For a while now, academic libraries have been harnessing new technology and social media platforms to help local history come alive.
At the University of Nevada, Reno, Donnelyn Curtis, head of special collections, turned to Facebook to connect the university’s archives with students who care about history and the school’s tradition. She began by creating Facebook pages for Joe McDonald and Leola Lewis—two students who attended the university in the 1910s, married a few years later, and died in 1971 and 1964, respectively.
Curtis started the project as a way to educate people, especially students, about the couple’s lives and the history of their time, as well as to bring more exposure to the special collections department, she told American Libraries.
In early 2011, the university was going through budget cuts, and a proposal was made to close special collections because it didn’t have as much traffic compared with other areas of the library. “Most of our users were retired people writing books,” Curtis said, “so we really started thinking about how to connect with younger people, with the curriculum, and with faculty.”
She got the idea to “go where the students were and get them interested in the history of where they are.” But she admitted she wasn’t really sure that using a social network site would work. “I didn’t think students would friend these people.”
Originally, Curtis created Facebook profiles—as opposed to pages—of the couple but learned within a week of the story going viral on January 6 that the profiles violated the social media site’s Terms of Service agreement, which states that users cannot “provide any false personal information on Facebook, or create an account for anyone other than yourself without permission.” Curtis had already amassed more than 3,000 friends for Joe and Leola before Facebook disabled the profiles without warning on January 11. Curtis has not been able to retrieve the information (such as comments, posts, and friends list) despite queries to the company. So she rebuilt history again—this time as pages.
Curtis offers eight tips for other librarians and staff interested in launching similar projects:
1. Create a Facebook page, not profile. Although Curtis learned the hard way, she said pages are, in the end, much better for organizations because they eliminate the need to confirm friend requests one by one. (At one point, Curtis was getting 30–40 requests per hour.) Plus with Facebook pages, users receive weekly analytics and demographic reports that help to gauge audience interest. Librarians can then compile the information to send to administrators.
2. Digitize materials in advance. You may want to link to newspaper archives, but that can be difficult to do, said Curtis. For one thing, it’s often a subscription database; for another thing, the quality is “often terrible” because they’re digitized from microfilm. Curtis suggested enlisting students to type those articles and put each one on a page that links to other articles in order to simulate a newspaper. That way, she said, “Once you know a month ahead of time what you’re going to be talking about, you have your links in place and your photographs chosen and digitized.”
3. Link to your photo database, but make sure it’s in good shape first. Turn them into JPEG files, improve the image quality, and update captions.
4. Brand your project. Curtis said she doesn’t want to “destroy the illusion that we’re in 1912 or 1913,” so instead of just posting a link to a photograph, she links it into UNR Libraries’ photo database, where the metadata is. “Once people are there, they can find other photographs and see that we have this rich collection.”
5. Create a Twitter account and link it to your Facebook page. The next time you post on Facebook, it will automatically go out on Twitter with a shortened URL. Not only are you saving time, but you’re also reaching different audiences that may prefer one social media platform over the other, said Curtis.
6. Contact your campus’s marketing department, the student newspaper, and the local newspaper. Marketing students or interns may be able to write a press release and do a lot of the publicity legwork for you.
7. Reach out to prominent alums and their families. When selecting a historical figure to highlight, look toward those with connections to the university or community, some of whom may have donated papers and other archival material locally. Joe was a packrat, said Curtis, so special collections was able to obtain such items as school transcripts and old passports. She also got additional papers from Joe and Leola’s granddaughters, who in turn put Curtis in touch with other family members.
8. Have fun. People will try to stump you with questions about history, or they may not completely understand the documentary aspect of the project, but do the best you can, Curtis said, and have fun with it.