Lynne Thomas is the Head of Rare Books and Special Collections at Northern Illinois University, a teaching and research collection with a special emphasis on American popular culture materials from the 19th and 20th centuries. At Confessions of a Curator, she blogs about collections and the social web. She is the co-author with Beth M. Whittaker of Special Collections 2.0, which examines Web 2.0 tech for cultural heritage collections, from Libraries Unlimited.
How was Confessions of a Curator “born”?
I launched the blog in August 2007 as an attempt to do departmental outreach and promotion. I wanted an easily updatable place to post announcements that didn’t require re-coding our website by hand. I had seen some other examples of library blogging, and thought I’d give it a go.
In one post, you ask your readers about your blog’s role in the online world. What do you feel that is and how do you feel you communicate with your audience?
My blog’s role in the online world has shifted over time as I’ve gotten more comfortable with the format. It originally began as a way to promote the department and occasionally share links of interest with our patrons. After a year or so, I realized that I was more interested in sharing my thoughts about the profession than focusing solely on our collections (I’m a bit of a process geek). My readership reflected that interest: the bulk of my readers turned out to be other special collections professionals, rather than patrons who might use our department. I renamed the blog “Confessions of A Curator” and made it more about me as a library professional than about the department that I’m in charge of.
That post asking about my role in the online world comes up about annually, as I tend to wonder periodically if it’s worth continuing the blog, given that the bulk of my readers tend to be passive consumers of the blog through aggregators and feeds rather than active commenters on the blog itself. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that; the blog still fulfills an important function by sifting through the information wave and picking and choosing things worth reading for folks in my field. My most popular posts tend to be my linkdumps and my write-ups of the Rare Books and Manuscripts Section Preconference.
I’ve come to think of the blog as a clearinghouse of links related to my job and the profession, along with some commentary and the occasional departmental announcement, all of which add up to a snapshot of being a special collections curator in a non-ARL library.
It’s easy to think of rare books and special collections work as some kind of mystical calling if you don’t know much about it. I’m trying to de-mystify our profession both as a recruiting tool for new professionals and as a way to explain to the public what we do, while using the blog as a way to encourage myself to stay active and connected to other professionals in the field.
Collections professionals sometimes have the reputation of being more focused on protecting objects than communicating their significance. Yet they seem to be among social media’s most passionate adherents among the heritage professions. Do you think that’s true, and what makes social media so appealing for this group?
That reputation of special collections professionals being the “dragons guarding their hordes” is something that I truly wish would die a horrible death. The bulk of professionals in our field are service-oriented librarians and archivists who firmly believe in connecting people to our materials as a way to keep them relevant and useful (and funded!). Social media tends to be appealing for us as a group because it’s an easily maintained, inexpensive tool to promote our collections, our libraries and our work, and to reach our patrons where they are, rather than expecting them to know where we are and come to us. Plus all of our friends are doing it.
Your blog includes stories about how you and your family experience books. They’re very powerful, but also very personal (Your blog even has the word “confessions” in the title!). Was it natural for you to communicate these concepts so personally, or was it an intentional choice to connect to your readers?
It’s a little of both, I think. I’m an extrovert, which means that I’m often a little more forthcoming about family experiences and such than other folks may be. My job and my life are very much intertwined, and I can’t really separate them very well even if I wanted to. It’s just not who I am.
My basic message is that just because something is “special” doesn’t mean that it needs to be permanently locked away. This is partially a political stance, because I’m the parent of a special needs child with severe disabilities. Children like my daughter (much like the books that I care for) would have been locked away in institutions and rendered invisible up until very recently. Given the right tools and adaptations, however, children with disabilities can and ought to be part of everyday life out in the world. Visibility promotes understanding, and reduces fear.
Special collections materials work the same way; providing handling adaptations and tools for their preservation helps them to survive for longer, but it doesn’t mean that we have to keep people away from them!
Helping people to understand what I do for a living, using a easily-relatable context like a family, encourages people to support cultural heritage institutions in general (and hopefully mine in particular as well).
As far as the title, it sounded appropriate; we have a lot of pulp magazines with similar titles in our collections.
You posted an interesting video regarding the end of publishing. As a curator and someone who works directly with books and preserving their importance, what do you see in the future of publishing and the traditional printed word?
Hand-written manuscripts didn’t go away just because Gutenberg invented the printing press. Books have not gone away in the nearly 20 years that we’ve had some version of the Internet, or in the more than 20 years that we’ve had relatively ubiquitous personal computing. I don’t expect the printed word to go away anytime soon; it is too useful, portable and accessible. I fully expect that the technologies will continue to coexist for quite some time, unless there is good reason for them not to do so. I do think that some major changes in the economic structure of how the printed word is sold and distributed will happen, because the current model is looking rather unsustainable right now. What that new model will be remains to be seen.
You have a post detailing requirements for archiving. Why is it important authors begin archiving things such as blogs and scratch notes? And why have you decided to do this all digitally?
The way that authors work has fundamentally changed in the age of personal computing. While there are still authors that work exclusively in longhand on paper, most writers either compose exclusively on their computers or bounce back and forth between paper and electronic documents. Blogs, in particular, have replaced paper-based diaries, journals and writing notebooks for many working writers. To document only paper-based materials means that we’d be literally missing half of the collection—specifically, the half with all of the “juicy bits” about the writing process that interest scholars!
Writers are creating born-digital artifacts. Since so much of special collections work focuses on preserving the artifact as close to its original form as possible, so as to not lose the context of the content it contains, we need to work in the digital realm as well as that of paper. Otherwise, we will end up in a situation where we will have destroyed the papers of authors by not saving the formats that we’re less comfortable with, just as if we were the family of a 19th century writer, throwing manuscripts into the fire to prevent embarrassment after that writer’s death.
Tell us about your book, Special Collections 2.0.
The book came out of the blog, actually. One of my colleagues, Beth Whittaker (now head of the Spencer Research Library at the University of Kansas), saw me muse about the preservation of electronic manuscripts and social networking, and called me. She noted that the can of worms that I had opened was a rather large one, about an issue that had not really been addressed in a pragmatic way within the profession, but ought to be. We used a private wiki to collaboratively write a proposal, submitted it to Libraries Unlimited, were approved and co-wrote the book.
Special Collections 2.0 is basically two things: an acknowledgment of the fact that the special collections community now has to deal with a hybrid of paper and electronic archives, and an examination of how the advent of social networking might affect our work. We look at social media both from the perspective of “how can I use these tools to my library’s/collection’s advantage?” and “how on earth am I going to preserve these things?”
We surveyed our profession to see what everyone else has been doing: what works, what doesn’t, and where librarians and archivists can best direct their invariably limited time and resources. What we discovered is that there are some really powerful tools for promoting, building and documenting our collections out there, but that preserving those digital objects we are ultimately responsible for is still a challenge for many libraries and archives.
In addition to your blog, what other social networks do you use and how do you use them? (eg: delicious, twitter, facebook, etc)
I’m consistently on Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads and Delicious under my real name. I use them for outreach to our donors (it’s how I keep in touch with living SF writers who archive with me), as well as for link-sharing with other cultural heritage professionals and people in shared fandoms. Most of these accounts are linked in some way: my Delicious account posts automatically to my blog; the blog posts automatically to our departmental Facebook page. My Goodreads account, which picks up my blog automatically, is visible on the blog and on Facebook. I use Twitter to post links to Facebook, and that is often how I publicize new blog posts. I also have FriendFeed and LinkedIn profiles that are basically dormant, created as part of the research for Special Collections 2.0.
I’m on LiveJournal, where I maintain a personal blog under a different username focused on my family and the media fandoms that I follow, rather than on my library work. That blog is also linked from my Facebook account. It’s mostly an easy way for far-flung friends and family to keep in touch, and for me to be part of a community of fans. I’m also on Ravelry (a knitting/crochet community) under the same username.
What advice do you offer other collections specialists who are exploring social media as a way to communicate?
The biggest lesson that I have learned from social media is that you really need to please, inform, interest and entertain yourself first. The grease for the social media engine is interesting, consistent content. Empty profiles are boring: if you aren’t going to use your account consistently, don’t bother building the profile in the first place. The best way to ensure consistency is to contribute what interests you. If you’re bored, so are your readers.
You can set expectations for your account that fit with your comfort level. For example, I subscribe to quite a few professional blogs that only post a few times a month, but the posts are worth waiting for: really engaging, well-thought out and interesting. I know when I subscribe that they are not high-traffic, based upon the information given in the blog’s profile; their quality rather than their quantity keep me subscribed.
The other part of working with social media is figuring out how much of yourself as a person or a professional that you would like to post. Many folks maintain dual profiles, one professional (say, on LinkedIn) and one personal (Facebook), and that works well for them. The key is to manage expectations; state your policies about “friending” or “following” outright on your profile, so that folks know where best to connect with you for their situation.
That’s not to say that everything has to be personal: there are plenty of special collections blogs out there that are about the collections, not the people that work with them. If the collections are interesting enough, that can work really well. There are some great correspondence blogs, for instance, that post a letter every few days from their collections, and archival blogs that post pictures and transcripts of recently processed materials.
Because I work extensively in the science fiction writing and fandom community as part of my job, and am a fan myself, I don’t bother to separate my at-work and not-at-work identities: my fandom is, in my case, a professional asset, and a large group of the SF authors that I work with follow my LiveJournal rather than Confessions of a Curator. Your mileage may vary.
That being said, despite the fact that I’m fairly public about much of my personal and professional life, there are certain things that I choose not to blog about or share on social media. I firmly believe that nothing on the web is truly anonymous or hidden, even if you can make it rather difficult to tie the person to the pseudonym. My rule of thumb is that if you wouldn’t want to see it published on the front page of your local newspaper, don’t post it on social media sites. What constitutes “willing to share publicly” is an individual choice: it’s all about figuring out what you’re comfortable with.