Asking people to engage with local and regional archives is hard, especially when their collections are often quite niche. After all, perusing pictures of bygone and outdated radio machines is not everyone’s idea of a Saturday morning well spent.
But my research placement working with the Marconi Archives at Essex Record Office, which was funded by EIRA, has helped me better understand how archives can, and must, use social media to engage the public and keep their collections alive.
The Essex Record Office (ERO) has over 100,000 images from the Marconi Company and their Photographic Section. These images consist of all sorts of things, a discovery I made in a past project. Generally, the collection contains images of Marconi objects, people and plans from the company.
As the history of electronics is a fairly niche bag, the Marconi team wanted me to help them understand how they could get more people to engage with this collection in innovative digital ways – hence my job was to create a strategy to explore how ERO could better achieve engagement with this particular collection.
Specific though that sounds, this strategy addresses a wider issue in archives more generally: mountains of photographs and not knowing what to do with them is a common and widespread problem in archives, especially given how photographs were (relatively) easy to take and build up fast.
Whilst pictures are probably more engaging than written archival materials, we generally have even less of a reason to bother to go and look at them, so they need to be put in people’s faces more directly. By far the most effective way to deal with and digest a huge collection of images is through enthusiastic and consistent social media use.
This goes a long way, especially within the heritage sector! There are some real pioneers of this out there – the Museum of English Rural Life and York Museums Trust are really pushing the boundaries of social media.
The sooner people are ‘looking’ at images, the sooner they are commenting, recognising, locating, copying and pasting – this is good engagement!
This information can then be collected up and added to the collection itself – as we would term ‘metadata crowdsourcing’, getting the audience to offer their time.
More complex methods of engagement can also reflect relatively simple technologies. Putting them on a map is a simple way of achieving this – local buildings, sites, people and inventions can all be tied to a location.
There are some really shining examples of this, like What Was Here from East Riding Archives and Know Your Place. This approach serves Marconi well – as a company that spanned the entire world, engaging audiences across the world by giving them the ability to visually filter them by their location is not only easy, but incredibly addictive.
The future of archives is most definitely online, and archives need to be focusing on strategies that correspond with this vision.
The biggest lesson of this project was that good engagement does not have to be complicated, particularly fancy or expensive – it just has to work.
To simply hold records that some people find interesting is not enough, and digitising is becoming a necessary, but insufficient step on the pathway to increasing engagement, especially in a pandemic where ‘physical’ spaces are less accessible.
Image: A world map of Marconi services, 1928. Courtesy of Marconi Archives, Essex Record Office
Postgraduate Research Student and Graduate Teaching Assistant , University of Essex
Lewis Smith is a PhD student in the Department of History where he's writing his thesis on the British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC). He's interested in industry, most notably the aviation and railway industries after the Second World War, and is also a co-founder of History Indoors, which brings history to life in people's homes through talks and blogs.