Academics and heritage professionals working with medieval collections are increasingly encouraged to disseminate their research to public audiences through blogging and social media, but many are new to writing inclusively to engage with non-specialist readers. The following guidelines provide helpful advice on writing blogs, using more accessible language, describing medieval objects, finding images to include in posts, and tips for using Twitter and Instagram.
Writing and Tone
While articles are lengthy pieces aimed towards academic readers, blogs are intended for broad audiences and are ideally 500-750 words in length. Be concise in your writing, explaining what the material is that you are discussing, why it is important to you, and what makes your topic relevant to current readers. Hook the reader by presenting your message in the opening paragraph rather than summing up in your conclusion. If you are writing on behalf of your institution, check whether they provide writing guidelines for you to follow. Your tone of voice should be a balance between your academic authority as an expert on the material and light-heartedness to reflect the joy the object brings to you and your readers.
Accessibility does not mean dumbing down! Instead, you are providing contextual information for non-specialists of your topic. For example, manuscript classmarks are only meaningful to a small number of researchers, so refer to works by their title or form in the body of the post with the classmark in brackets: This illuminated Bible (CCA-DCc-AddMs/392) was produced in Paris. Explain specialist terms when first used, such as Psalter (the book of the Psalms). Take a look at the glossary of the British Library’s Medieval England and France website for further terms relating to medieval art and culture. Similarly, provide epithets and known dates for historical figures when first mentioned, for example: St Thomas Becket, the archbishop of Canterbury (r. 1162-1170). When referring to a medieval centre that is not a well-known location such as London or Paris, include a reference to the centre’s modern location: Echternach, in modern-day Luxemburg. Finally, language is a barrier in medieval studies, so it is important to include English translations of Latin titles of works and quotations. These small additions to your post will allow much wider audiences to access and enjoy your research.
The public does not know how to ‘read’ medieval art, so you must be clear in your written descriptions of the images you discuss. Explain what the image depicts as well as if the work is shown in full or a detail of a larger programme. Be mindful that many medieval works used as sources of historical research continue to function as sacred objects, including Bibles, relics, and other religious items. Your tone should be mindful of the image’s present status to faith audiences. Do not attempt to interpret articles of faith like the Holy Trinity or the Crucifixion, as doctrine of the medieval Church is not accepted across all Christian faiths today. However, provide summaries of common medieval scenes that public readers may be encountering for the first time, for example: The Evangelist St Mark with his symbol of a lion. The British Library’s Discovering Sacred Texts website provides expert guidance on the teaching and description of faith texts and their imagery from Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Sikhism and the Baha’i Faith, Jainism and Zoroastrianism.
Before you include an image in your blog post, ensure you have the permission of the item’s holding institution to use it as reproductions come under copyright law. Most museums and libraries outline how images can be used online their website, but if in doubt get in touch by email to find out their policy. Caption the image with the item’s location and holding institution. For manuscripts, include the library classmark and folio number, as below. Also state the permission or credit line provided by the institution. This applies also to images available to download through digitisation projects.
Twitter and Instagram
Social media is used to promote museum and library collections, highlight upcoming events and exhibitions, drive traffic to project websites, and engage with researchers and the interested public in online communities. You can use social media to attract readers to your blog by sharing several tweets or posts over time with fun facts and images from the blog. Your post or Instagram bio should contain a website link to enable access for readers. Medieval manuscripts are not memes, include the classmark and folio number of the image shared to promote good practice online! Use any relevant hashtags, such as #MedievalTwitter, #nuntastic, #InternationalCatDay- follow the Twitter accounts of the British Library’s medieval curators @BLMedieval and the Bodleian Digital Library @BDLSS for great hashtag ideas. Most importantly, tag in the museum or library you are sharing from! Institutions can share your post on their social media feeds and staff love to see how researchers engage with the collections.
About the Author
Dr Alison Ray has worked since 2018 as Assistant Archivist at Canterbury Cathedral Archives and Library, having previously worked at the British Library as Digitisation and Web Curatorial Officer with The Polonsky Foundation England and France, 700-1200 digitisation project. Follow Dr Ray on Twitter.