The Anti-Social Scholar (and how not to become one) – The Social Scholar

Julian Harrison from the British Library discussed the Medieval Manuscripts Blog to the Social Scholar seminar on 23 October 2013.  The focus of his talk was on why he believes it is important for blogs to be used as part of any academic research project.  

The SAS Blog has  further information about this talk including a collection of the Twitter feed here, and a summary of the event itself here.

The Social Scholar – Julian Harrison on social media at the British Library


The Anti-Social Scholar (and how not to become one)

23 October 2013, 13:00 – 14:00

Event Type: Seminar


Julian Harrison (British Library)

Julian Harrison is Curator of Pre-1600 Historical Manuscripts at the British Library, and Co-Curator of the forthcoming Magna Carta exhibition (2015). He is one of the editors of the Medieval Manuscripts Blog, which is on course to receive in excess of 500,000 hits this year.

Speakers Abstract

Having a strong online presence is key to gaining recognition in the Digital Age. By focusing on the British Library’s Medieval Manuscripts Blog, we will discuss strategies for successful blogging, and for communicating to a global audience. We will introduce the Seven Golden Rules of Blogging, and will consider how to build and maintain a readership for academic blogs.


The Social Scholar is a new series of lunchtime seminars from the School of Advanced Study, looking into the theme of Social Media. Each session includes a 20 minute presentation from an expert already using social media in the Humanities followed by discussion and Q&A.  In these sessions we hope to learn together about how to better use social media in a professional capacity and what the difficulties and issues are.  The series will look at blogs, Twitter, Facebook, and other social media services.   Tea and coffee are provided and you are welcome to bring your own lunch.

Venue : Room 246 (Senate House)

Senate House
Malet Street
London WC1E 7HU

Blogging for Historians blog: Social media or not?

Next week Julian Harrison from the British Library will be talking about social media at the British Library at the School of Advanced Study lunchtime seminar series – The Social Scholar.  I’ve been involved in organising this event, and I’d like to share with you some of the reasons below about why I think this seminar series is a great idea.



In the last few years social media has really taken off as a thing that should be used in academia for a variety of reasons.  Sometimes it is used to promote activities – lectures, conferences, seminars – other times research projects.  Often individual academics use blogs to talk about aspects of their research that would either not see the light of day otherwise, or as a preliminary place to upload thoughts, ideas, and research before traditional publication. Twitter is used both to promote research and events and to find out more about what is going on – it’s an online networking site that, if used well, can pay dividends.

In short, micro-blogging sites such as Twitter and Facebook provide a new conduit for sharing information; blogs allow academics and higher education institutions to share, publically, what it is that they are doing.  Image based social media such as Flickr allows academics to share pictures essential to their work, whilst Pinterest and historyPin enable us to share notes and organise material found online. There is a whole world out there of social media tools – some better and more useful that others – but questions still remain for many of us – are these tools really as useful as they claim and in what way?  What can they do for me?

Whilst it is true that Social Media provides a fantastic opportunity to talk to people and to share knowledge, it is also true that it’s a bubble of its own making. There’s no point relying solely on social media to get your message across because you will only ever reach a small percentage of your desired audience. When you start to use social media regularly it is so very easy to forget that not everyone else is, nor are they always going to find what it is you are sharing very easily.

The adjective “If you build it they will come” doesn’t necessarily apply – produce a tweet on Twitter, for instance, and it’s gone within minutes (perhaps seconds) on most people’s timeline – how likely is it that they will see it? Write a blog post and even if people find it chances are they will only skim read.

So what’s the solution? Is social media all that it is cracked up to be? I don’t have an answer, although these are questions that play on my mind from time to time. This is why I’m looking forward to being part of The Social Scholar seminars put on by the School of Advanced Study.  I’m hoping that experts already using social media in their work can help me in my confusion and perhaps help you in yours.

The Social Scholar will be held once every month term-time between 1pm-2pm on a Wednesday. It’s free to all to attend and coffee/tea will be provided (please also feel free to bring your own lunch!). Each session will comprise of a 20 minute presentation from an expert using social media, followed by debate, discussion and questions. For full details see the programme on the SAS blog and elsewhere on this blog.

The first session will be held in Senate House room 246 on 23 October (1pm-2pm) with guest speaker Julian Harrison from the British Library talking on the subject of The Anti-Social Scholar (and how not to become one).  You can also follow us and join in on the conversation on Twitter through the hashtag #socialscholar.

Untold Lives blog, The British Library (Margaret Makepeace and Penny Brook) – Interview #3


 “I maintain a planner so we can make sure we maintain coverage of key events we’ve noted in the calendar and to also mix up the contributions so that there is a spread between different collection areas if possible.  And this schedule is constantly shunted about to fit in topical stories that appear out of the blue from inspired colleagues. We like to keep a store of 5-10 blog posts in readiness, in case there is a sudden dip in posts being submitted.”

–          Margaret Makepeace

800px-British_Library_entranceway_1The third podcasted interview for the Blogging for Historians project was conducted on 31st January 2013 at the British Library (London).  The British Library hosts twenty blogs covering topics as diverse as its own collections.  This is a different approach than the one we saw for The National Archives, who have established one all-encompassing blog.  The British Library has broken up its interests by department or theme, but have maintained some element of cohesiveness by including all these blogs in a well-publicized index page.

Untold Lives is run by the History and Classics department with the remit to focus on stories of people’s lives as viewed through the multi-media materials available at the British Library.  It began life in October 2011 and in that time might look on the one hand at a member of the East India Company (blog post here) and on the other at a conservator of forests in British North Borneo (blog post here).  Margaret Makepeace and Penny Brook act as the blogs administrators – uploading new posts and taking care of the schedule.

In this interview we discussed the nature of the Untold Lives blog and its most popular topics.  At the time a post about a dead cat at the Foreign Office had done particularly well (blog post here).  The post described how a cat had been mummified when accidently trapped behind a large bound volume of newspapers.  At the beginning of March this year, Penny Brook noted that subscribers to the blog increased when they posted about the Bradford vs. Swansea cup final (blog post here).  

The title of the blog posts is one of the most defining features of this blog. They tend to be imaginative and interesting – an attempt to draw in interest to what the blog post is talking about.  Thus, for example:

Five Weddings and a Funeral – for a post about a dysfunctional Victorian family

Was ‘water rat’ the new black in 1697? – a post about late seventeenth century silks

Dickens grows a beard – a post literally about Charles Dickens growing his beard within the context of a ‘beard movement’ in the 1850s.

The podcasted interview is available to listen online or download.  It is 23 minutes long.

Untold Lives Blog, Margaret Makepeace and Penny Brook (British Library) – 31 January 2013


Outline of Questions asked in the Podcast

Purpose of the blog

  1. Before we begin could you tell us a little more about yourself and your position here at the British Library?
  2. Let’s move on to the blog itself.  When and why was the Untold Lives blog set up?
  3. Do you remember what discussions were had at the time?  What were the concerns, priorities, and hopes for the blog?  Could you give us an insight into the original thought processes?
  4. Which blogging platform did you use and for what reason?  What did it offer you that made it the most appealing and useful?
  5. This is a collaborative blog.  How is this managed?  Is there a process to ask staff to write posts for the blog or is it done more informally?

Promotion and popularity

  1. Who do you think is your main audience?  Does this affect what is written on the blog?
  2. In your view how successful has the blog been and what do you base this view on?  (i.e. stats, public discussion, in-house interest etc.)
  3. How many people tend to visit the blog each month?
  4. Have you received much in the way of feedback from those writing blog posts and those visiting the blog?  Do visitors often leave comments related to particular blog posts?
  5. How have you promoted the blog?  Other social media (Twitter, Facebook etc.), websites, leaflets etc.?

Best practice

  1. In your view, what makes a good blog post?
  2. Do you have any suggestions for best practise in using and managing blogs as an institution or individual?
  3. Is there anything else you would like to add?

The SMKE Social Media Workshop: Golden Rules of blogging

Have you ever considered Unicron for dinner?  If not, why not?  Oh, right, yes of course – Unicron’s don’t exist.  There goes my dinner plans.  On Tuesday 29 January 2013 the Institute of Historical Research held a workshop on Social Media for the SMKE project.  The second talk was by Julian Harrison of the British Library, who discussed the British Library’s Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts blog.  The Unicron recipe came from a post about a long-lost medieval cookbook containing recipes for hedgehogs, blackbirds and Unicron’s.  It has some great images and advice, just a shame the post was published on 1 April (see blog post here).

Roasted Unicron anyone?
Roasted Unicron anyone?

Harrison didn’t just talk about spurious blog posts, however, the purpose of the blog is more serious – to showcase the work that the British Library does and its holdings to a wider audience than was ever possible before the advent of social media.  In using blogs, the British Library is trying to connect users with their content, facilitate research, and have a bit of fun in the process.  The blog stats were particularly interesting.  The Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts blog began in 2010 and received 14,000 views.  In 2011 this increased to 70,000 views and then in 2012 it really took off with a massive 300,000 views.  Harrison broke down the stats for 2012.  Visitors came from 189 countries although the US (38%) and UK (23%) were by far the largest group.  It is interesting that there was more interest from America than from the UK.  Harrison mentioned that they had started to time some of their posts for the American audience – placing them at midnight UK time so that Americans could receive the posts near the end of their working day (about 4pm on the West coast).

Julian Harrison also outlined his seven golden rules of blogging.  These are:

  1. Post on a frequent basis
  2. Be informative
  3. Write in a lively manner
  4. Include pictures or images
  5. Include links
  6. Know your audience
  7. Don’t be afraid to ‘plog’ (i.e. plug your blog – promote it – tweet and re-tweet)

All in all, this workshop was very useful in highlighting the usefulness of social media, including blogs, for the historian.  The claim was made that in the current climate maintaining an online profile through social media is to be viewed as vital to securing jobs; someone findable online are more likely to be given a job than someone who keeps his or her research offline.    I’m not certain if this is entirely true, yet, but I can easily see it going this way.  I don’t think this should be the principal reason for entering the world of social media though.  Self-promotion might prove useful, but it will only be successful – I think – if the reasons for posting blog posts and engaging in Twitter or photograph networks – is to further your own research and interest in a subject.  If you are excited by what you are doing, and would like to express that excitement to others, I suspect that your online presence will be better received and more enjoyable and useful to both yourself and to others.