Catherine Stiers on Using Reddit as an Archival Outreach Tool

The College of Charleston Special Collections in Charleston, South Carolina has found a new way to connect its archival collections with their audience through a popular internet forum: reddit. Reddit is a forum where communities can form to discuss a person, topic, or event; share cute animal photos, and ask or answer question from the communities that gather there. Committee of Public Awareness member Rachael Woody sits down with Charelston’s research and outreach specialist Catherine Stiers, to learn more about Stier’s outreach work within reddit.

StiersCatherine Stiers is a Research and Outreach Specialist at the College of Charleston Special Collections in Charleston, South Carolina.

RW: How did you land on reddit as a possible outreach and engagement tool?

CS: I decided to propose a Special Collections reddit account (CofCSpecColl) when brainstorming additional ways to engage with our community following the onset of social distancing back in March. Personally, I use reddit as a way of keeping track of what’s going on where I live, from restaurant recommendations to traffic warnings. Unlike most other social media platforms, reddit is broken down into subcategories, or subreddits, which can be based around common interests or geographic locations. I already knew from experience that the local Charleston board includes both an invested group of locals and a rotating array of tourists who would be interested in Charleston history.

From r/archivists to r/askhistorians (which has over a million members), it’s clear that history is being discussed on reddit from both experts and amateurs. R/askhistorians in particular has built a reputation of reliability. They held a virtual conference this year and produce a podcast. While r/askhistorians appeals to those who already consider themselves history enthusiasts, I wanted to reach people who may not be likely to visit subreddits specifically for historical or archival research, but would still be interested in the content.

When I come across a visually engaging item that I think will catch the attention of people scrolling through their feeds, I post it, along with a paragraph or two of background information.

RW: How do you use reddit as an outreach mechanism?

CS: When I come across a visually engaging item that I think will catch the attention of people scrolling through their feeds, I post it, along with a paragraph or two of background information. I tend to stay away from heavily text-based materials because they don’t draw the eye as much as a colorful image does. A postcard of the old Charleston Orphan House and a before-and-after picture of a well-known downtown street have performed the best so far.

Language in the post should include links to other institutional websites or open-access resources for readers to explore if they’re interested in learning more. I also try to tie in information about the College of Charleston Special Collections sources and encourage Redditors to reach out to us for their other local research needs.

A picture of the Charleston, South Carolina Orphan House.Charleston, SC Orphan House,” from the Leah Greenberg Postcard Collection, College of Charleston Libraries

Screenshot from r/Charleston subreddit

Screenshot from r/Charleston subreddit

Although Reddit is not one of our primary outreach tools, I’ve found the level of engagement to be much, much higher than either Twitter or Instagram.

RW: What results have you achieved by using reddit?

CS: Although Reddit is not one of our primary outreach tools, I’ve found the level of engagement to be much, much higher than either Twitter or Instagram. I’m continually surprised by how willing people are to share stories they otherwise wouldn’t have a chance to.

I think the most successful result we can hope for is spreading the word that Special Collections exists and that we are here for people’s research needs.

One example of a successful post was this postcard of the Charleston Orphan House, which doesn’t exist anymore. It was established in 1790 as the first public orphanage in the United States and operated until the 1950s. The building was demolished and one of the College of Charleston’s dormitories stands there now. Longtime residents have strong memories associated with the building and commenters wrote about their relatives’ experiences living there. Commenters were open and willing to share their private family stories without being prompted. That’s part of what makes reddit a useful outreach tool- commenters aren’t restricted by a limited number of characters. I think the most successful result we can hope for is spreading the word that Special Collections exists and that we are here for people’s research needs.

RW: What are some of the challenges present in using reddit and have you been able to mitigate or circumvent them?

CS: Like on all social media platforms, copyright and permissions are a challenge. Although I always include a disclaimer, it wouldn’t be difficult for someone to take the image and use it without properly citing Special Collections as its repository of origin. Additionally, other Reddit users often feel the need to jump in and add their own information, which may or may not be accurate. It’s encouraging to see commenters get involved in the dialog, but it can be difficult to fact-check everything and correct mistakes. Readers also sometimes treat posts like an AMA (ask me anything) event and will ask questions that are really best suited for a research consultation or in person visit. It can be time-consuming to answer their obscure questions or redirect them to the proper place.

A historical postcard depicts a beach scene on Sullivan's Island, South Carolina.

“On the Beach, Sullivan’s Island, SC,” from the Leah Greenberg Postcard Collection, College of Charleston Libraries.

RW: Do you have any lessons learned you can share with us?

CS: You have to have somewhat of a thick skin! Reddit has a reputation for being harsh, and sometimes it’s true. The first time I posted, a user latched onto my request that anyone wanting to use the image had to DM me first to fill out a publication request form. They questioned how I had the authority to ask for something like that, but were understanding once I explained the situation.

RW: What advice would you give organizations who are interested in trying reddit?

CS: Choose your subreddits carefully. If you are part of a university library and want to reach more students, the university’s subreddit might be a good place to post. Unfortunately for us, r/CofC is inactive. If you want to reach an even broader audience, a state subreddit like r/SouthCarolina is what you’re looking for. It’s best to familiarize yourself with how Reddit works before diving in.

Be sure to stick around and answer questions after submitting your post. Some of the best interactions we’ve had have resulted from follow-up questions and direct messages. Unlike Twitter and Instagram, you have to closely monitor Reddit posts to get the most out of them.

RW: Is there anything else you’d like to share with us?

CS: You can follow the College of Charleston Special Collections on Twitter @CofCSpec_Col and on Instagram at cofcspeccoll!

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