Institutional Tweeting: Museums, Libraries, Digital Archives, and the Little Blue Bird

by Matthew Amyx

The phrase “social media” often conjures images of zombie-eyed millennials with their faces glued to a mobile screen, who stop scrolling only to take a selfie or Instagram their lunch. These associations – apart from being offensive stereotypes of an actually very-engaged generation – overlook the networking and non-profit advertising benefits social media offers to educational institutions. As evidence, I present ways museums, libraries, and digital archives use Twitter to engage the public and promote their educational brands.

Congress approved the creation of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in 2003, but the museum just announced its grand opening on September 26, 2016. They have nonetheless deployed their Twitter handle @NMAAHC to keep the public apprised of their construction progress and link followers to their website information on exhibits and architecture. @NMAAHC also advertises pre-opening NMAAHC events taking place at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, including a book event with Rep. John Lewis and a Black History Month Family Day. According to its Mission, the NMAAHC “seeks to help all Americans remember, and by remembering, this institution will stimulate a dialogue about race and help to foster a spirit of reconciliation and healing.” At this stage, @NMAAHC serves to remind the public that the long awaited museum is still underway so that the doors will open to an already-excited following, demonstrating that social media today is an important tool for kicking-off an institution’s mission, not just an afterthought for supporting it.

The Gerber/Hart Library is Chicago’s most prominent LGBTQ archival institution (for more info on this excellent space, see the author’s write-up on it on the Lakefront Historian blog.) According to their Mission, the “Gerber/Hart Library and Archives is dedicated to meeting the information needs of its unique community in a safe atmosphere that promotes research, exploration, and discovery.” This triad of goals is reflected in their Twitter handle, @GerberHart. They announce when their extensive research archive grows, such as with the addition of the Able Together newsletter collection in February 2015. They advertise opportunities for followers to explore their exhibits, such as one for Jewish American heritage in May 2015. And they post about events where visitors can discover other LGBTQ residents in the area. The Gerber/Hart Library is an example of an institution using Twitter in various ways to support a multi-faceted mission.

Digital archives also employ Twitter to raise awareness of offerings and piggy-back off of current events. Project Gutenberg – founded in 1971 by University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign student Michael S. Hart (1941-2011) – works on a simple mission: “To encourage the creation and distribution of eBooks.” Today they offer – free of charge – over 50,000 eBooks, linking to 100,000 more through their affiliates and partners. Nearly all of these are free of copyright and come in multiple formats including HTML, Kindle, and PDF. Project Gutenberg uses a couple of Twitter handles to encourage use of the website. @gutenberg.org – their main account – references currently trending internet topics to plug books already in their system. On February 1st, 2016, they tweeted about Google’s ‘doodle’ honoring Frederick Douglas on his birthday, including a link to their offerings of his books. On January 26th, @VintageAnchor tweeted about a 1924 New Republic article by Virginia Woolf praising Jane Austen, so Project Gutenberg retweeted it with a link to their list of Woolf and Austen’s books. Project Gutenberg’s other account – @gutenberg_new – makes followers aware of freshly uploaded eBooks, such as Alan Arkan’s short sci-fi comedy Whiskaboom on February 5th, 2016 or Poèmes et Poésies, a French translation of John Keat’s works on February 3rd, 2016. Project Gutenberg shows that social media is just as important for institutions without actual physical exhibits or temporal events as it is for more traditional museums or libraries.

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2 thoughts on “Institutional Tweeting: Museums, Libraries, Digital Archives, and the Little Blue Bird”

  1. Great post — all three of the organizations you spotlighted are doing good work. I especially like the way you said Project Guttenberg uses Twitter essentially to publicize primary source material related to current events & interests. It’s interesting to consider how copyright might affect this — certainly both copyrighted and public domain works can be publicized on Twitter, but taking the next step (as Guttenberg does) and legally making the sources available in full generally requires either permission (& royalties) or public domain status, which excludes a lot of material from after 1923. I wonder how this impacts the usefulness of the web and social media for publicly sharing the primary sources of more recent history. As copyright terms have expanded, has the recent past paradoxically become more difficult to access and share?

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  2. I like how you included NMAAHC in your critique. I’ve been following the evolution of the project, now fully fledged institution, for years. To include the public in NMAAHC creation is integral to its growth and staying power, especially since it’s taken such a long time. NMAAHC also has the advantage of being a part of the Smithsonian family in that it has a fair amount of resources to garner an audience, and create events for the public without having to open museum doors. It speaks to the power of the Smithsonian Institute and the public’s interest.

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