Wisco Histo: Using Tumblr to inspire personal connections to history

Emily Pfotenhauer, USA

Recollection Wisconsin, the collaborative digitization program in Wisconsin, began using Tumblr in 2011 as a simple, lightweight means to showcase selections from our digital collections of photographs and other Wisconsin history materials. In 2012, Tumblr editors added our Tumblr site, Wisco Histo (http://wiscohisto.tumblr.com), to Tumblr’s “History Spotlight” page, and our list of followers exploded from a few hundred individuals to more than 30,000. This demonstration highlights our use of Tumblr as a tool to share content quickly and easily in a serialized way, to bring historical materials to new audiences, and to engage with an active preexisting online community.

Tumblr is an ideal application for what Trevor Owens has described as a “do more less often” digital strategy for cultural heritage organizations, which emphasizes the importance of remaining flexible and nimble in order to take advantage of new web-based tools as they are released. Tumblr is exceedingly simple to use, requires relatively minimal staff time to maintain, and offers a sleek and appealing end-user interface. The blog-like structure enables the presentation of stories over time through scheduled sequences of daily posts centered on themes selected by our staff, invited “guest curators” (subject specialists from our partner organizations), or suggested by our readers. The image-focused nature of the platform means that content can be developed and published rapidly, with materials selected for maximum visual impact; only minimal research and writing is generally required.

While Tumblr provides a quick and easy means to present our content, it also enables us to bring our content to users who would not otherwise seek it out. Tumblr’s user demographics skew significantly younger and less white than the stereotypical audience for local history materials. Moreover, Tumblr makes it easy for these users to reappropriate materials and develop their own customized streams of content by “liking” or “reblogging” posts from the blogs they follow. Some of these users are what might be termed passionate amateurs or citizen historians who maintain their own Tumblr blogs related to women’s history, World War II, or other historical topics. Other users are simply responding to a personal or emotional connection sparked by a particular image or resource—for example, the young women who reblogged our photo of Girl Scouts practicing archery and commented that they wished their own Girl Scout troops had given them the opportunity to be like Katniss in The Hunger Games, or the siblings who reposted a recipe from a Milwaukee newspaper with a reference to a family joke about “the enchilada incident.” These acts of reblogging are powerful channels for individuals to connect to historical resources in uniquely personal and intimate ways. As Mark Richardson puts it, “The person posting can say, ‘This is me’ with a click or two, and the media itself becomes part of the person’s identity.” Thus, our role as a cultural heritage institution on Tumblr is not to broadcast our own message, but to provide opportunities for users to embrace our content on their own terms.