Dr. Will Noel is the Director of the Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies and of the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts at the University of Pennsylvania Libraries. Before coming to UPenn in 2012, Dr. Noel was the Curator of Manuscripts and Rare Books at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore. In these positions, Dr. Noel has been an extraordinary advocate of the digitization of rare and historic documents and illuminated manuscripts for public access. These materials, dated from as early as the sixth century, and from countries as wide-ranging as Ethiopia, Egypt, Armenia, India, are now available to anyone that wants to browse the institutions’ collections online. Until very recently, many of these materials could only be seen by librarians and specialists on location.
Both the Kislak Center and the Walters have made it part of their mission to engage visitors and viewers through social media. The cultural organizations have cultivated followings on Twitter, Flickr, Instagram, and Facebook. Curators and librarians can share images from the collections, promote museum exhibits and events, showcase research efforts and blogs from other museums, and also converse with students, researchers, and art-enthusiasts worldwide. More recently, the Schoenberg has started a YouTube channel, on which scholars can present visual materials from the collection, providing a narrative about their text, context, production and illustration. Acclaim spoke with Dr. Noel about the Schoenberg and Walters’ social media efforts, and how these resources can be used both by individuals and within university classrooms.
ACCLAIM: What have been the goals behind social media engagement for the Kislak Center and for the Walters Art Museum? How do you measure public engagement around digital images? Who do you see interacting on Twitter and Instagram?
WN: Well, they were different, and fundamentally related to mission. The mission of the Walters Art Museum is to bring art and people together for enjoyment, discovery and learning. The purpose of using social media there was to raise awareness of the collections by providing access to the images, and to responsible commentary on them. The mission of the Kislak Center is to combine unique historic assets with modern technology to advance learning at the University of Pennsylvania and around the world: the several Twitter feeds and blogs of curators and cataloguers in the Kislak Center are designed not only to raise awareness of the collections but also to contribute to scholarly discourse. And indeed there is a growing scholarly discourse on the web about special collections, and Twitter and Facebook are the means by which this discourse is shared.
One of the delights of the web currently is how easy it is to measure use. Publicly available sites understand that people want to know how often their materials are looked at, and they make it easy to find out. It is also easy to discover how much of your data is downloaded by users around the world. It is much more difficult to assess the impact that you are having in the world at large; just because someone looks at your picture doesn’t mean that they “engage” with it.
ACCLAIM: The Schoenberg Institute has started a YouTube channel. Can you tell me a bit about how you pick materials for the videos, and how you see the channel being used?
WN: Video is now so simple to make, and so easy to share, that it just seems natural to us. We digitally capture many of the presentations that are hosted through the Schoenberg Institute of Manuscript Studies, and we post videos of the most interesting of them, be they lightening talks or longer presentations. However, the videos of individual manuscripts are the work of Dot Porter, Curator of Digital Research Services for the Schoenberg Institute. They are designed to complement standard digital capture of these manuscripts, complete page-by-page images that are also available. Dot was driven to produce the videos because there is so much that is not captured by standard digital reproduction of manuscripts: a sense of scale for example, three-dimensionality, and indeed a brief assessment of its characteristics as a tactile object. Links to these videos are also available through our catalog records. I think it’s pretty obvious that while conventional imaging will enable you in most cases to read or see what’s on a manuscript page, the video will give you a much better sense of the codex as an object.
ACCLAIM: In your TED talk, you mentioned that by making data and images public, people can use and build “datasets of their own.” What kinds of projects have you seen?
WN: I’m not sure I said quite that. I think I said that the web of the future isn’t going to be built by institutions, but by individuals. What I mean by this is that undergraduates are going to write essays, scholars are going to write blog posts. They should be able to do this without breaking the law. Occasionally, and more ambitiously, people are going to systematically create their own digital collections of materials residing in disparate institutions, and present them in such a way that they can be interrogated by scholars and the public that would not otherwise have been possible. This is happening more and more often.
ACCLAIM: Do you see a potentiality for undergraduate instructors to utilize social media for student discussion surrounding images?
WN: Sure, and for these reasons. First, students use social media all the time; it’s where they are, and as an instructor you want to put images in places where they will be seen. Secondly, by putting reproductions of quality works of art in the settings provided by social media you are putting them in an environment where it is immensely easy to add context as you like, and to do it as a collective endeavor. It is possible to generate dialogue about an image that you cannot do in a class essay, and to record conversation about an image in a way that is difficult in the classroom.