“Exploring the Early Americas” at the Library of Congress: Exhibitions as Advocates for Cultural Heritage Institutions

Written by Rebecca Hoffman Moore (a current student at the Department of Library and Information Science, CUA)

Exhibitions are a phenomenal tool that an archive and information center can use to introduce the public to its collection. Exhibitions are especially effective because they offer a point of visitor engagement with collections and convey the institution’s mission. (Gaub 2011, 127.) For my CUA LIS course on Public Programs, Outreach, and Digital Exhibitions, each student reviewed an exhibition at a local institution. Upon reviewing “Exploring the Early Americas,” at the Library of Congress, I understood how exhibitions can be an effective form of outreach when the relationship between visitor, collection, and institution is considered.

So what makes a good exhibition? Author Emma Howgill argues for several criteria in her article “New Methods of Analyzing Archival Exhibitions.” Comfort and physical accessibility, for instance, are basic measures that exhibitions can use to draw visitors in or shoo them away (Howgill 2015, 2, 8.) Organization is another critical component, ensuring that objects are presented in a coherent narrative for the visitor (Howgill 2015, 2-3.) Intellectual accessibility and interactive learning also enhance the visitor’s experience.

“Exploring the Early Americas,” the exhibition I chose to evaluate based on Howgill’s criteria, offers a glimpse into the Library’s collection of over 3,000 rare documents, maps, and objects relating to the early Americas and the Age of Discovery. As a library science student with an interest in rare collections, I learned that exhibitions can make rare materials and institutions that care for such collections more accessible to visitors.

Howgill’s first set of criteria encompasses comfort and physical accessibility, which this exhibition attempts to achieve. The Jefferson building, where the collection is exhibited, is an old building with little leeway for modification. The exhibition adapted to the space and even added some pre-Columbian flair, flanking the entrance with statues and an arch (Figure 1). While the exhibition was well-designed, there were some concerns that modifications could not address. For instance, the large windows had to be shuttered to ensure proper preservation standards, leaving case lights that were barely bright enough to read the object labels (Figure 2). Additionally, the room was set up so that visitors would enter and exit through the same corridor. Despite this, the exhibition negotiated its given space well and provided a lovely setting to amble through.

Figure 1 Entrance of exhibition with sculptures

Figure 1 Entrance of exhibition with sculptures


Figure 2 Low lights in exhibition display cases

Organization is perhaps the next level on a hierarchy of needs for exhibitions, as a poorly-designed and organized exhibition will fail to achieve the institution’s goal of advocating for itself and its collections. The Library of Congress did not disappoint, and instead organized “Exploring the Early Americas” with such a goal in mind. The themes discussed early in the exhibition, such as “Pre-Contact America” and “Explorations and Encounters,” crescendo to the final theme, “Aftermath of Explorations.” In this last room, visitors encounter the Waldseemüller maps, a recent high-profile acquisition for the Library of Congress, and the first instance of the name “America” appearing on a map.


Figure 3 Education kiosk with Conquest of America painting series

In addition to structuring the exhibition around these archival gems, the Library of Congress exhibits many other pieces within its collection to show how they are being used by scholars. Intellectual accessibility, the third component of Howgill’s criteria, invites the visitor to engage with the objects and content in an appropriate manner. My fellow exhibition-goers were students and families who had just wrapped up their tour of the Library; certainly pre-Columbian history was not their specialty. However, wall texts and object labels ferried them through the content, and interactive components complemented them. Interactive kiosks lined the hall, some with brief videos about how scholars use the collections, others with digitized versions of objects that visitors could browse.

The two latter components, intellectual accessibility and organization, go hand in hand, allowing visitors both to learn about pre-Columbian history, but also to understand why the Library of Congress even has these materials in the first place. Through wall text, interactive kiosks, and exhibition organization, visitors appreciate the value of archives and libraries as scholarly support systems. “Exploring the Early Americas” goes above and beyond a basic exhibition, and I would encourage exhibition planners to use this exhibition as a model for exhibiting objects as an outreach tool.


Gaub, S. (2011). “Visual materials.” In Russell D. James & Peter J. Wosh (Eds.), Public relations and marketing for archives (109-159), New York: Neal-Schuman Publishers, Inc.

Howgill, E. (2015). New methods of analyzing archival exhibitions. Archives and Records,  1-16 (June 2015).

ARCHIVES 2015: “Tailoring” Your Digital and Social Media Outreach Initiatives

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.

Finding the value of cultural heritage resources

During past 5 weeks, Kelsey Conway, a student at the Department of Library and Information Science, Catholic University of America, took a credit-based practicum at the History of Medicine Division of National Library of Medicine for her study in Cultural Heritage Information Management. Her practicum work focused on cataloging medical advertisements and other printed promotional materials from the late 19th and early 20th centuries—all from a collection donated by William H. Helfand. While examining the materials for cataloging, she found the true value of these unique resources in providing an invaluable insight on the general public’s experience of medicine and advertisement strategies which are observable same today. She wrote a blog post of her interpretation of these resources. Her original blog post at NLM is available here at http://circulatingnow.nlm.nih.gov/2015/07/15/medical-advertisements-after-fda/. Her blog post was redistributed at ALA’s American Libraries Magazine “Latest Links” on July 16th (http://americanlibrariesmagazine.org/latest-links/).

Project Andvari Workshop: constructing a thesaurus

An excellent blog post by CUA’s very own Kevin Gunn about the Project Andvari controlled vocabulary workshop. Do yourself a favor and check it out!

Digital Scholarship and beyond

The Project Andvari team met November 7th and 8th, 2014.  The task of the workshop was  to create a basic thesaurus, fulfill a ‘proof of concept’ requirement (i.e. create a pilot project), and discuss future steps in the evolution of the project.

When completed, Project Andvari will be an online database for scholars and the public to search for pre-Christian images from the Medieval Norse, Nordic, Anglo-Saxon, and northern European traditions, covering roughly 400 AD to 1200 A.D.  For more background information regarding the history and parameters of the project,  grants received and submitted, individuals involved, and other delightful information, go to the blog.

 Friday, November 7th, 2014

Lilla Kopár, co-project director, convened the meeting and gave an itinerary for the next two days.  Her first big question was:  can we do this project at all? We discussed in the workshop in 2013 the digital tool we wanted to…

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A storytelling of an unknown local artist

Alyse Minter, one of our fellow CUA students, completed her practicum at the Smithsonian Institution Archive last summer. During her work on digitizing audio/video cassettes at the Archive, she did archival research using primary sources on John N. Robinson, a native Washingtonian and artist. Her research about his life and work is published on Smithsonian Institution Archives blog. Check her storytelling about John Robinson at http://siarchives.si.edu/blog/john-n-robinson-his-life-and-work

Joseph Koivisto helps the British Museum use crowdsourcing to publish digital archeology objects

The Guardian recently reported on Micropasts, a British Museum crowdsourcing project that combines cultural heritage work and 3D printing (http://www.theguardian.com/science/2014/aug/18/volunteers-british-museum-crowdsourcing-archeology). The project uses crowdsourcing for transcriptions of object records and photogrammetric development of 3D object models. This project was supported by Joseph through volunteer participation based on his interest in digital humanities and his work with 3D printing at the Digital Commons of the DC Public Library in Washington D.C.


Be sure to check out Micropasts and their neat crowdsourcing interfaces.

Also, be sure to learn about the Digital Commons and their 3D printing services.