In this guest post in our #SchOnline series (scholarly conversations online) Mark Liebenrood (@markliebenrood) reminds us that serendipity is not the preserve of archival research: it can be one of the great strengths of online scholarly communities.
A few months ago I hit a small obstacle in my research. Reading through borough council documents for information about a museum closure I came across an acronym, apparently for a trade union, that was unfamiliar. My usual approaches to online searching got me no further, and this was made more complicated by the acronym itself being a common word (ACTS). The trade union’s identity was a minor detail, but I still wanted to know it if possible. So I did something I don’t think I’ve done before, which was to put out a request on Twitter with the #twitterstorians hashtag. My tweet got just one retweet, but to my surprise in less than an hour I had several helpful replies, one of which had the answer. Although I’ve seen others ask questions on Twitter many times, this made me realise how potentially useful that huge online community can be.
In that case I was reaching out for information, but sometimes useful things come to you unexpectedly, just by virtue of being online. I follow Birkbeck’s History, Classics and Archaeology Department on Twitter, and they retweeted an announcement by one of their tutors (Brodie Waddell, one of the co-authors of this site) about their forthcoming MA module on Microhistory. This was of particular interest to me, as I am taking a microhistorical approach in my own doctoral research on museum closure. Brodie shared the module handbook in another tweet, and after reading through the bibliography I got in touch with him to ask some questions. He put those questions out on Twitter and emailed me a summary of the responses, which has added more books to my reading list. It was more or less chance that I saw Brodie’s first tweet about his teaching, but that chance occurrence has expanded the horizons of my own research.
Those familiar with Twitter will also be aware of threads. I’ve sometimes wondered about the value of long threads, which can run to tens of linked tweets, sometimes more than a hundred. Why not write a blog post instead? Tweets can be all too ephemeral, and are unlikely to be indexed by search engines, but blogs have a more enduring online presence and can sometimes prompt responses years after publication. A case in point is a blog I wrote for the Mapping Museums project at Birkbeck back in 2017. The project is documenting museums between 1960 and 2020, and many have closed leaving very little information behind. For one museum in Newcastle, we had an image and other fragments of information, but little idea of what the museum had displayed. Three years after my short blog about the museum was published, our request for more information received a response from someone who had discovered some literature about the museum amongst their things and kindly offered it to the project.
Conducting research online can be time consuming and there can be many dead ends, but there is also a large online community that reaches well beyond academia. Of course that community can sometimes be extremely unpleasant, as Elizabeth Watts described in another post in this series, but there are also people out there, often strangers in real life, who are happy and able to help with research questions.