In our latest 2015 In-Depth Interview with Library Journal Movers & Shakers from academic libraries, sponsored by SAGE, we spoke with Colleen Theisen, special collections outreach and engagement librarian and social media manager at the University of Iowa (UI) Libraries in Iowa City. Theisen has worked to promote the university’s special collections since she arrived in 2012, taking advantage of the ubiquity of social media to reach a popular audience as well as academic colleagues. News, highlights, and information about the library’s special collections—including the university archives, map collection, Hevelin fanzine collection, and the Iowa Women’s Archives can be found on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, YouTube, and Vine (and archived on a retired Pinterest page); the special collections Tumblr channel alone has 44,000 followers worldwide.
How did you first get interested in working with special collections?
I trained to be an art teacher—my undergraduate degree was in art history, and my minor was history. For my minor [at the University of Missouri–Columbia] they sent me to the archives to create a guide for teachers for National History Day. While I was there, these sixth-graders in bonnets who were performing the words from a pioneer diary hooked me on the idea of connecting younger students with historic documents and books and objects, because I saw how they brought that story to life. That always stuck in the back of my mind. So when I decided to switch careers… [special collections] seemed like the one place where all of the things that I was interested in coexisted in one spot, in one type of job. I did my Master of Science in Information at the University of Michigan, and I focused on archives.
Your job title has changed since you were featured as a Mover, from Outreach and Instruction to Outreach and Engagement. Are you still teaching?
Yes, just not as much as I was before. The interesting thing about teaching in a special collections classroom is that we fill a lot of different roles. Sometimes we’re called on to teach the transition from manuscripts to printing, and sometimes we’re supporting the professor with what they need to bring their vision of the class to life. And sometimes we’re in this collaborative space in between, where we’re developing every aspect of the curriculum together.
Can you talk about your recent work with academic videos? Do you have any tips for people putting together some of their own?
We’ve been building our YouTube channel. That consists of a few different playlists of some different types of videos. We have Staxpeditions, where we’re asking the nerdiest question: What is your favorite Library of Congress call number range? And taking people’s suggestions—since [UI special collections are] closed stacks, we wanted a way to use people’s suggestions and go back there and find surprises for our viewers. Our second main group of videos is called “If Books Could Talk,” a collaboration with a medieval history graduate student and the music librarian who is our videographer. The three of us have put these videos together about the physical clues in an item or a medieval manuscript that tell the story of where it’s been, who’s handled it, how it was made—the process of historic inquiry by looking closely.
I think people are scared, in a lot of cases, because [of] a certain perfectionism. You’re not going to make great videos until you make some okay videos, or maybe even bad videos. Just make things. For a long time people will appreciate that you’re making them, until one day suddenly they will love it because you made something great. I think people love being along for that ride.
One practical piece of advice is not to worry about equipment. The spirit and the pacing of it, and the idea, is so much more important than whether you have a great camera to film it. Grab an iPad, grab a phone, and go. A really great camera is not necessary for making a great video.
What would you tell someone interested in starting social media around their collections if they don’t have institutional or library support to begin with?
People ask me that a lot, and it is a challenging one to answer, since I came in with support. I’d say that one of the best things to do is make a pitch to do a test, and be able to measure what the results are.
If the college or university has its own site, I would find out who is running that, and ask if there would be a way to give them one piece of content per week, or even per month. Then that content goes out to a really wide audience, and it’s easy after that, with some support, to launch your own at some point. You’ve got that relationship built for that channel to say, “Have you loved our Throwback Thursdays, where the university archives have shown historic photos? Well, the university archives are going to do that more days per week on their own channel, so you should follow them there.”
While doing that test, I think it’s also really important to realize that libraries are not competitive—we’re supportive and collaborative. The number one most important thing is to let everybody else know that you’re starting a social media channel, and ask them to tell people to follow you. If you’re an academic library and there’s a local public library, ask the public library to tweet something about how you just started a Twitter [feed]. Ask your institution’s Twitter. Just ask everybody to get the word out that you started a channel, and then you don’t have to build from zero.
Does your approach to social media, and use of various platforms, change for the different collections?
There are certain things that appeal to different communities more. For example, our Iowa Women’s Archives, which is one of our Tumblr pages, started doing Women’s History Wednesdays. We put that specifically on Tumblr because there’s such a strong feminist community there, and such large Tumblrs devoted to women’s history, that it was a good match for the topic. In fact, the posts were so successful that we did exactly what I described, and they launched their own channel so that they could bring more of that content per week in its own stream. Book content is a very good fit for Tumblr because it’s such a book loving community of librarians, of people from all over the world who just really love books.
I find that our local community is mostly on Twitter and Facebook, where we’re posting things like event announcements or our hours. The approach on the other channels is much more broad, more about the idea of special collections, and what types of things one might find—to get excited about that and spread the word. So many special collections have coalesced on Tumblr—that’s why it’s such a fun place for that conversation to happen.
The interesting thing about our video projects is, we’re building toward being a YouTube channel, but I still think of [them] as being videos that we’re making for our Tumblr audience. Some other social media [platforms] sort of punish the findability of items that you’ve posted from other sites—if you post a link to an Instagram photo on Facebook they don’t like that; they won’t promote it. But on Tumblr, a piece of content is just like any other piece of content. They don’t privilege things that have been posted natively on Tumblr over other things. So our biggest viewers of video content are the ones clicking through from Tumblr. We’re posting [the videos] on [our Vine and YouTube] sites as well, and I’d love for our channels to grow, but still the ones who watch from beginning to end are the ones coming through from either Tumblr or Twitter. There are fewer people who are following us just on YouTube.
What are you working on?
I would still call our “If Books Could Talk” series rather new. It’s been going on most of this year, but it’s the biggest time investment we’ve been [making] because they’re much longer videos. They range between nine and 13 minutes and they’re the most researched of the work we do.
In the works, I have a series called “History Out Loud” that I hope to be launching in about a month that will be focused on bringing quotes out of manuscript collections to life through video. Manuscripts are a challenge online. I find that the focus on visuals makes it much easier to promote books online than handwritten manuscripts, where the rich content is not immediately apparent. It needs context to make sense and be thrilling and exciting, to bring a story to life. So I’m trying to bring more manuscripts to the Internet.
If you had to give three tips to someone in an academic library who’s interested in promoting their collections, and who wants to lead the way, what would you tell them?
- Have fun—they will be able to tell if you’re not!
- Get everyone involved in some way. Working alone eventually leads to burnout.
- Team up with other pages for hashtags or projects. We’re stronger together.