Christopher Viney is an MSc student at the University of Glasgow – his research focusses on the role of social media in engaging communities around archives. Here he shares some of his results.
As part of my recent Masters of Information Management and Preservation at the University
of Glasgow, I wrote a dissertation on the role social media plays in archival public engagement in the United Kingdom. I utilised a two-pronged approach of content analysis and an online survey. My engagement as an archive user as well as from my time within the sector had already made me aware of some of the challenges faced by archives looking to use social media effectively for public engagement, yet three key issues readily became apparent through this research. As such I wanted to take the time to explore these challenges we all face in the archives sector and suggest some solutions so we can more effectively use social media in our public engagement activities.
An Archival Eco Chamber
If like me you have followed archives on social media then in all likelihood you will have
already stumbled across the first challenge faced by an archive or archivist looking to engage
new and wider audiences using social media. This is the insular echo chamber effect caused by social media.
If you spend time browsing an organisation’s social media feed or an archival hashtag
campaign then swiftly you will notice that much of the interaction and engagement
engendered is between ourselves within the sector. One example of this phenomenon that I
uncovered during my research can be found in the top tweet from the Dorset Heritage Centre
in April 2019 (https://twitter.com/DorsetArchives/status/1116285895907389441). Out of a
total of seven likes, six originated from archival twitter accounts.
Now don’t get me wrong there is nothing inherently bad about using social media to
strengthen the bonds within our sector, however, if we are seeking to move archives out of
their niche and engage with the wider world then we need our social media channels to reflect this. So, what is the solution? Well one step towards breaking out of the archival echo chamber we have created for ourselves would be to move from a “build it and they will come” approach to going where our desired audience already is. Rather than engaging with specific archival campaigns or hashtags we should look to wider discussions already occurring on social media and join in with them. For instance, if items in your collections match a topic, theme or event that members of the public are already discussing, tailor your social media to provide value in these ongoing discussions, this way we can reach our and begin to develop a richer and more valuable archival dialogue.
To ensure that it is possible to develop an archival social media presence that is dynamic and
flexible, catering to the needs of the wider public rather than broadcasting to other archival institutions there is a need for creative control. Spend any time in an archives staff room and it won’t take long to hear about an idea for public engagement that was stifled by an organisation’s social media policy in the name of brand coherence. Often a heavy-handed
approach is displayed by organisational marketing teams or local authority guidelines which
prevent archivists from taking the initiative, reducing the flexibility and creative use of social
media that is required for its effective use.
To break through this barrier, it is important to develop a good relationship with those responsible for running and curating the flow of social media content in your wider organisation. Be proactive in communicating with those who control social media how archival content can be effectively utilised to create a sense of brand. For examples look towards brands and products that rely heavily on their heritage in their brand image,
particularly good examples can be found within the drinks industry such as whisky brands.
Content is perhaps one of the most difficult aspects of the effective use of social media by
archives. By its nature, any content posted needs to be appealing and preferably spark
discussion and interaction. Often it helps when the content is visually appealing, particularly
on platforms such as Instagram where the visual element is the defining element to the
There are particular difficulties in archives that have a lot of collections that are either not
appropriate or where there are issues surrounding copyright and data protection. In this
regard, a more informal and conversational Twitter presence may be an appropriate
solution.188 This also has the added benefit of presenting a friendly face to the archive as
well as “behind the scenes” content that can be useful and engaging whilst avoiding issues
around the use of specific collections. This also has the potential benefit of breaking down the barriers of a potentially intimidating institution. Two good examples of how this can be
achieved can be seen on the Warwickshire County Record Office (https://twitter.com/Chambearlin) and Mills Archive (https://twitter.com/MillsArchive)
We face many challenges as a sector regarding public engagement, however, if we can
overcome its pitfalls social media provides an opportunity to reach out in a dynamic way
engaging with as yet unreached audiences and increasing our value to wider society.
For those wishing to explore this topic further including more detailed explanations, analysis
and statistics this blog post was based upon my Postgraduate Dissertation which can be found at my website https://christopherviney.co.uk
Picture: Christopher Viney.