Building digital communities for your heritage project

Social bookmarks (credit: www.skatdesign.com)

Social bookmarks (credit: www.skatdesign.com)

This is the presentation of my training seminar on building digital communities for heritage projects. It was given to mainly postgraduate students, some of whom were engaged in community projects, at the College of Arts and Humanities, Swansea University.

The session lasted one hour and included time for questions and discussion.

It was part of a Key Heritage Skills training programme offered to postgraduate students across disciplines.

The training session aimed to:

1) Introduce students to the principles and purposes of engaging audiences through digital media, primarily online.

2) Demonstrate how digital media and other media should be used together to get your message across.

3) Introduce students to modes of analysis to evaluate how and whether digital engagement is working, in the context of sector-wide and worldwide usage statistics

4) Use examples from my previous experience and those of others to highlight what worked and what didn’t.

Level of knowledge expected

A basic awareness of digital media tools and their names e.g. blogs, Twitter, web forums, mailing lists.

Key points are given after the presentation. If you would like similar training tailored to your group or society, please contact me.

You are free to download and use this presentation for personal and student research but please do not try and recreate it without asking first. View the slideshow in Full Screen mode (click the 4-arrow icon) for best effect.

Download Building Digital Communities Swansea 6-12-12 (.pptx, 5MB)

19 Key Points

…the average consumer is apparently subject to over 5000 messages a day – that’s a lot of competition!

  1. Spend time visualising what you want to achieve before you set off: who are your target audiences and what is the message(s) you want to send out? 
  2. Try to communicate rather than only broadcast information – the average consumer is apparently subject to over 5000 messages a day – that’s a lot of competition!
  3. How do different media interact and how can you use this to your best advantage? Think about how newspapers operate their online editions, how posters carry a simple message and a web address inviting people to find out more and how quickly and easily people use social bookmarking to share information online.
  4. How should you structure your digital landscape? Think about how each element links together such as your website and social media (Facebook, Twitter etc), where will discussion take place (if you want it), how and where will you distribute your content (information in the form of text, video, audio, documents, apps, etc.)
  5. For all the people that are now using digital media via their computers, but increasingly through mobile and tablet devices, there are millions who do not; how does your project cater to those audiences?
  6. Be intelligent. How will you find your audiences? Find out how and how many people make up digital communities worldwide. But don’t be dazzled by big numbers, you are a small and focused heritage project, not Coca Cola.
  7. There is increasing data available on digital engagement in arts, culture and heritage. Reports are made available online. Big players such as the British Museum, BBC and National Trust have become ‘trusted brands’ simply because of the size of their followings, and not necessarily because of their content.

    The original Bagpuss on display in Whiteley's, Bayswater for a special exhibition on Peter Firmin's work, 2011

    The original Bagpuss on display in Whiteley’s, Bayswater for a special exhibition on Peter Firmin’s work, 2011

  8. The best advert for your project is to provide engaging and high-quality content on a regular basis. It is important to keep the momentum going throughout your project or you will quickly lose your following. Make your content easy to access and easy to share.
  9. A value of a visual cue or brand in the form of a logo and/or slogan cannot be under-estimated, particularly when you are integrating several social media channels as well as print media into your campaigns.
  10. I believe blogs are the best way to engage people with your project, even beyond its funded life. You have more control over what happens to information accessed via your blog than you do if you only use Facebook or Twitter to disseminate and collect information.
  11. Case-study 1: Copper Day, a free city-wide festival in Swansea on 5 March 2011: how we used digital media to promote the event and collect information from it, including analysis.
  12. Case-study 2: The Elizabeth Treffry Collection, documenting women’s heritage in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, difficulties in building discussion online e.g. via its Facebook page.
  13. Generating active participation is HARD. Do not be disheartened if you feel like you are talking to yourself. It is worth persevering but keep an eye on which channels you are receiving most feedback and then concentrate on those.
  14. Case-study 3: DigVentures, a new model for undertaking archaeology through crowdsourcing, building a community of amateur archaeologists and sharing and discussing excavations online; the web forum or ‘site hut’ did not work as intended because other channels took precedence e.g. Facebook and email.
  15. Be prepared to moderate ‘trolls’ or deliberately provocative behaviour-do not feel inhibited about removing comments altogether if they are not serving your purpose.
  16. Twitter. Used extensively in the heritage world but often without good effect. Be a person, have conversations, welcome people to your following and reply to people who tweet you directly. The worst offence committed by heritage organisations is when Twitter accounts are allowed to become dormant because of lack of use.
  17. Mailing lists or (in the US) Listservs. These a specialist email-based networks which allow for more qualitative exchanges. I have so far found these to be the most effective method of getting messages about projects, events, surveys and discoveries across, especially if they then lead the reader to your website or blog.
  18. Digital photo culture. Documenting heritage visually should not be under-estimated. When you are competing for so little of someone’s time it is always worth building up a bank of good images or even short films or audio clips to grab people’s attention. Although waning in popularity since it first launched Flickr remains a sophisticated and powerful way of storing, accessing and discovering digital visual heritage. Remember that Facebook will never store your original image but present a cruder version and it is very hard to extract images from the system once they are in.
  19. The best way to understand how digital communities work is to take part in some yourself. Find out what works for you and as importantly, what works for others. Do not assume that just because you don’t like something one way your audience won’t either.

Got a comment? Please leave questions and messages here. I will do my best to answer them.

History 51 and All Our Stories

History 51 logoIn November 2012 the Hypatia Trust was awarded £10,000 from the Heritage Lottery Fund’s All Our Stories programme for a project entitled History 51: Unveiling Women in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly.

History 51 has been designed as a community-led project  based on the Hypatia Trust’s Elizabeth Treffry Collection to trace the journeys, make things inspired by, and document and publish the life stories of historical Cornish and Scillonian women.

Why we applied

At the instigation of Hypatia Trust Founder-Chairman Melissa Hardie, I was commissioned to design the project and write the application. This was my first attempt at writing a funding application for someone or an organisation other than myself and so I was personally delighted that it was successful. However, on a more altruistic level, I was pleased that the subject of women’s history was deemed worthy enough to fund.

Is it really a niche or minority subject to study and promote the history of 51% of our population?

Part of the Judith Cook archive, Elizabeth Treffry Collection.

Part of the Judith Cook archive, Elizabeth Treffry Collection.

The small team that runs the Hypatia Trust has long lamented the seeming dearth of women’s history in history curricula across school, further and higher education. Many women’s history courses have been displaced by more theoretical programmes on gender history, which is not at all the same thing. Is it really a niche or minority subject to study and promote the history of 51% of our population?

With the recent appalling treatment of the Women’s Library in London we felt there was no better time to do our bit to raise public awareness about the importance of women’s history for everyone, women and men, old and young.

When I became Honorary Curator for the Hypatia Trust my immediate priority was to find a way to dramatically raise the profiles of the historical women that the Elizabeth Treffry Collection represents. This, in my view, was more important than immediately focusing inward on cataloguing the collection itself. Melissa Hardie and previous Hypatia volunteers had already undertaken significant work through the Trust’s publishing and indexing activities. What was needed now was a project that had the potential make a much wider impact.

History 51 and me

Cornwall is a deeply patriarchal part of the UK. This is reflected in our politics, media, industries and job market.

History 51 is also personal voyage of discovery. I have not undertaken women’s history, to speak of, for many years. However my curiosity and sense of duty have been peaked. Cornwall is a deeply patriarchal part of the UK. This is reflected in our politics, media, industries and job market.

That’s not to say women aren’t doing anything. They are, but their work is not recorded or noted in the same way as that of men. I want this HLF project to be the beginning of a radical new movement to raise the profile of women and women’s heritage.  Women are in the majority and yet the structures of traditional historical study do not allow for the subject to be considered as anything other than a marginal element of social history. This is wrong.

Designing History 51

We had two unique selling points. Firstly that our project would represent the biggest under-represented group in the UK, i.e. women, and secondly that it would advance the history of a currently marginalised aspect of British history, that of Cornwall and Scilly.

HLF’s All Our Stories programme (now closed) was a fantastic opportunity for many local groups, networks and societies to contribute to ‘grassroots’ or people’s history. It was pitched as part of Michael Wood and the BBC’s Great British Story which aired in 2012. In HLF’s words:

“From researching local historic landmarks, learning more about customs and traditions to delving into archives and finding out the origins of street and place names All Our Stories will give everyone the chance to explore their heritage and share what they learn with others.”

Early and formative discussions suggested very strongly that the project’s activities should allow participants to both contribute and discover. The classic platitudes of a funding application, you might say.

We had two unique selling points. Firstly that our project would represent the biggest under-represented group in the UK, i.e. women, and secondly that it would advance the history of a currently marginalised aspect of British history, that of Cornwall and Scilly. In addition, HLF South West identifies South East Cornwall as being one of its five priority areas.

Early and formative discussions suggested very strongly that the project’s activities should allow participants to both contribute and discover. The classic platitudes of a funding application, you might say. However for me this meant that the open sharing of information about women represented in the Elizabeth Treffry Collection, and elsewhere, was paramount. It also meant that we would emphasise the team, the network and the community that would produce the information as much as History 51 and Hypatia Trust themselves.

What we are promising

We want to make sure that HLF gets its money’s worth and that we aim for both high impact and sustainable deliverables that will also contribute to the long-term objectives of the Elizabeth Treffry Collection.

£10,000 is not a lot of money. However it is more than we started with. We want to make sure that HLF gets its money’s worth and that we aim for both high impact and sustainable deliverables that will also contribute to the long-term objectives of the Elizabeth Treffry Collection. This is what we are going to deliver:

  • Train volunteers to explore, research, catalogue and create information
  • Develop a Wikipedia-style Cornish Women’s Index that will create hundreds of free, publically accessible records of women
  • Hold six local community workshops on different women and themes in locations across Cornwall (and hopefully Scilly too).

What we are asking from contributors and correspondents

Information comes in many forms and it should be expressed in as many different ways as possible.

We do want well-researched, well-considered information to result from this project. However it is not intended as a scholarly study or library project. Information comes in many forms and it should be expressed in as many different ways as possible. So what we are asking of our contributors and correspondents is any of the following:

  • Researching the life stories of women who have lived, worked or come from Cornwall or Scilly
  • Photographing and scanning historical documents and artefacts
  • Producing transcripts of documentary sources
  • Creating art, music, poems or literature inspired by Cornish and Scillonian women
  • Conducting oral history interviews
  • Work on our social media channels and blog (e.g. Twitter, Facebook, YouTube)
  • Writing copy for short Wikipedia-style biographies
  • Entering information into the Cornish Women’s Index (a free online database of words and images)
  • Organising, leading or participating in informal and fun workshops scheduled for venues across Cornwall in 2013.

What the History 51 army can expect in return

Books of the Elizabeth Treffry Collection of the Hypatia Trust

Books of the Elizabeth Treffry Collection of the Hypatia Trust

… it is very easy to feel used and to feel absorbed into the corporatising identity of a heritage organisation or project.

I know from my own previous experience of working on ‘other people’s projects’ that it is very easy to feel used and to feel absorbed into the corporatising identity of a heritage organisation or project. I do not want this to happen to all those who have so warmly and enthusiastically already given of their time to History 51.

We stated in the application that we want History 51 contributors and correspondents to become ambassadors for women’s heritage in Cornwall and Scilly and so we, as the Hypatia Trust, have to provide the support they need in return. So this is what we have promised them:

  • Free training and ongoing support, including by email and online
  • Free access to the Elizabeth Treffry Collection and other resources at the Hypatia Trust
  • Access to equipment such as cameras, scanners, photocopier and laptop
  • Your name next to contributions on the Cornish Women’s Index and Elizabeth Treffry Collection website
  • Limited travel expenses for those who lead or help organise a History 51 workshop
  • VIP guest entry at the History 51 party in November 2013
  • A certificate of participation for those taking part as part of a qualification or undertaking CPD, which will outline the skills they have gained.

Promoting the project and recruiting interest

… we hope that the workshops, which are aimed at highlighting local women in their communities, will rebalance this and indeed we will be using all the methods we can to reach those who do not explore their past through digital heritage.

History 51 was officially announced at the end of November 2012. We started recruiting volunteers in December 2012, mainly via our website, where interested contributors could submit an expression of interest, and will be able to for the duration of the project.

The Cornishman newspaper, read by an estimated 75% of the west Penwith population, covered the project in a feature on 6 December. The story was also syndicated online which reaches a much wider audience. This considerably boosted our visibility and we received a number of requests for more information on the back of this.

The project was covered again on 31 January with the launch of a campaign to get Alice De Lisle officially recognised in Penzance. I have posted more about the Alice De Lisle Campaign on the Elizabeth Treffry Collection blog.

A steady stream of news and posts circulated on the Elizabeth Treffry Collection blog and its social media channels on Twitter and Facebook have seen a steady increase in interest, judged by the numbers of Likes and Shares we have been receiving. Nothing dramatic but visibility is certainly higher than it was when we launched the Elizabeth Treffry Collection website early last year.

To date we have approximately 20 people willing to be active contributors or correspondents. We are unashamedly embracing digital media and communication for this project so that we are not limiting ourselves to those who can physically get to Penzance to use the collection. So inevitably we are excluding people who are not online regularly. However, we hope that the workshops, which are aimed at highlighting local women in their communities, will rebalance this and indeed we will be using all the methods we can to reach those who do not explore their past through digital heritage.

Inaugurating History 51

I don’t think I have been in a room full of more articulate people in my life! And that includes the very many academic conferences I have attended and at which I have presented.

On 9 February we invited all those who had expressed an interest in the project to attend an open afternoon at the Hypatia Trust in Penzance. Several were not able to make it but we still had a room of about 18 people (all women) eager to share their passion, thoughts and ideas about how their own experiences could be brought to bear on this seminal project. I think everyone would agree that the local rug hookers really made our meeting, they turned up in force!

I don’t think I have been in a room full of more articulate people in my life! And that includes the very many academic conferences I have attended and at which I have presented. I will post about this on the Elizabeth Treffry Collection blog very soon.

Each person was given a folder with an information pack aimed at familiarising contributors and correspondents with History 51 and answering questions I predicted they may have. This pack will be emailed to all those who were not able to attend.

Next steps are to start recording who is interested in what and sharing this information amongst our group. The great thing about History 51 is that even those running the project are getting stuck into some new research and exploration.

The online database for the Cornish Women’s Index is being developed and will be due for testing early next month and then it will be time to organise some training. I am also contemplating using screencasts and Google Hangouts for live online training.

Our events co-ordinator, Jo Schofield, is currently scouting venues for our workshops. We already have one in Liskeard Museum confirmed and another almost confirmed in Fowey.

So for now I am occupied with buying the equipment we need, making sure that History 51 is regularly promoted online and in the press, and commissioning some quirky bookmarks or postcards to be widely distributed across Cornwall and Scilly, and beyond.

Switching between this project and my more usual exploits in industrial heritage is constantly challenging. Sometimes it is a downright pain to have to change modes so frequently. But it is all the more worthwhile because of that broad perspective you get when you don’t just plough one furrow but take a step back and contemplate the field, and the moors beyond.