Many historians of all ages will quite possibly never own a blog or attempt to use Facebook for anything other than sharing their holiday snaps. Some might try it and decide that it’s not for them. Whether or not social media is a fad that will soon vanish, or a vital tool for the modern Historian was not the main focus of the workshop held at the Institute of Historical Research on Tuesday 29 January 2013, rather it was the possibilities of social media to act as a useful adjunct to historical research and as an important (and increasingly essential) tool for developing a career in History.
When I first started working at the IHR I didn’t use Twitter, neither did I know what to do with a blog. I used Facebook, but only for its original purpose of keeping in touch with friends. My social media output and input was pretty much zero. I would say then, that this workshop is timely as within the last three years I have realised how important and useful these tools can be. I have heard arguments that social media is only for the attention-seeker or best left to those desperate to hear about the latest celebrity to have lost or gained weight. If this was once the case, it is not now.
Twitter provides a platform for spreading the word about historical projects, latest news in the higher education profession, and random but interesting (and sometimes useful) facts. It also allows you to engage and learn about what other historians are up to. I don’t want to know what the leading historian in sixteenth century political history had for lunch, but it is useful for me to have an idea where his/her current research is taking them. Isabel Holowaty from the Bodleian library noted that Twitter was initially more popular with those outside of Oxford itself (suggesting an interest in knowing what is going on there) and it is only now that those in Oxford are beginning to take part as well. Laura Cowdrey from The National Archives argued that Twitter works well in this regard, but that it is also important to know your audience (and what it is interested in) and to think about the right words to use to latch on to trends. This really matters.
One use that Twitter is sometimes put to is as a reporting mechanism during seminars, conferences and workshops. I have increasingly seen people sending Tweets during these events – noting points of interest for others to read and at least get a glimpse at what is happening even if they can’t be there themselves. I’m never certain how useful this actually is, but I gave it a try for this workshop and quite enjoyed the process. Jane Winters (Head of IHR Publications) has put together a little guide to using Twitter for this purpose which is well worth a look: Storify – Twitter comments.
While Twitter is a useful micro-blog tool for making connections and learning about the latest news in the profession blogs serve a rather different role, but equally as important. Julian Harrison from the British Library talked most about blogs, in particular the Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts blog (one of many maintained by the library). It became clear in the breakout session that Julian believes that blogs are a vital tool for upcoming historians to form an online presence that could be vital to their future job prospects. Blogs enable you to write short but well-constructed and academically vigorous (if more informal) pieces about your research interests. They therefore serve to inform others of your interests, enable other researchers to learn from you and to discover more about what is going on in that area of historical research. Blogs also allow researchers to ‘publish’ some of their research ideas in an informal manner much faster than traditional methods such as journals and monographs. They are not a replacement, of course, but a useful addition.