Smithsonian Libraries: A “Networked” Social Strategy

Increasingly, cultural institutions are hiring social media managers to take care of the content strategy, the evaluation and keep up with the trends to ensure that the organizations are “getting on” the social media bus.

But what happens when not one person but rather the entire institution takes on the management of the social channels, establishing a network of people across its departments? This is the case of the Smithsonian Libraries, that unites 20 libraries into one system. The Libraries maintain publication exchanges with more than 4,000 institutions worldwide that supply Smithsonian scientists and curators with current periodicals, exhibition catalogs, and professional society publications.

The Libraries are becoming particularly famous in the social media realm for their Tumblr, in which they create wonderful animated GIFs. Through this platform, in fact, curious illustrations and fascinating stories can be narrated and brought to life.

We had the pleasure to talk with Richard Naples, Technical Information Specialist, and Keri Thompson, Supervisory Librarian. They presented the case of a big organization, with venues scattered around the city, that was prompted in the exploration of social network by curiosity, passion and enthusiasm.

We really liked this case that shows how collaboration and organization to different levels within an institution are key to achieve the success!

V: How many people work with digital and social media within the Smithsonian Libraries?

R: The Libraries is a very spread institution, physically distributed. Five people within the organization are part of the main social media commitee. We make the decisions, work with metrics and more in general, “steer the ship”. We created a series of guidelines for all the people involved with social media: we wrote a general overall strategy but also some of the instructions and “rules” that we established in managing the various channels.

Each social media platforma has a set number of people that handle the channel organized in regular shifts and taking turn in posting. We have:

  • 8 people on Twitter
  • 7/8 on Instagram
  • 5 on Facebook
  • 3 on Tumblr

More people handle and create content for the blog.

K: I would say that the really active people are around 15. Some of the core people are in the digital services division, other public affairs office, special collections. We don’t have anybody that does social media full time, we share the responsabilities among professionals that also have other duties. Social media for the Libraries started “from the ground up”, our director made us join Facebook, then other people sort of got together and started doing it. We developed a “commitee approach”.

V: How do you coordinate considering that some of you are not even in the same location?

K: We have a schedule with shifts, people have mornings or afternoons. They have to tweet at least once, and they can go well beyond one tweet of course. The baseline is one per morning and one per afternoon. The same happens for other channels:

  • 1 post a day for Facebook
  • 1 post a day for Tumblr
  • blog 3 times a week
  • Instagram 1 post a day

Je me trompe ou il commence à faire plus chaud ici? Jouyeux quatorze juillet everyone! Original image from La Guirlande (1919) Source: Smithsonian Libraries Tumblr

V: What are the skills to work in social media, or in general with digital tools?

K: Everybody who is in one or more of the social media team at the Libraries, uses social media in their personal life. I love Tumblr so I am familiar with it and thus it makes sense that I am on this committee.

R: I would say that an awareness of the media is necessary: knowing the “culture” of a channel, what is popular, what is successfull, looking at other institutions and being able to understand what they do and why. Part of it is intuition, but I think you also need to be comfortable being a “public face”. You have to know how to write, communicate, and know when something is compelling for a certain platform.

I would say that the two crucial skills to handle these tools are willingness and awareness.

V: Why do the Libraries use social media?

K: We use social media to raise the profile of the Libraries. People think about the Smithsonian, they know there are museums but don’t think about the Libraries, that we have collections. We have no outlets to let people know who we are. Furthermore, we are spread all over the Mall, not just one “brick and mortar” location.

Our digital collection has always meant to be for the public but the rest is very internal. So this is a way to say “hey, by the way, we have this stuff as well”. We don’t have budget to advertise events and collections, so social media are the right tools for us.

It’s firefly season! illustrations of beetles in the family Lampyridae from the Biologia Centrali Americana v. 3 pt. 2 Source: Smithsonian Libraries Tumblr.

R: Among our institutional goals we have: drive traffic to our site; grow a diverse audience; create awareness around our events; and then cultivate donors in some way. Through our social media effort we would like to converte fans into advocates, and some of those advocates into donors. Social media is about getting fans and maybe some of those fans will become advocates for our institution and so on.

When you work in a place like this, you forget, between meetings and other duties, that what we do here is really cool. Sometimes we find things that are really cool and with social media we have the chance to show them to people. By being curious about what we have and put it out there, we can get people curious about our collection.

Richard: There is also a certain degree of serendipity . When I started working here I used to put labels on the books and I used to stumble upon fascinating things. Social media give us the opportunity to kind of “sit back and read” and communicate that feeling to different audience.

V: What is the strategy behind each channel, and in particular your Tumblr?

R: As mentioned, we have operational documents for each platforms. Twitter is the channel were we do the most, we put a lot of stuff out there. Instagram show beautiful things and details. Tumblr is different, there we can have more of a sense of humor. We started the Tumblr in 2012, there was a book about “How to make anything”: stuff like how to make a cabinet, how to make an organ, all makers-kind of publications. There was also a Praxinoscope, from which we sort of took the inspiration for a GIF.

What do you do with examples of inserts for a praxinoscope? Animate it of course! From Amateur Work, Illustrated. v. 6, 1881, which is chock-a-block full of amazing DIY projects from the time, including a folding chair, beehives, and a gas-burning reading lamp. Please don’t try the last one… Source: Smithsonian Libraries Tumblr

I use Photoshop to make them, it’s not too hard (editor’s note: in this blog post Richard explains how to create animated GIFs). For me it is also a learning opportunity to see and test what is popular on tumblr. I make research about the things that I animate, is not just random animation but rather is supposed to inform and enhance the perception of the illustration.

K:  The butterflies launched us: it was the first one that got on Tumblr Radar.

This idea of making GIFs out of books is rather new, people usually make GIFs out of old movies, not so much about books.

Everything we scanned, digitized, is in the public domain on Internet Archive. We can really play with our role as libraries, we are not perceived as an authoritarian museum. We can use a little bit of sense of humor without risking of offending anybody, we are not “The museum of…” ….we are just librarians, right? 🙂

V: How do you evaluate your social media effort and which kind of metrics do you use?

R: We periodically look at what we achieve and collect. On Tumblr, for example, we have been on Radar eight times. It’s curated by their staff, it is not a random space, so we really value it.

We have a set of statystics that we keep that are different for each platform.  Examples of metrics: we keep the top contents, we ask “what content really drove it this month?”, and then we try to feed it back to the community. I create a monthly social media report and I send it to everybody that is involved in the social media committee.

In the reports I put the top post up, and a few numbers (how many tweets, number of followers), just sort of highlighting how we have done. We use Union Metrics for Tumblr: besides the regular reach of posts it shows also the connections among users, showing the reblogs and how people are connected to each others. This is important for us so we know in which communities our fans can be placed and we can potentially reach their friends.

Tumblr is really famous in Brasil and South America, so we reach that audience, which is interesting. It brought us to use sometimes hashtags in portuguese.

We also use Twitter analytics for Twitter and Iconsquare (formerly Statigram) for Instagram.

Reports also need to be explanatory of what we are doing, especially for our management. Most of the time we include narrative things and the GIFs in the reports.

13 Species of Thecla (genus) butterflies from Insecta. Lepidoptera-Rhopalocera of Biologia Centrali-Americana, an encyclopedia of natural history of Central America. A landmark and still often-cited work, Smithsonian Libraries has digitized 58 volumes that you can explore at electronic Biologia Centrali-Americana. Source: Smithsonian Libraries

V: Tell me more about the iTunesU Channel, how do the Libraries use this platform?

(Editor’s note: iTunesU is a free Apple platform for educational content and courses. Different institutions, from universities to museums and media organizations, deliver their content through this channel. Providers can create collections – groups of video/audio/text items around a theme – as well as courses – materials organized in lessons).

K: A lot of the attention in the country is towards education. Although we don’t have any education specialist on staff, we had an intern Master Degree in Education that came on board that created the content for iTunes U. Once we had the courses, we started the channel.

We have 8 or 9 courses on different topics: we did a little bit of social media campaign to promote them. iTunes U tweeted us, so we got a lot of attention. The course on  “Women in Early Aviation” , for example, was constantly mentioned on Twitter, it is very popular in China. That is one way we reached an international audience.

The educational aspect is something that we don’t think about. Our audience are researchers, but this doesn’t mean that our content can’t function for educational purposes for a very different audience. Using iTunes U brought us to this reflection.

Off the coast of Massachusetts, near Cohasset and Scituate, south of the Boston Harbor, the Minots Ledge Light warns sailors of danger in a 1-4-3 cycle over 45 seconds (which we have sped up), charmingly referred to as “I LOVE YOU” by local residents. First lit in 1860, the current lighthouse was constructed at a cost exceeding any other lighthouse to date, and replaced the lighthouse that previously sat in its position. The older lighthouse, an open-work iron structure created in 1847, proved unfit for its location and was washed away in a storm in 1851, claiming the lives of two assistants. Work began on a replacement in 1855 and continued for five years. The granite structure designed by General Joseph G. Totten was constructed only during calm low tides when the ledge was exposed. It remains a working lighthouse and romantic inspiration. From History of the Old Colony Railroad (1893). Check out more at the National Park Service, Wikipedia, and New England Lighthouses. Source: Smithsonian Libraries Tumblr

V: Lastly, could you give an advice to a museum that wants to start re-thinking and distributing its content through digital platforms?

K: I would start with who do you think your audience is and on which platforms are they on? If your audience are all middle age ladies, then you should probably be on Pinterest. If you have a collection of special images, it’s a perfect place to put your stuff. Or put it on Flickr and use it on other platforms.

R: Understand how things become popular. Build relationships based on this, involving people. Create connections with other institutions, re-blog content from smaller museums.  Ask influential people to help you, interpreting and using your content, as a way to reboost it.

K: Also remember that you are a person who works at an organization and you have a voice. Sometimes it is easier to relate to people with your own voice. Start off being a little more impersonal, and then adjust it based on what you are trying to accomplish: getting people to visit? show off? This is a very valid thing: we have a great collection and we want to show it.

Credits for featured image on top: [A monograph of the Macropodidæ, or family of kangaroos]. London :The Author,1841-1842. Flickr BioDivLibrary CC BY 2.0