The Art of Livetweeting

Let me begin by stating that while I have practiced this art I certainly haven’t perfected it. However, after serving as an official live-tweeter for the 2017 Annual Meeting of the Organization for American Historians, I thought I might offer some thoughts on how to live tweet – some mine, others drawn from fellow livetweeters.

(Nota Bene: I am aware of debates over the practice of livetweeting. This post assumes that you are attending a conference where livetweeting is acceptable and even encourage)

Give them the hook, not the worm

What’s the point of livetweeting? For me, it’s partly to give people who can’t attend the conference an idea of what’s happening, and it’s to encourage people who see the tweets to explore the work of a panel or panelist if they’re intrigued.

The point is not to serve as a court reporter or blow-by-blow accurate accounting of every word said.

Sometimes I’ll tweet choice tidbits – a really good sentence or a particularly entertaining example. I try to distill the argument (this is easy when the presenter says “this paper will argue…”) but if I can’t quite capture it in 140 characters, I’ll say the paper is “discussing” the general topic and leave it at that.

To quote Blues Traveller, “the hook brings you back” – I see my tweets as a hook bringing the viewers back to that scholar at a future date – to their blog, articles, op-eds, books, or twitter account. My duty to the scholar about whose paper I’m tweeting is to give the twitter audience the hook. The worm – that is, the whole work – comes later.

Tag it

Most conferences these days have a hashtag, so make sure you’re using the official one (it’s often in the conference program). In addition, some conferences may have hashtags for sessions; using these helps people following from outside the room (and outside the conference) keep track of conversations. This year’s NCPH program clearly explained hashtags for the conference, sessions, workshops, and even the plenary and keynote:

Tagging both the conference and the session also makes it simpler if you or someone else wants to go back and storify the tweets for a particular session.

You can also tag the speakers by using their twitter handles, if known. Sometimes people will put their handle on an introductory slide, or it might be in the conference program. More on why you should do that in the next bit:

Credit as credit is due

When live tweeting, it is your responsibility to represent the argument of the speaker to the best of your ability and  to make it clear when you’re quoting (easy, use quotation marks), summarizing (no quotation marks), or adding in your own thoughts and/or commentary.

The best way I’ve found to make the distinction clear is to lead with the speaker. Compare these two tweets:

In the first indicate that Edward is speaking; in the second I clearly indicate that this tweet is a “personal takeaway” and thus my thoughts, not any of the panelists. Even if you don’t know who to credit (someone from the audience asking a question) you can tweet “Q” at the beginning to make it clearer who is speaking.

Thread your tweets

All credit to Lindsay Chervinsky for this, although I since noticed other people doing it.

Threading your tweets meaning composing each subsequent tweet as a reply to the previous. I mostly work in TweetDeck or the apps on my phone and tablet, which make this fairly straightforward, and the new twitter reply format means you don’t have to worry about deleting the “@yourname” at the beginning of every tweet.

Why do this? It allows someone to click on a single tweet and open up the entire series of your tweets relating to a session. Chervinsky does this with the entire session (click through for an example) but I prefer to do it per paper, relying on session hashtags to do the rest of the work.

Copy and Paste

All of this is well and good, you may be thinking, but how do I capture key ideas and summarize them, with the right tags and @s when the conversation is going on around me, sometimes very quickly? Liz Covart, historian, podcaster and livetweeter extraordinaire, shared this tip with me: she takes notes in a separate application (Text Edit, Evernote, whatever), and then copies over the key ideas to her twitter client. One of the advantages of this is that it allows you to capture the big ideas without worrying about a character limit, and distill them down to the 120-odd characters you have to work with later.


Hopefully these ideas have helped demystify the process of livetweeting for those who might be interested. As always, respect the wishes of your conference and panelist regarding whether or not to tweet. Those with more experience than me: what would you add that I missed?

Community History and Public Memory

Yesterday afternoon I stood outside my parish church (ECUSA) with other residents of our town to witness the dedication of a plaque. The text of the plaque reads:

With gratitude and repentance we honor the Enslaved People whose skills and labor helped build the Falls Church.

It sits next to the plaque honoring the architect, James Wren, an equal distance from the church. The effort to commemorate the unnamed people who built the church (for which the town is named) started with members of the Tinner Hill Heritage Foundation over a decade ago, and the celebration yesterday included members of the Foundation, the parish, other local churches, local reenactors, and city residents. The dedication even made the local news.

Within the city of Falls Church, the plaque is part of efforts to increase the visibility of the African American community. The new complex on Tinner Hill preserved the stone arch commemorating the first rural branch of the NAACP and inscribed a timeline, of sorts, into the sidewalk along Lee Highway leading up to the arch. Given that Falls Church city became an independent municipality in the late 1940s largely to gain control of the schools, these efforts for creating new sites of public memory are particularly important.

There are also currents within the Episcopal Church to recognize its involvement in the practice of racial slavery. The Diocese of Rhode Island, rather than closing a cathedral with declining attendance, has changed the space to a Center for Reconciliation, specifically acknowledging and exploring the involvement of the Diocese in the slave trade.

With much of the conversation about public monuments in the last few years dominated by questions of how to deal with memorials we may no longer celebrate, it is interesting to take a moment to think about how new memorials and monuments are created and how they, too, can shape public conversations about (community) history.

Seeking a system

I’ve been trying to find a way of organizing my manuscript sources for the dissertation in a way which is readable, makes sense, and can be exported to do interesting things if the need arises.

At present, most of my sources are in a spreadsheet that I use to record documents as I photograph in the archive, with columns for year, month, day, sender, receiver, gist, and archival information; I add the transcription later. I had set up what is essentially a vertical spreadsheet to capture essential data in addition to a large text field for the transcription, but that was in a rather old version of FileMakerPro and only had enough records to serve as a test case.

(I used to be very good at building relational databases in FileMaker, making use of the special features and functions, etc. I have a fondness for it because as a kid I would play around with the database option in ClarisWorks, which FileMaker grew out of.)

A new version of FileMaker, even at the individual educator price-point, is well above what I’m willing to pay, and it feels a bit odd to use FileMaker after years of hanging out with people who write their own code. Thus, I have been considering my options. Ideally I’d like a relational database with tables for individuals, letters, locations, and repositories (the last is negotiable), and the ability to export data as a csv so I can plug the information into something like R to play around with it. If nothing else I would like a large text field with formatting options for entering and reading transcriptions.

Airtable, which is hosted online and thus would be accessible from any computer (and backed up externally) does not have a good way to view large text blocks, as far as I can tell, so it’s out of the running.

I already use Zotero to keep track of secondary sources, and it is apparently possible to get metadata out of it and into a csv. However, the notes field has always felt small to me and there is not (currently) a place to track the locations of the author and recipient of a letter except within the transcription itself. It’s not ideal but is still an option.

Another option is Omeka S, which is still in beta. It has the ability to create resource templates with whatever elements you want from various existing vocabularies, has media storage and a mapping plugin, and it is possible to import from CSVs and output via API. The main sticking points are that I’d have to come up with a standardized “title” for the documents, and coming up with a specific mapping of my current metadata fields to a mix of Dublin Core and Bibliographic Ontology elements. Of the options that don’t require me (re)learning how to code, Omeka S is the biggest contender after just continuing to use a spreadsheet.

There is a forthcoming system that looks promising – Tropy – but it’s not yet in beta and I need something sooner rather than later (maybe for the next project?)

I could, of course, try to remember my lessons in PHP and MySQL from the autumn of 2013, when I built a small but functional database with a sample set of data. Or I could try and learn Ruby or Django in order to fork and modify Project Quincy to suit my own needs. I’m not entirely sure about the cost/benefit of that in terms of time.

At this point, I’m sticking to my spreadsheet for metadata (currently using Google Sheets, although I know how fickle Google can be) and keeping transcriptions in a separate location. Any suggestions of alternate (well documented) open source database solutions are welcome.

What Comes Next?

hamposterThe popularity of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton: An American Musical is undeniable. It won a Grammy (Best Musical Theatre Album), will likely be nominated for (and win) multiple Tony Awards, and has been discussed by scholars and the popular press. It has been lauded and critiqued by scholars of history, theatre, and literature. But the popularity of Hamilton also raises a challenge for historians of Early America, especially those who do public or digital history:

To borrow from Miranda’s King George III: “what comes next?

How do we engage the people who are coming to this history through Hamilton? Having considered the gaps in the stories told by the show, how do we bring that history to people who are, in my anecdotal experience, eager to learn more? While offering further reading on the period or pointing people to existing programs are good places to start, I think we can do more.

To truly connect with the populations who are flocking to Hamilton: An American Musical, we need to look beyond the historical period and consider what makes the show popular. The music is strongly rooted in hip-hop, rap, and r&b, but there are also nods to classic broadway, even Gilbert and Sullivan; Miranda is speaking in a voice that is familiar and accessible to a wide range of people.

Moreover, audiences who have never set foot in the theatre (either the Public or the Richard Rogers) have been welcomed by Miranda and the show’s cast in various forms of online engagements. Miranda, who like his title character seems to work non-stop, frequently converses with fans on twitter and has joined tumblr where he reblogs and likes fans’ posts. When someone added the lyrics of the show to Rap Genius and the community started annotating, he expressed delight and even noted (again on twitter) when people guessed correctly about a riff or other fact. Members of the cast and crew have live-streamed events on SnapChat and Facebook.

Interactions between the cast and crew of Hamilton and its audience – its fandom – are conversational and egalitarian to a large extent. When the audience creates annotations, transformative works, YouTube videos, the official Hamilton community generally responds with praise or gratitude. The creators of Hamilton have embraced their fan community and recognized its voice as a valid participant in the expression of the show an experience, as a cultural moment.

The challenge as I see it for public/digital/early american historians who want to catch the wave of Hamilton’s popularity to expand the understanding of the show’s fans is to find ways to communicate which echo the accessible tone of the show and which convey a sense of shared experience where the non-expert is welcomed and celebrated. We should try to share our enthusiasm for the past with them, and welcome their enthusiasm or concerns in return, instead of imparting knowledge. Conversation, shared authority, a willingness to allow emotion to be part of the experience of history, are all useful tools as we try to convey the rich history of late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century America.

A note: I started drafting this post last week, before attending the 2016 Annual Meeting of the National Council on Public History, whose theme was “Challenging the Exclusive Past.” Every day of the conference brought me new possibilities for creating a more inclusive interpretation of the past, as well as the challenges which exist. It reiterated what I had been thinking about when I began writing this post: that we need to create an inclusive (public) history of the Revolutionary/Early National era, telling the stories of the wise range of peoples of many races, ethnicities, gender identities, and classes who lived through this period and including our publics as participants, not an audience, when we do so.

One tweet from the conference which I feel captures some of what I’ve been trying to say came from Lara Kelland, quoting Denise D. Meringolo “I wanted to let people tell their stories, but I didn’t want us to tell them what their lives mean.”

The dead may have no control who lives, who dies, who tells their story, but the living should have a say.

Writing Warm Ups

One of the challenges of working on a PhD while also working a full time job is the (self imposed) pressure to maximize your productivity during the time you have to write. In the last few days, I’ve been thinking about why it’s so hard for me to just sit down and write, and I realized that I’m trying to start cold. When I go to the gym, I warm up; why not do the same for writing?

Woman running past a sign
The Great Run

So I’m going to try doing 5-10 minutes of “warm up writing” before I try to write anything I actually care about. Beyond that, however, I’m still figuring out just what these warm ups are going to look like. I am going to try both subject-relevant writing and more general “write everything you did in the last hour” or “a paragraph on something awesome research related you found this week.”

Have you tried writing warm ups? How do you get in the right mindset to write, especially when you know you only have an hour or two?

Reading Fiction in Grad School

During my first year in my PhD program, my mother bought me the first five books in a mystery series as a birthday gift. I was both pleased and frustrated. Pleased because it was a series I wanted to read and annoyed because I knew the books would sit on a shelf, unread, as I worked through readings for class (my birthday falls in the beginning of the Spring semester). And, indeed, three and a half years later I’ve only read three of the books. For someone who loves to read, graduate programs can be a mixed blessing, especially if the Shoulds and Ought-Tos of the grad student mindset make you feel guilty for reading anything that’s not directly related to your degree.

two shelves of books, a ukulele on the top shelf.
My books, my father’s ukulele.

I have, however, just found a solution which works for me. A few weeks ago, a friend posted an article on Facebook reiterating that it’s a bad idea to have screen time just before you fall asleep. This article states that the National Sleep Foundation suggests reading actual paper books as a relaxing activity. Hardly a new thought, at least for me. The number of bedtimes which were extended just long enough to “finish this chapter!” in my childhood probably exceeds the number which went as scheduled. Yet like many people my bedtime book had been replaced by bedtime apps, checking social media one last time before setting the alarm app and trying to sleep.

After reading the article, I decided to experiment. For the last three weeks I’ve kept a book on the nightstand. I read one or two chapters each night or, in the case of the current volume, one short story. Admittedly, I broke my “one or two” rule when I got down to the final four chapters of a mystery novel because I just had to find out what happened. I can’t say for certain that I’ve been sleeping more soundly, but I am enjoying the downtime. I don’t feel guilty for reading, because just before bed was never a time I did academic work anyway. Nor do I feel guilty for devouring a book in a single afternoon in an attempt to enjoy some fiction without taking up too much time. Although the Chapter Before Bed might not work for everyone, I know that I have found a sweet spot which lets me enjoy fiction without stressing about my reading habits.

Brief thoughts on Twitter

Today at noon I will be one of the panelists at a brownbag lunch session titled “Blogs, Writing Groups, Digital Classrooms, and More: Managing Your Academic Career in the Online Era” at the triennial meeting of the Southern Association of Women Historians. While our objective is to have more conversation than commentary, my part of the initial remarks focuses on twitter (for history grad students). What follows are my basic thoughts, in bullet form, and then a list of articles and blog posts about tweeting which might be useful. Please feel free to add your thoughts or recommended reading in the comments.

three columns in tweetdeck showing tweets from June 2015
Just three of my thirteen tweetdeck columns



  • Pick a username that works for you – but know that it’s (probably) possible to change it later. Also, your display name is very easy to change. If I were joining twitter today, I probably wouldn’t be @magpie; on the other hand, the username I would pick is taken by someone who never tweets. While it’s possible to change your username, it can take people a while to catch on and you might miss some tweets.
  • Don’t be an Egg! As soon as you join, upload a profile picture and add some information in the profile text. People are more likely to follow you if they can get an idea of who you are and/or what you’re interested in.
  • You don’t have to tweet everything. It’s okay to only tweet every so often. Find your rhythm. You might prefer to tweet during conferences, or only engage in conversations.
  • Think before you link accounts. You can link twitter with Facebook, instagram, and other services, allowing them to tweet from your account when you update. This can be nice, but it can also spam your feed.
  • Be aware of your audience – and that it might be bigger than you think. This is addressed at length in some of the resources below, but unless your account is locked, anyone on the internet can see what you’re saying. Don’t let this silence you – I still tweet that my cats are annoying, my nephews are sweet, etc – but you may occasionally want to ask yourself “does this need to be said by me now?” (note: composing and then deleting a tweet can be very cathartic)
  • Twitter is conversational – but sometimes your conversation partner is a good listener. It is easy to think of Twitter in a similar vein to Facebook and be disappointed when your tweets are not all retweeted, favorited, and replied to. A lack of response does not mean that people are not reading your tweets. Sometimes it simply means that they do not have a response.

A practical note: I maintain 3 twitter accounts of my own and have access to three twitter accounts for work. I would be unable to do this without two things: lists and TweetDeck. Lists are a way of grouping people you want to follow, and TweetDeck allows you to see multiple columns, of lists, mentions, direct messages, or searches. On an average day, I have 15 columns in my desktop TweetDeck client. There are other services out there which have similar functions, the most popular (as far as I know) being HootSuite.


And: PhD Comics: “Why Academics Really Use Twitter”.


I like to say that I am a second-generation digital humanist. My father, George H. Brett II, became interested in computers in the late 1970s, helped the University of North Carolina system evaluate computers/operating systems, was the first sysadmin of the Humanities listserv, and worked for decades in what was then humanities computing.

It was my Dad who introduced me to email, mu*s, html, terminal, servers, the internet, the world wide web, twitter, and THATCamp, along with countless other things which aren’t necessarily relevant to computers or the humanities. We had a conversation before my first THATCamp to establish whether he could say “that’s my daughter” (he could), and even with that it apparently took people a while to realize that he was my Dad.

There is so much I want to say about his life and what he did, not just for me but for so many people. So much, in fact, that I cannot seem to say any of it.

My father died this afternoon, after a fight with a brain tumor and, eventually, pneumonia. His family was with him, and I am grateful to everyone at RRCHNM and the Department of History and Art History at George Mason for not only making it easy for me to drop everything and come up to be here, but for telling me to do it and never letting me doubt I was making the right choice.

I have created an Omeka installation to collect people’s stories and pictures of my father. Even as he was in his final days, I discovered things he did and lives he touched I’d never known about. The site may be buggy at the moment – I only just installed contribution – but if you have something to share, please do.

Implicitly Learned: Archival Research

A while back, as part of my minor field readings in History and New Media, I was tasked with creating an interactive story related to historical thinking, the process of archival research, or a historical topic you have researched. I produced a sort of “Choose Your Own Adventure” wherein the adventure is visiting an archives. Although I had originally intended it to be about what tools a historian might choose to use in the archives, I had a sort of aha moment when I had to pick where to start the story: a visit to an archives starts before you ever walk in the door.

For those of us who research regularly, this is a given. Yet I do not recall anyone explicitly teaching me how to go to an archives. My Masters program included visits to the major repositories in Edinburgh and in each of those locations the staff member explained whatever unique system the institution had, but I did archival research as an undergrad, spending hours in front of microfilm in the New York Public Library. Somewhere along the way, possibly by trial and error, I figured out that you have to check for opening hours, for policies on what you can and cannot bring with you, and all the other steps which by now seem routine.

Since that readings course, I have wondered whether there are degree programs, at any level, which explicitly teach their students about the complexities of archival research. I have, in fact, been meaning to write a version of this blog post for the last eighteen months. Then I received an email from the director of my doctoral program asking me and a few other PhD students and candidates to speak at the first doctoral colloquium of the Spring 2015 semester about doing research in archives, specifically archives far afield. One of my fellow speakers conducted research in South Africa, another received a fellowship to spend a few weeks in California, and I have my experience with the archives in Liverpool.

I don’t know what they’re going to say. To be honest, I’m still not entirely sure what I’m going to say. I have a number of stories about Liverpool, including the surprise invitation for a second day of research at a private library and the archives which closed its website when the building was under renovation. I may not have time to share the details, but I think I can distill what I’ve learned:

Do as much research as you can before hand. Know what you can and cannot bring with you. Try to find out what you want to look at first, whether a specific item from a digitally-available finding aid or a general hope of a kind of record from vague hints online. Whenever possible, make contact before you go. Be prepared for unexpected opportunities, build flexibility into your research schedule. If the archivists ask you to join them for tea, be open to accepting (they might have delicious tea biscuits).

More than 140 characters

I tweeted earlier tonight “The further I get in my PhD program, the riskier it feels to publish a blog post.”

This is entirely true. When I was writing for class, I not only had readily provided topics to blog about, but I had a deadline and the illusion of a limited audience. Before September 2011, blog posts were a way of chewing on thoughts that didn’t fit within the scope of my job as Research Database and Records Manager. These days, however, I have so many other things taking up my time: I now work full time at RRCHNM, I’m writing my dissertation prospectus while also trying to do some secondary research, I plan to do my comprehensive oral exams in April, and I also have a life beyond work and school.

I can come up with ideas for posts, but I have trouble making the time to smooth out the ideas from a few rough sentences into something that feels safe to put out into the world. It is, as a I tweeted, an odd combination of being aware of how wide an audience my posts might now have and the impostor syndrome which is apparently all too common in graduate school. And apparently I’m not alone in my anxiety: thus far, that tweet has 12 favorites and 2 retweets, along with a whole host of responses.

The responses were more than just “me too.” There was sympathy, empathy, examinations of why we all feel such stumbling blocks about blogging. They have kept coming as a I started to write this post, which is part of why I’m still writing it.

I was going to try and sit down to write about this past weekend, when I went to the Southern in the person of Megan Brett, Graduate Student Representative of the Southern Association for Women Historians. How I attended a panel titled “Mentoring Women” and listened to professors talk about trying to help young women find their place in the academy, realizing as I listened that I’ve never doubted that place. My mother was a professor, my advisers at the BA, MSc, and PhD level are all women, and there has always been a host of intelligent, witty women in my life who have encouraged me, even by their mere presence. I have, in that regard, been very lucky.

And as I tweeted, I am lucky to have a supportive community (of persons of all gender identities) online and in person who reach out when I doubt myself, to say “I’ve been there” and “You can do it.” Knowing those people are out there makes a huge difference. The communities we have are a huge resource in doing what we love, whether that’s getting a PhD, being a historian, teaching, or running a shop.

Thanks y’all.