Mine Your Archives for Content Gold

Archives at Loughborough University Library

What content treasures lurk within your university archives?

When considering how best to use social media platforms such as Twitter or Facebook, we are often thinking in real-time. What are people talking about right now? How can we communicate the vitality of campus life? How can we be proactive listeners and responsive publishers?

However, one of the most intriguing ways to use real-time platforms comes from looking into our past. Many institutions are finding that highlighting archival university content — whether it’s a photo of students from the 1940s wearing beanies and bobby socks or a post citing a memorable milestone in campus history — can appeal to a range of audiences and support an array of communications objectives. Additionally, the cache of content available to you may be significant, depending on how much has been digitized.

This content may originate from your communications office, your university archivist, or a partnership between the two. What matters most is how it is planned and published. Here are a few examples of how institutions are making the most of their archival content via social media.

University Archivist Turns Publisher at UW-Madison

Tweeting and Tumbling Toward Community

Vicki Tobias, images and media archivist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, created the Twitter and Tumblr accounts for her office in 2011 in order to “ to engage new audiences and build greater awareness of the university archives by creating community around our shared campus history.“

Twitter provides an opportunity to share campus history facts in short bursts,” says Tobias, as well as to promote services, resources, events, and projects relating to her office. She also uses Twitter to field research questions — and in a few cases, Twitter conversations have prompted donations of historical materials to the university.

The Tumblr account, however, is “a platform for telling stories” that hews close to its title, “Found in the Archives.”

“Each week, I (or a student worker) will draft a short story about something interesting (photo, audio clip, film, correspondence, etc.) discovered while processing a new or existing collection,” explains Tobias. “It has to be provocative and tell an interesting story about our campus history, one that perhaps hasn’t been heard before.”

For Tobias, these channels help people understand history in a new and more meaningful context.

“Social media is a fabulous way to engage audiences in history,” she says. “A successful post or tweet, in my opinion, is one that elicits such responses as ‘Wow, I didn’t know that’ or ‘Tell me more, that’s fascinating.’”

Bringing History to Life

Tobias uses creativity and humor to hook the reader, but she also tries to tap into the power of shared experiences.

“For example, our campus is bisected by a large and painfully steep hill – Bascom Hill. Anyone who’s been on this campus has climbed it hundreds if not thousands of times in all weather,” she explains. “I posted a cartoon from the 1930s showing students complaining about the hill and the response was overwhelming: ‘I know the feeling.’ ‘I hated that hill.’ ‘I loved sledding on that hill.” And so on.

“This kind of response has helped direct our content decisions to include more posts and tweets that celebrate shared experiences and start a conversation around that experience.”
UW-Madison Archives Tumblr

In selecting content, Tobias balances a light touch with respect for campus history and equal representation of a variety of campus groups, individuals, and events.

“History is not always ‘pretty’ and every university has had its darker moments,” says Tobias. “We don’t avoid heavy topics such as the Dow Riots in ’67 or the Sterling Hall bombing, but we do approach such topics with a careful attitude.”

Whenever possible, Tobias strives to plan content that complements current campus activities and events, such as commencement or basketball season.

“For example, the Engineering Expo occurs in April 2013. We have historic film footage from the 1966 Expo. I’ll craft a post highlighting the film footage then share the post with the communications staff from the Engineering department,” she says. “We love to see our content re-used by departments!”

‘Throwback Thursdays’ Bring Content Wins to University of Arkansas-Little Rock

One-Off Hit Becomes Weekly Standard

Meaghan Milliorn, web communications specialist at the University of Arkansas-Little Rock (UALR), and Jennifer Godwin, web communications manager at UALR, help maintain the university’s Facebook page. In July, they posted a photo of a campus Apple computer lab dating to the 1980s. They posted it with the witty caption, “We’re really excited about some of the updates made in the Mac lab this summer.”

“It was an instant hit, by our metrics,” says Milliorn. “We hoped we were on to something.”

While Milliorn was on maternity leave in October, Godwin launched a weekly feature of similar content for Facebook, dubbed “Throwback Thursday.” In addition to sharing archival photos and placing them in historical context, some weeks the photos are accompanied by a trivia question, with correct respondents winning UALR swag. But prize or not, the content has proven to be popular among UALR’s Facebook followers.

“The pictures that are the most unusual or interesting receive the most engagement. The picture of the 1974 rock concert was fun and many liked/shared/commented on it, but the photo of our chancellor from the 70s had less positive feedback,” says Milliorn. “Photos about one person have received less engagement than the photos of events or locations on campus. We’ve found people love to see how the campus has evolved over the years.” The aforementioned rock concert, for example, took place in a location that is currently a parking lot.

Extending a Legacy Through ‘Likes’

Milliorn and Godwin draw “Throwback Thursday” content from the photo archives in the Office of Communications, as well as the Alumni Association and Center for Arkansas History and Culture are participating. Trivia items are sometimes drawn from “The People’s College,” a 1987 history of UALR authored by Jim Lester.

The top criteria for “Throwback Thursday” photos is relevancy.
Screen Shot 2013-03-04 at 7.09.27 PM
“If it’s registration week, we’ll use a photo of registration as it was 50 years ago – lines snaking out the door and down the sidewalk. If we had an inclement weather day, let’s show the campus back when the bell tower iced over… many of our students didn’t even know we had a bell tower – which no longer works, unfortunately, and is probably why they didn’t know it existed.” explains Milliorn. “Beyond that, we are looking for images that tell the UALR story, from the evolution of our physical campus to the Trojan community members who played a role in shaping our university.”

By using Facebook to host the “Throwback Thursday” feature, Milliorn and Godwin see the promise of social media in helping the UALR community engage with the university’s history, as well as its potential.

“We have a proud tradition as a metropolitan university. As Little Rock has grown, so has our institution,” says Godwin. “By highlighting that growth and our successes over the years, we are sharing with our audience not just our collective past and traditions, but our current connections and shared futures.”

A Productive Partnership: Simmons’ Facebook Timeline

When Facebook introduced its Timeline feature, which presented the opportunity to showcase historical milestones on a Facebook Page, Simmons College social media manager and web editor Amanda Voodre turned to Simmons’ archivist, Jason Wood. The two had teamed up previously for a Facebook featured called “Friday from the Archives.”

Voodre asked Wood to help identify key historical moments, interesting facts, and any other content that may be relevant. “He’s the expert [on College history],” she explains. “My one request was that each milestone had a photo (so a lot depended on what was digitally archived) and that we were telling the story of the evolution of the institution — who was the founder, why and how was the college established, what did students study in the 1900s, what was it like to go to Simmons during the civil rights movement?

I think our Timeline shows that Simmons has remained true to its founding mission. – Amanda Voodre, Simmons College

“One thing I debated on including was the construction of buildings. I ultimately decided to add them because I think people love to see early historic photos of campus and the Fenway neighborhood.”

In addition, Voodre felt the Simmons College Facebook Timeline should answer the question of why the College’s history is important. “I think our Timeline shows that Simmons has remained true to its founding mission.”

Wood provided the timeline, photos, and copy, while Voodre published the content on Facebook. For Voodre, the partnership enlightened her to a host of content resources at her disposal.

“I’m amazed by the amount of digital photos we had available, and our Facebook Timeline is only a tiny fraction of it,” she says. “I see it as a process to be revisited as more info becomes available.”

An Archivist State of Mind

How are you using your institution’s archives to support your content plan? How do you manage the relationships between communicators and archivists? How have efforts to digitize university archives influenced your content efforts?

Speaking of content digitization, in a future post we will explore how university archivists are working to preserve the content we publish each day — webpages, news stories, social media content, videos, you name it. If you have examples or insights on this topic, please let us know.

Homepage photo by uwdigicollec / Flickr Creative Commons. Top photo by loughboroughuniversitylibrary / Flickr Creative Commons.

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About Georgy Cohen

Georgy Cohen is associate creative director, content strategy, at OHO Interactive in Cambridge, Mass.. Prior to OHO, she worked with a range of higher ed institutions, including stints at Tufts University and Suffolk University and as an independent consultant, on content strategy and digital communication initiatives. Keep going »


  1. I very recently joined the #throwbackthursday craze and began sharing archival photos on Marywood University’s main Facebook page and on Twitter. They’ve spurred a lot of engagement on Facebook, generating many more likes and shares than most of our posts receive. Fans have even identified and tagged family members in photos, like this one from 1928: http://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10151268607907217&set=a.161425362216.126489.145696442216

What do you think?