I didn't used to think social media timings were important, but increasingly I think it is worth trying to hit times of peak engagement IF you're tweeting or posting something important, particularly when using social media as an organisation rather than just for yourself. If you've put effort into creating useful content, you want as many people to see it as possible.
At heart this is a post about discoverability, access, and bringing things to the surface that might otherwise not be seen. The Mechanical Curator of the title is one way of the ways the BL has done this with their digitised images, but only one of many - the point is we all have collections which WOULD engage people if they knew about it, so why not invest some time in getting the message out there in innovative ways?
I ran some workshops for the British Library at the end of last year, aimed at social media 'improvers' (people already using it as part of their professional role, who want to get more engagement and measure their impact etc), during which I talked about Tumblr. I showed various examples and confessed my favourite Tumblr of all was from the BL themselves, the Mechanical Curator.
The Mechanical Curator is Tumblr blog which regularly (and automatically) posts images from 1,000,000+ the BL have scanned from out-of-copyright books from previous centuries. It has been programmed with some Artificial Intelligence - or as far as I can see, more like Artificial Whimsy - and becomes taken with certain shapes, symmetries, and themes, and posts these more often and in clusters. After its set up and tweaking, there's no human intervention - it just gets on with it.
I loved the Mechanical Curator before, but I love it even more now, because I got (my childhood friend!) Ben O'Steen, who is Technical Lead at BL Labs, to come along and talk to the group about the project, as he designed the whole thing. And he gave such an interesting talk about it, and I learned so many new things, that I felt compelled to write this post about how great the whole thing is. Not just in itself, but in what it represents about the new ethos of library sharing, which could be the very thing which ensures our continued relevance.
So here we go, 9 reasons why I love the Mechanical Curator and the project around it:
- It's the perfect use for a Tumblr. It's not a regular blog which just used Tumblr because it's fashionable, it's a short, snappy alternative to the BL's more traditional blogging output (which happens via Typepad)
- It helps people engage with the BL even if they wouldn't usually. On a micro-level, people stumble across the weird little Tumblr and its weird little images, and then they can either leave it at that OR follow the links to the BL catalogue for each pic, and engage with the Library through other channels. That's what social media should do for us; exist on its on terms, and as a gateway to other library content. On a macro-level this whole project gets people interested in British Library materials - people who would never visit or even really know about the BL normally - and then allows them to learn more about the organisation if they wish to
- It takes something vast and makes it accessible one piece at a time. Tumblr is very visual and, like Pinterest, when it first came along I wondered what the point was when we already had Flickr. In this case, all the images the Mechanical Curator brings to the surfaces are on Flickr anyhow. But a digital repository or a Flickr account provide such a MASS of materials, it can be hard to find a way in and make sense of it all. The Tumblr takes one image at a time and gets it out another way, broken down into smaller chunks, which helps people find it, access it, and then explore further
- It's just the kind of thing you want your national library to be doing. They've taken 1 million images and said: here you go, you can do anything with them, whoever you are. That's fantastic. Not only that but they've done so in a properly interesting and accessible way, with an emphasis on actually REACHING people with the materials, not just making them available in a vacuum
- Forget librarians as gatekeepers... When I first entered librarianship I was very excited about the fact that while in the past librarians were gatekeepers of knowledge and information, now the gates were open and we were the sherpas who helped people find what they needed. This takes that anaology one step further and, in effect, brings all the content out from behind the gates and just puts it on the street, asking people to help themselves. I love that. We will get nowhere by trying to guard what we have, we need to give of ourselves as much as we can
- The BL is now immersed in pop-culture. My favourite Buzzfeed article of all time just happens to be this one: 44 Medieval Beasts That Cannot Even Handle It Right Now. All 44 are illustrated from the BL's images, put out by the Manuscripts Team
- The level of engagement is incredible. Sometimes you do all the right things to bring people in, but nobody comes. Not this time. Over the first 11 months, the images were viewed on Flickr 212 million times! I try not to put too much stock in views alone, but 20 million hits every month is hard to ignore. Not just that but every single one of the images have been viewed at least once, all but a handful 5 times or more. So despite the collosal scale and bredth of the collection, people are engaging with all of it
- People aren't just viewing the images, they're DOING things with the images. People are doing really creative things with the images: using them in art installations, free colouring-in books for children, as patterns on handbags... I love how this video from Joe Bell brings the images to life
- Including a huge movement to crowd-source some contextual information. Here's the wikipedia page (not set up by Ben or the BL) aimed at tagging all the maps found in the images with contextual and geographic information. As you can see, there are NONE left still to do: all 29,304 of the maps have been tagged.
It's not just maps - the community have tagged all sorts of things, providing the BL with groups and categories on its flickr page. Crowd-sourcing is great way of engaging a community and giving them ownership of something!
Finally, for some more context, here's one of Ben's presentations about the Mechanical Curator.
SO Can WE ALL do something like this?
As you can tell, I really think this project is ace. It's a template for what libraries can do with their collections - and although there's a tremendous amount of resource behind what the BL has done, we can all learn from it and apply some of their methodology.
Perhaps we can't all make a tumblr with Artificial intelligence, but we might know someone who can take Ben's code, freely available on Github, and apply it to another project. But to get distracted by the AI is to miss the point - the Mechanical Curator's greatest asset, for me, is taking something unmanagably vast and giving people another way to access it. So if your library has digitised materials which are out of copyright, don't just have them sat in a digital library! Get them out for people to happen across, via Tumblr, Pinterest or Instagram.
If you have collections which you own, or which are out of copyright, can you put them into the public domain and encourage people to take them and remix them?
In my Presentation Skills training I spend a lot of time offering different ways of presenting information and ideas visually, so you can lose a lot of the words from your PowerPoint slides. After all, it is a presentation, not a document. It's not designed to be read - or at least it shouldn't be, else you'll leave your audience wondering if your presence as a presenter is even really neccessary...
Then later we discuss the importance of uploading your presentations to Slideshare to amplify their impact and reach a wider audience. So inevitably the most common question which gets asked after that is: "But how will this make sense to people who weren't in the room to hear me talk?"
It's a tricky question because in most cases, a presentation simply can't be fit for both purposes. Good live slides won't make sense without the presenter, and good web slides won't have been an effective communication tool in a face-to-face presentation.
There are basically three answers to this (that I give, anyhow):
- You make a different version that goes online
- You upload the accompanying notes or audio
- You accept that the online audience will have a different experience, and that's not the end of the world
There are times when I do all three of these, sometimes all for the same presentation (bear with me...). Let's look at each of them in turn.
Making different slides for live versus web
My main advice here is twofold: first of all make two versions of the presentation - one for the face to face presentation, and one to sit on the web afterwards - and second of all, do the web version first!
It is a lot easier to start off by putting in all the detail on the slides so that the presentation makes sense on its own without you talking over the top. It helps you shape your ideas, work out exactly what story you're telling with the presentation, and can be a useful aid to learning your talk (learning your talk is actually something I wouldn't recommend, but there isn't time to get into that here).
Once that's done, save a copy to upload to Slideshare or whatever, and then save a new version which you edit to strip out all the detail. The function of slides in a conference or training situation is to enrich and reinforce what you have to say out loud, help the audience understand and engage with your message, and last - but NOT least - to prompt you as to what you need to say. Not to duplicate it. The ideal slide (in my opinion) has perhaps one sentence on it, which crystalises the key message of that part of the presentation AND acts as a jumping off point to remind you of everything you have to say on the topic. So you take your detailed web PPT, and you strip them back to one or two sentences per slide (or go entirely word-free).
The key thing here is it's a lot easier to make detailed web slides and strip them down for live presenting, than the other way around. Making your live slides and then adding all the detail in afterwards takes ages. It really adds to your prep time and so isn't practical in most situations. Doing the detail first doesn't really add that much time on at all because it's part of the process that helps you create the narrative in the first place.
Incidentally, I don't use this option all the time - because it does take some more time. If the presentation is important however, it's worth it.
Providing further content to help explain slides
If you want to leave your slides beautifully simple but consequently ambiguous, you can provide some supplementary materials to help them make sense. For example:
- If you've made notes you could upload them to Scribd, and then link to them from your presentation (and embed the Scribd document and the Slideshare presentation on the same web-page)
- If your PowerPoint presentation has speaker notes (in that little box below the main slide in edit view) they will be added to Slideshare below your slides. The trouble with this is you need to upload specifically a PPT file to Slideshare, it doesn't work with PDFs - and if you're using non-standard fonts, which can be really beneficial, you need to use PDFs. So potentially useful, but not ideal
- If you literally have a script of the whole talk, just provide that alongside the slides. If you don't use a script, and again I wouldn't recommend doing so, the only way to achieve this is to record the talk and then play it into some kind of dictation software to provide you with a transcript after the event...
- You could add audio. Slideshare discontinued their webcast functionality (being able to add audio to PPTs once uploaded) last year, so really your best option for this is YouTube. In the past I've recorded my own talks using my iPhone in my jacket pocket, then used Camtasia to add that audio to slides - as in this example from South Africa - but that's a laborious process, takes ages, and honestly I'm rarely happy enough with any of my talks to want people to be able to hear and analyse them outside the in-the-moment conference environment... I would recommend recording your talks though, just for your own use - it's amazing how much you learn about what worked and what didn't
- (If you do go down the YouTube route, don't forget to add the YouTube video to your slides on Slideshare too. Slideshare has so much reach, you don't want to just put stuff on YouTube.)
- You could use Storify to collect the tweets from people in the room during your presentation and link to / embed that with your presentation - this is my preferred method as I don't use notes and don't like the audio options listed above. Even if you're not on Twitter I'd recommend at least considering this option
- And finally, my super-advanced-mega-slideshare-hack: Slideshare displays whatever text you have on each slide, in the transcript below. (That's completely seperate from the notes field thing discussedearlier - every slideshare presentation has an accompanying transcript.) So you could add a full explanation of each slide, to each slide, but then make it invisible on the slide itself! (Either by writing in white on a white background, or covering it with an image, or using font-size 0.5.) So the transcript has all the info, but the slides do not. Good eh? [High-fives the internet]
Or, of course, just not worrying about it at all. Which brings us to the other way forward.
Just having the same version for both
Sometimes a presentation is too low stakes to worry about all this stuff. Sure it's not ideal that the slides don't make so much sense online, but what's most important is that they worked for the audience in the room.
Another way of looking at it is to view it as simply a different experience for the two audiences, rather than neccessarily a compromise or a problem. Your slides aren't as easily understandable for the online audience, but the fact they get the kernel of an idea rather than the fully-formed notion can be really interesting in itself. Just as the one-sentence prompt was your jumping off point during the talk itself, it's the online audience's jumping off point for their own ideas and further learning. That's no bad thing. Barthes would approve, anyhow.
An example of combining all three
The slides I put the most effort into ever were those I created for a keynote at the BLA Conference last year. And I kind of did all three things listed above.
First of all I did a different version for the web. Not a massively different version - but I included more detail in quite a few places, skipped to the end of some pseudo-animated parts, and changed the way I displayed certain images to comply with the copyright licences. I also removed a section which contained at its climax with a category C swearword (or is A the strongest category? I never know how that works) because although I trusted the audience in the room to understand it and not be offended, I coudn't be sure The Internet would do the same...
So what you end up with is slides which first and foremost aided my communication to 60 people in a room in Leicester (the face to face audience must ALWAYS be the priority!), but which at least made sense and provided some sort of jumping off point for over a hundred thousand people online subsequently. The only upsetting thing for me is one of the two fonts I used doesn't seem to render properly on Slideshare no matter what I do, but never mind...
I also provided a Storify of the tweets from the talk in the associated blog-post. And I didn't fill in ALL the gaps, as I really do think slides are great for providing a taster of a topic, hopefully in a way which encourages people into looking into it more themselves, and forming their own conclusions.
Other peoples' perspectives
I don't want this post to just be my views and opinions, so I canvassed Twitter. Here's what they had to say - if you have anything to add, I've love to hear from you in a comment.
I teach a session on the PGCAP (Post-Graduate Certificate of Academic Practice) at York - a programme of teaching-related workshops and classes over the course of a year, which every new teaching academic has to attend.
Here's the presentation from this year's workshop, EdTech: Useful online tools for academics:
It covers Blogging and Twitter (specifically their possible use in teaching, which is a lot less straightforward than their use in research, or academic profile building), the excellent Padlet which people always seem glad to be introduced to, Prezi itself, Slideshare, and sources of copyright free or creative commons images.
In previous years I've done a session on Information Literacy in the Digital Age - but I find it increasingly difficult to keep delivering the same things year after year. If I don't rewrite stuff, the feedback scores start to go down as I get less interested; clearly my declining interest is communicated to the audience somehow, despite my best efforts to prevent this. So last year when I had to submit the brief for them to put in the PGCAP brochure, I decided I'd redo the session and make it about useful online tools, and about trying to help the academics more digitally literate (rather than talk about student digital literacy) - that seemed to be the thing people enjoyed most about the previous version of the session, even though it was only a small element.
This academic year I've several times completely redone a workshop or teaching session, and stressed myself out massively in doing so, but ultimately felt much better delivering the new session and got better feedback too. It really is worth it. But it takes a huge amount of time and on this occasion I'd forgotten I'd need to do it - and the session was on the 3rd day back after Christmas... So it was a nightmare, really! But, ultimately, worth the time it took.
This kind of primer session on online tools is, in my experience, welcomed by academics. When asked about the most useful aspects of the session a lot of the feedback mentioned this, e.g.
- Opened my eyes to new technologies and avenues to share teaching content.
Use of blogs images, twitter…all. I had heard of many of these but the info was helpful to know how to use them effectively.
Seeing what is available, evaluated by presenter – gave good insight
Very objective analysis of tools and possible use..
Examples of how the tools had been used for teaching and learning
So something as simple as flagging up tools some may not have heard of, and giving examples and (objective, rather than evangelical) analysis of how they're used so that even those who have heard of them get something out of it, is often enough to be genuinely useful.
This is less and less of the case, however. I was talking with someone from the eLearning Team (not part of the Library or IT) this week and we agreed that a couple of years ago, just introducing these technologies to a group of academics was enough - but now there's much more understanding of the tools that are out there. So we have to up our game, and move onto more in-depth discussion of how to use these tools, rather than just what they are. Increasingly (albeit not in the presentation above) I find myself wanting to present things by user need, rather than by platform.
Texas A&M University Libraries pastiched Pharrel's Happy (one of the most watched pop videos in 2014) with one of their own. The original features loads of different people dancing to the song; Texas A&M featured loads of people dancing to the song AROUND the library, brilliantly, as way of providing orientation to new students.
This is an update on my previous post, as Texas A&M reached out and provided some great information about the aims behind the film - but first for those who haven't seen it, add to the 66,000+ views it has already had and take a look:
Stephanie Graves, Associate Professor and Cooridinator for Learning and Outreach, provided me with some details. First of all, here are the instructional outcomes they were aiming to achieve:
1) We are a massive university and the size of the University Libraries can be intimidating. We want their first introduction to the Libraries to be a positive, engaging experience that reduced library anxiety. We intentionally choose the theme “Happy” to help accomplish this goal.
2) The students are inundated with information from various campus entities during orientation season. We needed to do something that would be catchy, while relaying just enough information that was memorable.
3) We have 6 buildings with numerous services. This can be confusing. It’s also impossible to give students a “tour” of the libraries on such a large campus. We wanted the video to highlight our key services and communicate the variety of locations.
Overall, the video turned out to be very successful in reaching these. It's always hard to properly analyse success of this sort of thing, because the video went somewhat viral and that distorts all the statistics. We know it went down well in the library community but that's really on icing on the cake, and the cake is engagement from the library's actual users.
This reinforces the belief that the details of these kinds of ventures, really perfecting a video and making sure it is aimed squarely at the target audience (and not librarians) really pays off. I'm so pleased this worked out so well for them.
Finally, for those planning their own library video, you can see a Shooting Script from a video we made at York embedded in this blog post, and I'll leave the last word to Stephanie on their planning for their own film:
"We intentionally used student dance groups as our “actors” to help communicate that the libraries were student-centered spaces. We used a student salsa group, our Aggie Wranglers, and a hip-hop group. We were hopeful that the variety of dance would communicate the diversity of our campus and make all students feel welcome. We carefully thought of all the locations and services that we wanted to highlight and in what sequential order to present them. This pre-work was done and then we met with the videographer to discuss our needs. We had it planned out enough that the video only took a day and a half to shoot. We benefited by having our very skilled student dance groups because we librarians had to do very little choreography. We simply discussed how we wanted to highlight the space or services and the videographer had them dance as they normally would in the shoot. "