This August I had pleasure of attending the Society of American Archivists (SAA) Annual Meeting, ARCHIVES 2015, in Cleveland, Ohio. While I was excited enough by the prospect of participating in my first national LIS conference, I was most looking forward to learning about recent trends and practices in digital archival outreach and engagement. Having spent my summer practicum doing social media and digital outreach at the Smithsonian Institution Archives, I was eager to contextualize the experience within contemporary archival scholarship. Through discussions, professional posters, and one absolutely stellar panel, it became clear that successful outreach is an increasingly subtle, calculated art.
At Emory University’s Manuscript, Archive, and Rare Book Library (MARBL), outreach archivist Matthew Strandmark has been implementing innovative strategies for achieving community relevance and engagement. With these outreach goals firmly outlined, Strandmark was able to develop a carefully crafted and instituted MARBL presence on the platform HistoryPin. The magic of HistoryPin is its interactive capability which, through a variety of features, promotes the creation of collaborative community history. MARBL uploads a variety of archival images, tagging their location and date, and even giving some the ability to layer over contemporary street view shots of the same site. Community users contribute context and emotional value by adding personal comments and stories to the photographs.
Staff at Philadelphia’s Othmer Library of Chemical History have experienced similar success leveraging the unique capabilities of a single social media platform. Searching for the best, and most efficient, way to enhance the visibility of their obscure institution, Hillary Kativa and her coworkers created a Tumblr blog, Othmeralia. Tumblr gives staff the ability to pair visual content (like GIFs, scanned archival content, and digital photographs) with any length of explanation, from essay to cheeky caption, depending on the situation. Other great Tumblr features are content tagging and reposting—capabilities that led to an Othmeralia shout-out from Smithsonian Libraries, and the subsequent heightening of the blog’s visibility. Othmer’s approach is an exceptional outreach model for hidden archives and collections across the world, while its content is a great example of how such singular content can be re-framed in a way that renders it relatable to most user groups.
The last approach I encountered, “narrowly focused” digital and social media outreach, was directly offered by session panelists as an experimental alternative to classic strategies. This approach is typified by digital/social media initiatives developed specifically for showcasing an exceptionally rich, high-profile, or heterogeneous institutional collection. Outreach staff may choose a single digital platform that meets engagement goals, or they may go cross-platform to enhance visibility; this decision depends on how they can best reach the collection’s specified target audience. The Documenting Modern Living: Digitizing Miller House and Garden Tumblr blog, operated by the Indianapolis Museum of Art, is a wonderful narrowly focused outreach project. The collection, a home, surrounding gardens, and related archives, is highly visual—including paint samples, architectural sketches, historic and contemporary property photos—making Tumblr a perfect platform for exploring its in’s-and-out’s. It’s surprising how effective this narrowing strategy is at achieving profoundly deep-seated engagement with users.
All of these aforementioned digital engagement initiatives indicate a burgeoning approach to archival outreach that is marked by creativity, dynamism, and experimentation. But the more notable trend exhibited is the careful “tailoring” of strategy and digital medium to the unique engagement end-goal(s) of each institution. Until recently, the common digital outreach M.O has been a cross-platform approach most often served by the social media “big four”: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and preferred blog service. Such multi-strategies are great user-community “catch-all’s” as, between four platforms, most user demographics are bound to be reached. The problem, though, is the unsuitability of cross-platform approaches to sparking deep, sustained user engagement. In other words, these strategies are great for pairing with a dynamic, enticing institutional website or additional digital service but, alone, they aren’t adequately fitted to institutional goals to be sufficient standalone methods.
The outreach work of these ARCHIVES 2015 presenters is exciting because it represents a potential shift in digital engagement approaches, proving that social media platforms and technologies beyond the “big four” can indeed be worth the investment of resources. It is absolutely essential to note that these tailored digital outreach initiatives are only worth the investment if the institution truly possesses the time, knowledge, technology, and manpower required to create a well-developed, goal-oriented implementation strategy. All digital outreach is best served by a strategic plan, but the success of this fitted approach is especially contingent on planning, as the entire initiative begins with mapping specific outreach goals to the best-suited available social media/digital platform. In the future, as increasing numbers of cultural heritage organizations explore the creation of unique, platform-specific tailored outreach, it’s likely that best practice formulas will emerge. Five years down the road, outreach professionals may be able to plug their institutional information and engagement goals into a formula that spits out the bones of a tailored outreach strategy-complete with best-suited social media platform and all! But whatever professional workflow emerges, one thing is certain: with creative outreach and engagement professionals—like those mentioned here—continuing to dominated the LIS field, anything is possible.