; when I got my hands on the material, however, I knew that the project would not be so simple. Over 40 cubic feet of carefully arranged materials comprised the collection, and unique materials were interspersed with the clippings. Not all of the clippings came from the Boston Herald (or its predecessor papers), and many source papers could not be identified at all. Further, my research indicated that this particular type of collection might have a unique value; similar collections exist at the Harvard Archives (the Harvard Theater Collection) and at the Boston Public Library (the Boston Theater Archives), which indicate that the Herald Clipping File has ongoing archival value.

My internship supervisor asked me to create a reappraisal and deaccessioning policy to guide any actions taken with the Herald Clipping File (and Emerson’s other collections). It was a lot of fun to start something like this from scratch, and the SAA’s Guidelines for Reappraisal and Deaccessioning were a big help. Ultimately, my internship supervisor decided to retain the Herald Clipping File and make a renewed effort to promote the collection to the Emerson community.

I also gained some very practical experience by taking on ownership of the papers of one of Emerson’s past presidents. I surveyed the collection to check that the print-out of a box list from a defunct 1980s database was still accurate, then recreated the box list in Excel and prepared the collection to be sent to off-site storage. The process was not glamorous, but it was satisfying to see the project through to completion. The space cleared by moving that collection off-site will be used to bring the Herald Clipping File on site for easy access.

These projects helped develop my skills in various areas of archival work. From conducting research and creating new products to support the institution (with the Alumni Weekend memory books), to high level policy creation and problem solving (with the Herald Clipping File), to working with legacy systems and creating a workable situation within that framework (with the President’s collection), I am leaving the internship with a greater skill set than that with which I arrived.

Image

I found this gem in the archives at Emerson

Impressions of Emerson

It was an absolute pleasure to work under the supervision of Christina Zamon at the Emerson College Archives. I learned a great deal from witnessing her work-style; she has developed personal connections throughout the Emerson community to the benefit of herself and the archives. And, although she is very busy, Ms. Zamon handles the workload with grace, and makes time to nurture her working relationships. Her work is a great example of how to invest in the ongoing success of an archival program, and I look forward to following her example in my professional career.