Guinevere Barlow, Laura Gould: Small Scale, Big Change - the Impact of Social Media

published under CC-BY-SA license


With increasing numbers of platforms, each with promoters and detractors alike, social media has presented an opportunity for heritage organisations and projects to engage with audiences in new ways. Faced with limited resources, the question of time input versus return is critical, not to mention issues such as getting to grips with technology, audience requirements and social media etiquette.

Operating within the University of Edinburgh's Centre for Research Collections (CRC), Lothian Health Services Archive (LHSA) and the Carmichael Watson Project (CWP) are both inscribed to the UNESCO UK Memory of the World Register (LHSA’s Edinburgh and Lothian HIV/AIDS Collection was added in 2011 and the Carmichael Watson Collection in 2014). Both LHSA and CWP have adopted a number of social media platforms as part of promotion and engagement strategies. These small steps have had a disproportionately large impact, and resulted in changed working practices at both the organisational and individual level.

This paper was co-presented by the two authors in June 2013.


Introduction to Lothian Health Services Archive

Lothian Health Services Archive (LHSA) holds the historical records of the National Health Service (NHS) in Lothian and its predecessor bodies. With a collection size of 3,000 linear metres, it is one of the largest specialist health archives in the UK. The majority of the collection is paper-based, comprising administrative and staff records (from 1594 onwards), and patient records (from 1770 onwards). Gifted and deposited non-NHS institutional and personal papers have increased the range and depth of holdings. There is also a photographic collection (ca 40,000 items) as well as older printed books, memorabilia, medical instruments, artworks, silverware and other historically significant objects. Although funded by NHS Lothian, it is a service managed by, and based at the CRC, where each year its three core staff administer over 800 enquiries, provide support to in excess of 130 readers, process more than 50 accessions, and work to catalogue, conserve and promote the collection alongside project staff, interns and volunteers.


Small Scale: a quick look at LHSA's social media

The LHSA website acts as a gateway for a wide range of researchers from fields such as social and economic history, the medical humanities, geography, architecture, local and family history, and patient advocacy groups. From 2009 onwards, LHSA has employed social media to point new and existing researchers to the website, with the following four in use at present: a blog, Facebook, Flickr and Twitter[1]. When we were starting out, we were lucky to have a training session with the University of Edinburgh Social Media Officer, Nicola Osborne, who raised the importance of ensuring a coherent online brand with all online platforms linking to each other. Thus, the social media outlets should link to each other as well as to the website, and the website should in return link to all of the social media.

We started small, uploading a small number of photos to Flickr, which over three years has grown to around 200 images. It provided a platform for advertising some attractive images, but without the commitment to constantly add new content. This was followed in autumn 2010 by both a Facebook page, and a blog. The former has proved a quick and easy way to post photos and news, on a regular basis. It has resulted in positive publicity with minimum effort and users seem happy to engage with us that way via 'likes' and comments. The blog quickly became the focus of our social media profile. To this end, we realised that we needed to publish a new blog on a weekly basis, and created a rota so that each staff member takes it in turn. The task of writing the blog is not supposed to be onerous; we suggest that it should take 30-45 minutes meaning each individual member of staff only has to commit up to 45 minutes every month or so. There is no restriction on the content and as we have varied jobs and spheres of interest, it is inevitably different. We can provide in-depth pieces and it provides a chance for us to be reflective about our work. There is a real sense of audience engagement; regular followers tell us they look forward to reading it every Friday. We have received our first accession as a result of a blog post, which suggests that this format may become increasingly important to the Archive’s core functions, above and beyond its current use as a communication tool. Finally, we created a Twitter account in early 2012. It is a great tool for quick updates, and for making links with other related organisations. Again, we try to update it frequently although that is not always possible. Within a year or so, we have picked up 271 followers (465 followers as at June 2014).


Big Impact

The knowledge that we have social media, and need to keep refreshing the content, affects the way each of us works. We have all become far more aware of the importance of marketing the Archive and are therefore constantly on the lookout for stories to tell. Every accession, every piece of cataloguing completed, every new project-find, or new volunteer achievement for example, can be a source of news or interest that we are ready to photograph and describe.

By giving the public a 'behind the scenes' glimpse into the Archive, we provide an insight into who we are and how we work. Archives by their nature can appear faceless, with collections 'hidden' in stores, or at the least shielded by reading room staff. Social media offers an opportunity for us to open up to a wider audience and to ask them to engage with us. If anyone were to look through a selection of our social media posts, they would be struck by the variety of work that we do, and how we are helping to open up our collections.

It has proved to be a valuable way of reputation-building within the sector. At interviews held for internships, our social media presence is often mentioned in a very positive light; the Archive's social media adds to its reputation as an attractive employer by showing us to be accessible, approachable, and knowledgeable: a modern and fun place to work. The value of this cannot be measured in statistics, but informal, word of mouth contact between those working in, or trying to get into, the sector is important for an archive the size of ours.

Social media can be a way of linking with new audiences and making new partnerships. In 2011 LHSA contributed a recipe from the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh’s Dietetics Department to the Scottish Council on Archives’ archive awareness campaign entitled 'The Edible Archive'. This campaign was web-based but also involved lots of advertising through social media. Our 'Invalid Fruit Tart' recipe caught the eye of BBC producers and made its way onto the television programme 'The Great British Bake Off' in August 2012. An image of the original recipe card was shown to a national audience, as well as a tart being made on the show. 'Invalid fruit tart' was then trending on Twitter, albeit for a brief time! To take advantage of the publicity, we made sure that our website displayed information which meant that anyone inspired by the programme could find us online. We also publicised it via our social media so that we informed those already following us about this news event and, therefore enriched their social media experience.

Gould Image 1

Image 1: Invalid Fruit Tart recipe (LHB1/89/4/1). Reproduced courtesy of Lothian Health Services Archive, University of Edinburgh Library.


Why Social Media?

Social media appears to be working for a relatively small archive like ours, as long as we can do it without detracting from everything else.

  • Far more people view our social media on a regular basis (c. 220 per week) than come in to the reading room (average 16 per month), or view our leaflets, and as hoped, they use it to refer to our website which has an average of 1,500 unique users per month.
  • It can take just a few minutes to post to Twitter or Facebook, or perhaps 45 minutes to write a blog post. That is a lot less time than it takes to prepare a page for the website, write a press release, curate an exhibition, or write a journal article.
  • There is an immediacy to social media; it fosters a closer connection between the reader and the poster, and one which, importantly, is two-way.
  • The social media platforms are all free but our time is not, and that is where social media has lots of advantages. It is relatively easy to learn to use, so reducing the time and money required to train staff. We had members of staff who were particularly keen on exploring it as an option and I think that enthusiasm makes a big difference – somebody willing to spend some time researching, and trying it out to see what works, and what is not so successful. We also have the benefit of staff who use social media outside of work so it is already a familiar technology and platform.
  • Social media is a way of changing our online content quickly without having to fit into a predetermined website format.
  • So many of our current users all over the world, and here at home, use social media. So do many potential users. 2013 figures show 53% of the UK population has a Facebook account, and 54% have a Twitter account. As of May 2013 Facebook has 1.11 billion users worldwide, Flickr 87 million, Twitter 500 million. Many expect to be able to connect in this way, and I think we would be missing out on a major form of communication if we did not make use of it. We would be overlooked and it would be harder for people to find us online, making the user experience less satisfactory.


LHSA Summary

For a specialist archive, social media is a powerful outreach tool. We are in a great position to be able to benefit from it: we have interesting collections, and we have an audience who want to find out about them. By promoting our work in this popular and engaging format, we are showing that our collections are relevant and accessible to a wider world. It can be hard to quantify the effects: we certainly have more direct interaction and informal feedback from users, which alongside statistics from our website, the blog, Google and Facebook Analytics, provide indications that it is working. That is only part of the story. The more important aspects are about having a positive presence in the sector, keeping abreast of developments and providing an engaging 'way in' for our users, both new and existing. I think it is still an evolving story but one that we have to be a part of to reap the benefits of.



Introduction to The Carmichael Watson Project

The Carmichael Watson Project (CWP) is based on a textual archive held in the Special Collections at the University of Edinburgh, and the material culture collections of Carmichael housed at the West Highland Museum, Fort William and the National Museums of Scotland. Alexander Carmichael (1832-1912) collected folklore from the Scottish Highlands and Islands, concentrating on the Outer Hebrides, over a period spanning 50 years. Carmichael walked the length and breadth of these islands for both work and pleasure: for his work as an exciseman and his interest in folklore and ethnography. His field and transcription notebooks, now held at the CRC are teeming with charms, prayers, stories, songs, historical notes and sketches that all reflect the lives, traditions and culture of his informants. These 26 field and transcription notebooks, from the archive, have been transcribed, indexed, tagged, geo-referenced, photographed and made available via the project's website, Over his lifetime Carmichael also collected objects from the Highlands and Islands of Scotland and these reflect a social history and ethnographic account of the informants. These objects, loosely divided between larger items he sent to the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland and his own personal collection, represent numerous narratives from the social history of the Outer Hebrides in the late nineteenth century. The material culture collection is extensive with everything from tartan samples to silver domed brooches, charms to lamps, carding combs to swords, Pictish stones to ploughs. A generous grant from The Leverhulme Trust allowed the team to research these collections and create an online catalogue of the objects. In April 2013 the material culture collections were added to the CWP notebook catalogue and this addition greatly enhances the site as a research tool.

The online catalogue makes all of these collections freely accessible to users worldwide via the website. We believe that the catalogues can facilitate and encourage cross-disciplinary interactions between Celticists, folklorists, and social scientists, as well as between scholars in academia, museums, and local communities. The online catalogue brings these collections to a forum where we hope interested parties can avail themselves of the tagged, indexed, transcribed and geo-referenced entries. We are constantly promoting the project’s online catalogues and encouraging their use. Therefore we use social media to direct regular and new users towards our website and to highlights its content.


The Project's Use of Social Media

The project has an online presence with the website and with the social media platforms of Facebook, Twitter[2] and a blog (blogspot). We regard the website with the online catalogue as a static site that we prefer to keep timeless, keeping dates and updates to a minimum. The site is the major output of this phase of the research, and the previous phase funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, and will remain online outwith the project. The aim of our social media presence is to keep people updated about the team's activities, promote the content of the online catalogue, and to link news or events of interest to the general fields of Scottish Studies, Folklore and Ethnography. There is always an effort to relate back to the catalogue or direct people to the catalogue, for example with hyperlinks through the text of the blog.

It does become apparent that the 'hard copy' medium is no longer necessary to disseminate research findings and that social media does provide an exciting and accessible method for widespread dissemination. This does also alter the researcher's methodology for presenting research. As a researcher, shorter pieces of research or interesting anecdotes from the catalogue are useful to post on the blog. We also enjoy linking blog entries to current events or celebrations. An example of this was on Burns Day 2013 when a short blog entry was composed about Alexander Carmichael and Robert Burns. These shorter anecdotal entries are often light-hearted and lively and reflect our approach to using social media as a method of audience engagement.

However, one of the trickier elements of social media is getting people to comment or to engage beyond the 'like', retweet or share. For this reason we decided to coax a two-way relationship with our followers by conceiving of a crowd-sourcing task. In 2012, with the centenary of Carmichael's death, the team decided to launch a crowd-sourcing event. We decided to list all the places where Carmichael lived in as much detail as possible, for example later in his life there were definite addresses but earlier addresses were limited to general locations. This list was circulated on our blog with reminders from Facebook and Twitter. The ball was set rolling a week before by a team member uploading a photo at one address to encourage our followers and friends to follow suit. Our strategy was to provide the addresses and be vague regarding the type of photo, and as a result we received all sorts of photos with perspectives from boats and mountain tops, and both with and without people in the frame. The outcome was a well-received photo campaign with photos submitted via Facebook and our email account. The team also sought to upload photos from the addresses in the Edinburgh area and the final photograph album was uploaded to our Facebook profile. We were pleasantly surprised by the response and kind comments of those who submitted the images and those who supported the campaign.

What was especially exciting about this endeavour, besides the interest shown by our followers, was the visual element that was provided. With the online catalogue a great push was made to link the catalogue entries to geograph, flickr, geonames and Scotland's Places. The images, however, added a visual dimension to our work and offered a reminder that the Carmichael Collections, the textual and material culture, represent the living history of these areas. As evident in the social media discourse regarding the crowd-sourcing campaign, the project generated much interest and it was, of course, a good boost for team morale. It is often quite difficult to gauge the interest beyond 'likes', 'shares' and 'retweets' but the effort that was put into this campaign was definitely encouraging. We were so keen to commemorate the centenary of Carmichael's death and to do something new and innovative to highlight the team’s lively approach to work and this exercise proved fruitful.


Social Media Guidelines

Social media has moved quickly from an area for experimentation into a core channel for communicating with students, colleagues and service users. It has altered the traditional methods of research dissemination which can now be more easily accessible and not strictly limited to academic readers and subscribers. As social media becomes routine in both professional and personal contexts there is a need to reflect on how and why we use particular social media sites and tools, how the organisation is represented in these interactions, and how these new channels fit into existing processes.

Within our team we have our own guidelines for using our social media pages. We try to keep a balance and have regular updates; once or twice a week on Facebook and Twitter and with a blog post fortnightly or so. With the blog the primary focus is on the collections, both the textual and material culture collections, but there are regular posts about topics of interest to the Highlands and Islands of Scotland or research visits that the team were involved in. The University of Edinburgh has a set of guidelines, available to read on their website, that offer good advice for setting up social media accounts for professional use. There are useful guidelines also available from the EDINA website. When working within a large establishment social media functions as a public relations tool and therefore a policy is necessary for a united understanding of what is and is not acceptable. Some questions that should be addressed in a policy would be:

  1. What are the goals of the social media use?
  2. Who will update the social media sites and maintain the platforms?
  3. What information can be shared?
  4. Which social networks will be used?
  5. Is the social media maintenance feasible? Practical?
  6. How will the social media presence be monitored?
  7. How will a consistent tone and style across these networks be maintained?
  8. How will communication through social channels, both negative and positive, be addressed?
  9. Is there a universal understanding of the aims of the social media outlets?

It is important that the use of social media is professional while informal, and that each member of the team appreciates the aims of undertaking this method of audience engagement. With this mindset, the team’s social media outputs are balanced yet simultaneously represent the particular interests of each member.



Carmichael Watson Project Summary

Social media, for the project, has proved itself a worthwhile tool to engage with audiences both near and far. Considering that much of the material culture collection is in museum storage, it especially allows the team to open the collections up to followers and highlight the content of our catalogues. It adds a dimension to the research that is being carried out while occasionally culminating in metadata that can be added to the CWP online catalogue. The team also uses our social media platforms as a method to build networks with similar projects, institutes and bodies, and is a useful tool to forge discourse within the project's field.



This paper sought to present the experiences of two unique collections and their use of social media to promote and publicise their work. The dedicated approach of LHSA and CWP has proved beneficial in reaching newer and wider audiences both within the UK and further afield.


Lothian Health Services Archive Twitter: @lhsaeul 
Carmichael Watson Project Twitter: @Coll97CW 

About the Author

Guinevere Barlow, Laura Gould

Guinevere Barlow worked as the Research Assistant with the Carmichael Watson Project at the University of Edinburgh. Her research interests are in Irish and Scottish Studies, Material Culture, and the question of Identity. She recently submitted her doctoral thesis in Sociolinguistics at the University of Limerick.

Laura Gould has been the Archivist at Lothian Health Services Archive, University of Edinburgh Library since 2012, having previously been Assistant Archivist there since 2007. With an MSc in Information Management and Preservation (Digital) from the University of Glasgow, she has an interest in the use of social media as a tool for engaging with fellow heritage sector professionals and organisations, and developing new audiences. Laura is currently on leave until March 2015.

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