#SharedAuthority: Public History and Twitter

Twitter is a social networking service that allows users to share short bursts of information. Users who set up accounts have just 140 characters to utilize before their message, or “tweet” reaches capacity. Each tweet is then posted on a user’s timeline, with the most recent tweets at the top. When Twitter first arose, it was a personal platform; there were very few users tweeting on behalf of organizations and institutions. Today, many museums, libraries, and other public history institutions have highly active accounts on the site and find it to be a very effective way to connect with the public.

Twitter can hardly be considered “new media” in the sense of newness, as it is approaching its tenth birthday in March 2016. It has adapted in many ways, but retained a great deal of characteristics present at its creation. The 140 character limit has remained constant since the beginning. With such few characters permitted for each post, users have to get straight to the point of the message they are trying to convey- quality over quantity. It’s not necessarily a place to share deep content, but rather to generate awareness and interest. An informational tease, if you will. This stipulation is the same for every user.

Twitter also has a feature in which a user’s identity is screened by Twitter employees to ensure that the user is who they say they are. Consumers can rest assured that information is coming right from the source, and the trust built between users has set Twitter apart from similar platforms.

The use of hashtags on Twitter creates the kind of open dialogue between users that is imperative to the successful practice of public history. By using the tag #ncph2016, users can contribute to the discussion surrounding this year’s conference, as well as read related tweets from others around the world. I love this feature- tweets filed with the previously mentioned hashtag range in content: people expressing excitement to attend the conference, facilitators updating the agenda, and attendees sharing related material. With so many people contributing, the conversation has the potential to become richer, well-rounded, and most importantly- open. On the opposite end of the spectrum, hashtag abuse can also put people off. Twitter was designed for short, concise bursts of information, and a tweet overloaded with hashtags is appears cluttered and sometimes overwhelming. Spelling and formatting are important, too- if your #NCPH2016 post is spelled incorrectly as #NPCH2016, your tweet won’t be added to the proper feed and your contribution overlooked.

I’ve had a Twitter account since 2009, and one of my favorite accounts to follow is that of the New York Public Library (@nypl). The way they tweet feels more authentic. Some organizations tweet with strong advertising undertones- I can practically picture a present-day Don Draper behind the scenes crafting the most edgy, most modern campaign. The New York Public Library tweets as if they are very well aware of their value. While they surely want to draw people in and raise awareness, they do it much more subtly than most.

The mission of The New York Public Library is to inspire lifelong learning, advance knowledge, and strengthen our communities.

They certainly do use Twitter to fulfill this mission, especially to advance knowledge, and they do this in a way that’s very in tune with current cultural fads. For example, adult coloring books are rather popular at the moment. This past week, several institutions have created black and white coloring books based on rare art and manuscripts they have in their collections and released these coloring books to the public. They’ve encouraged users to download these pages, color them, and post their finished creations to Twitter using the hashtag #ColorOurCollections . The New York Public Library, Smithsonian Libraries, The Bodleian, and many others have done this, and it’s such an awesome way to keep up with popular fads while also allowing a really unique way for the public to engage with their collections and each other. If you’re interested, you can check out some of the pages here. One of my favorit
es is the Oregon Health and Science Society’s Collections & Archives Coloring Book (@OHSUHistColl).

If you’re interested in following my musings on Twitter, my handle is @hannahathedisco. As I mentioned earlier, I’ve had this account since 2009. I debated changing my handle to something less embarrassing, b
ut ultimately, I decided against it. Life is short, but disco will live on forever…and so will this handle.


4 thoughts on “#SharedAuthority: Public History and Twitter

  1. I’ve heard about the #ColorOurCollections hashtag, and I LOVE THIS IDEA. It makes collections more engaging and exciting; it helps people learn about arts, literature, etc. in a new way that doesn’t have them sitting and listening to a lecture.

    I also agree with your sentiments about the advertising undertones. The Burns Archive’s Twitter account is very much full of advertising itself as a source for Hollywood projects. The collections are awesome because they show some of the less pleasant sides of history, but the Twitter account doesn’t really highlight their collection effectively, which makes me really sad:(

    I’m now going to go find something to color… Thanks for the idea!


  2. Yo! An early twit, like myself. I find that more and more institutions are trying to stay on top of the latest trends as well. Coloring books are so hot right now. I like that hashtag, #colorourcollection. Monticello has one out too; it does a great job showcasing the architecturally inclined Jefferson, while attracting nerds to get their color on.


  3. I knew adult coloring books were an emerging fad, but I did not know libraries and art museums were so quick to act on it. I also think that creating black and white pages for people to color is a great way of engaging people with art. Institutions are able to share the pieces with an audience who otherwise probably wouldn’t have been able to take a trip to the museum. It allows institutions to explore less exposed sections of their collections. Hopefully, as people are coloring in facsimiles of priceless works of art they are thinking about the piece and analyzing it. Asking questions about the piece, wondering what colors the artist chose and why. Or maybe they just want to color. I know what I’ll be using for my next study break.


  4. Your discussion of hashtags really made me realize how they can be a path to shared authority. Because no one is in charge of curating the content under the hashtag, and museum staff and visitors can all contribute equally, it really does have the potential to be a useful space for open dialogue. You also made great points about how the boundaries of Twitter make it uniquely useful.

    I loved the #ColorOurCollections event last week! It was really cool to see so many institutions participating and showing the diversity of their collections through coloring pages. It’s a perfect example of how social media can be used creatively to connect institutions to the public and to each other.

    The WLA does not have a Twitter, so the archives missed out on this really fun trend (although we might have to participate late). Our social media plan has always focused on connecting to the public, but this made me realize that staying connected to other institutions and what they are involved in can be just as beneficial.


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