Maggie Ann Martin

Medieval-ly Modern: A Look at the University of Iowa’s Special Collections Library

From 600-year-old medieval manuscripts to pieces of Yoko Ono’s hair from a 1960’s “happening,” the special collections library at the University of Iowa has something that piques a variety of interests. In the past three years, the UI Special Collections Library has married modern technology with old aged texts to broaden their audience and offer the UI Special Collections Library experience to people around the world.

Librarian and social media manager Colleen Theisen has been the driving force for transferring the library onto a thoughtful and digital platform. The UI Special Collections Library’s Tumblr has over 36,000 followers and was named “New and Notable” in 2013, prompting an invite to Tumblr Headquarters later that year.

“We were able to jump in and become a part of the creative communities on Tumblr by using GIFs, Vines, memes, and everyday language to set trends for how Special Collections can fit into online spaces,” said Theisen.

People from around the world are now able to engage in conversation and observation of the texts and art pieces held in the library—something that was not a possibility five years ago.

“For interpreting the objects themselves, I think making animated GIFS and taking very beautiful photographs is a way that I incorporate technologies into the special collections,” said Theisen. “For example, artists’ books often open in unique ways, and that’s not something you can see in a photograph or understand from a catalogue record. It is something you can immediately grasp if you see a quick, two to three second animation of how it works.”

Screen grab from an episode of “Staxpeditions” with Colleen.

The library’s reach extends beyond their success on Tumblr as well. Theisen hosts a show on the UI Special Collections Library YouTube channel called “Staxpeditions” that asks readers to send in their favorite library of congress call number name, and the librarians take to the stacks to find a rare book within that number. The most recent video features Theisen and fellow librarian Patrick Olson exploring the “Z range” in the rare books collection.

“The word ‘librarian’ sort of conjures up an image or a concept of a job that has so transformed in the past 20 years that the concept of what we do doesn’t match the reality,” Theisen said. “So the more that we can be seen as individuals, it gradually expands the concept of what a librarian actually does.”

Last year UI Special Collections Library hosted 182 classroom sessions. These students were anywhere from a cycle of art history lectures, to niche classes exploring one specific text at length. Adam Hooks, an associate professor of English at the University of Iowa, has been bringing his book history classes for almost two years.

“I bring my classes to Special Collections for three interconnected reasons: to give students an immediate and material sense of the historical distance between now and the early modern period, to show that books were meant to be used, and to show that books (from any period) constitute a technology with many advantages. Thinking of ‘the book’ as a technology has a lot to teach us about our own digital moment,” Hooks said.

Since the popularity of the UI Special Collections Library Tumblr has increased, so has the number of classroom visits. Professors are coming in more often asking to see something that they saw via Tumblr or Instagram. The Instagram has been an outlet for the library to really have a conversation with its viewers. Almost once a day, the Instagram promotes a photo with the hashtag “reader request” that someone has asked to see either in a comment of another photo or in a private message.

*Below is actually an image that I took while I visited during one of my classes.


“Engaging in the reader requests is vital to starting a conversation,” Theisen said. “I think that is most effectively seen on Instagram, but we are trying to cultivate that on Tumblr as well.”

Their engagement on social media has also expanded to a broader network between other institutional libraries. Now, libraries are able to see certain collections that are hosted at their institution that they may have never seen before.

“I love that we have more collaboration with other institutions,” Theisen said. “I can put up a post and say ‘We have volumes one and two, but I saw Harvard, that you have three and four. Could you please put up a picture of volume three?’ And they did. We’re able to connect more and more across collections this way.”

Even though the library has adopted modern technology in its presentation, Theisen said that the library still helps to combat the thought that one day, everything will move over to an all-digital reality.

“What I like about Special Collections is that even the people who so loudly proclaim that we’re moving towards an all-digital future realize that there are exceptions,” Theisen said. “When you’re confronted with these historic materials, you realize that there are things about what size they are, what paper was used, how they were bound—there are a lot of things that you can learn about the object in front of you that are obscured in the digital version.”

After she disclaimed the all-digital future, I asked her a question which made her smile.

“What is your favorite thing in the library?”

“That’s like picking your favorite child,” she laughed. “But probably medieval manuscripts. It’s hard to be cynical when you’re around books that are 600 years old.”