Twitter as a Research Tool?

photo by sophiahussein

photo by sophiahussein

In the summer of 2014, my Twitter feed was peppered with images of old and interesting books. Drawings of leaves by Ben Franklin, philosophical marginalia, Massachusetts psalters... They were all being posted by a musicologist friend of mine, whom I assumed was on a research trip at an archive and was posting all of her interesting finds. That turned out not to be the case. Instead, she was attending the Rare Book School, where her instructors had encouraged their students to tweet as many photos as they would like.

That got me thinking: what if Twitter could be used as a research tool? Imagine this: when visiting archives, you snap pictures of interesting documents, details, or artifacts. Tweet a selection of them to your followers and see which artifacts create a spark with your community.  (There is a healthy group of musicologists using Twitter, see my list of tweeting musicologists here.) Then when you return home, convert these tweets to a database using Twitter Archive. Each one would have a tag/short comment, and would be searchable by date, location, etc.

As my friend commented to me, one major hang-up with this idea is that researchers usually have to sign agreements with the archives that restrict how images are published. Many archives these days will tell you which items have restrictions, and which items can be shared publicly.

I think RBS has the right idea. If archives would allow increasing leeway for image-sharing, it seems like it would be good for all parties. Researchers get real-time feedback about what they are doing in the archive (not to mention hopefully creating interest in the community for a future article), the research community learns about interesting collections, and librarians get free advertising of the best kind (promotion within personal/professional networks of social media). I wasn't thinking about RBS before all of those pictures of old books started showing up in my Twitter feed. Now I want to visit.

Posted on June 28, 2014 and filed under Scholarship.