Tuesday 2 May 2023

#YorStory: public history and the University Archive

Last term we hosted a Masters student from the University's MA in Modern History. As part of their Public History Placement module, students are asked to undertake a public history engagement project. In this blog our student, Izzy, reflects on her experience with us and the social media campaign she has created around the University's history and archive.  


Hi, I’m Izzy, a Modern History MA student at the University of York. For the last 10 weeks I have been undertaking a Public History placement with the Borthwick Institute for Archives. At the end of autumn term last year, we were asked to make a decision on our desired projects, choosing from a set of options provided by a range of heritage partners. The projects ranged from planning and delivering history lessons to children, to working with archives on their social media strategy. I chose to go more down the route of archives as they interest me a lot, and the project allowed me to research some valuable skills around social media engagement and communication of history to the public. The placement initially stood out to me as it matched with some of my interests and skills. I like archival research and, in another job role, I am responsible for communicating and marketing ideas to a team - something I thought I could bring to this. I also feel like this project was a lot about organisation and strategy (both of which I love), so I put it down as one of my top choices!

The project brief asked me to design a social media campaign that would engage the many audiences of the Borthwick Twitter account. There needed to be a coherent element and tweets needed to go out weekly. The tweets had to be interesting and allow for a two-way conversation between the archive and audience, and be based around the University Archive. They could showcase any University 'firsts' and link to wider events, such as LGBT History Month or Black History Month where possible. I realised quickly that the key to success would be focusing my efforts on one range of documents in particular - York's long-standing student newspaper, Nouse. The Twitter campaign had a dual-aspect as it would coincide with, and help celebrate , the University’s 60th anniversary. The anniversary provides an opportunity to look forward as well as back, and to reflect on the University’s past work in combating inequality and championing social justice, diversity and inclusion. I knew this was important to incorporate into the campaign and kept it in mind when I was reading the newspaper for information.

Masthead for the student newspaper, Nouse
Nouse masthead (1984)

Construction of the project

I decided early on to focus on the newspaper Nouse. I sat in the archive searchroom and surveyed Nouse from 1964-2004. I looked for key themes I thought I could use, any good cartoons, and trivia. As well as looking at the details, I also tried to focus on the project’s wider context. I created a spreadsheet which highlighted the tweet content and the date it would be released. I needed to fill in each week with a unique theme. Some weeks were obvious and related to wider national or University events, others were trickier. A particular issue was thinking of themes for over the summer as Nouse wasn’t published then. After having identified the majority of my themes, I went about searching for the material to populate the tweets.

Constructing the tweets got easier as time went on. I found a voice that I liked and rolled with it. The hardest part was trying to create something that people would want to engage with. I felt that the content of the tweets were interesting and people would like the campaign, but would it inspire them to respond or engage? Measuring the impact of the tweets was also hard and in the back of my mind I was thinking about the essay I had to write for my Masters which reflected on how I communicated the history through the tweets and the engagement as a result of that. I will go more in depth into how I tried to create engagement later in this blog.

Screenshot of the Tweet that launches the social media campaign.
Launch tweet for the YorStory campaign

The decisions I had to make while designing the project were also crucial. I had to think about what Nouse content I included and then how I would frame this in the tweets. I found myself feeling very conscious about my role as the curator of the project. I had the power to make the decisions as to the tweets’ content and therefore present a curated and highly selective history. I did not try to follow a specific agenda to shape the perception of the University’s history, but this will have happened unconsciously. The forward looking perspective in the University’s vision for the 60th anniversary led me to be more engaged with material on gay rights and environmental issues, and to move away from histories that required more nuance in their telling, such as Enoch Powell being invited by a group to speak on campus in 1968 (the invitation was quickly withdrawn). Students’ Unions and societies have often brought students into contact with challenging speakers, but this history requires more detailed explanation than a single tweet would allow. Therefore, it was left out, not through disengagement with that particular content, but a difficulty in communicating the nuances of this event to the readers of the campaign. I think that is where most of the tension came from in formulating this project. The inherently uneven weight I gave to certain aspects of the newspaper and the subsequent perception of these for the readers. The importance and responsibilities of the role of the curator is something I think that struck me most during this placement. I also learnt quite how difficult and strategic it is to design and run a social media campaign.

Engagement and marketing

I never really thought about the role of marketing (in its broadest sense) at the beginning of the placement, but as I thought about the project’s objectives, Twitter as a tool for engagement, and the different audiences involved, I realised that the marketing of the tweets was as, if not more, important as the actual content of them. An objective of the campaign was the two-way engagement between archive and audience. We were defining ‘engagement’ quite broadly. We were wanting anything from a like and retweet to an audience member reaching out to donate material or collaborate on a project. This not only made the success of the project hard to define, but it made me aware of lots of different ways people can engage with online media. I wanted to encourage more ‘tangible’ forms of engagement. By this I mean people emailing the archive, asking to do projects, donating materials etc. rather than likes and retweets - although both were desirable. I found this quite difficult. My approach was to give clear routes on how to act if they wanted to i.e. a link taking them directly to the ‘Student Life Collection’ web page if they had photos or archive material to donate. I also wanted to build a community and, with that, trust. By doing online polls and nostalgia posts, I was attempting to build a rapport with the audience (whether they physically interacted or not). This was with the hope that when I introduced a call to action people would act on it.

Screenshot of part of the student life collection webpage listing the type of materials the archive is seeking
Detail from the Student Life Collection webpage

During the placement, I also engaged with the social media manager at the Library who gave me some valuable insights into his strategies to increase engagement. I was struck by how data driven he said social media marketing was. I was told that community and trust were the most important ingredients to an engaged audience. In the final part of this blog I will use my experience of the placement and the things I have learnt from the various people I engaged with to suggest some points for future social media campaigns.


I have very much enjoyed my placement with Borthwick Institute for Archives. Not only has it given me insight into archival material, but it has given me a chance to put research, communication, and social media skills into practice. It has made me think about some of the difficulties around curated campaigns with short-length outputs and different types of engagement styles. Most of all, it has taught me the difficulty of communicating the past to the public and the types of decisions you have to make while doing it. I want to thank Charles specifically for being an excellent mentor and always being there for our weekly meetings. He has been very clear in his vision while also flexible in how I wanted to shape and deliver the project. I have learnt a lot over these last 10 weeks and now all there is to do is the assessment!!!

Thanks a lot!


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