To Melissa McLimans, history is no joke.
Then again, sometimes it is.
McLimans is the digital services librarian at the UW Digital Collections Center, which since 2000 has scanned images and documents so they are available for free to researchers and Web surfers worldwide. She’s also made many of the images available via social media, with posts featuring intriguing or goofy images on Facebook and Twitter.
The laugh-out-loud posts have included photos ranging from dorm rooms over the decades to bizarre Halloween photos that defy explanation.
Those are part of the 200,000 images and 2 million document pages in the collection at Memorial Library, where five permanent staffers and students in a variety of majors work.
McLimans, a Stoughton native, graduated from UW-Madison in English, then returned for a master’s degree in library and information studies. The social media posts are just a small part of her job, which mostly involves outreach and development for the UWDCC. She lives in Maple Bluff with her husband, Greg Engle, and their two children.
Q. What is in the collection?
A. It was formed to be the digital collection for the entire UW System, so we have a very strong collection from UW schools. We work with UW Archives, they have amazing things — yearbooks, photo albums and these crazy etiquette guides, which we’ll highlight because the students are back and I’m sure they’re going to want to know how to dress for football games.
We’ve worked with public libraries to do local history grants, and that has resulted in having a really strong State of Wisconsin Collection showing books and images throughout Wisconsin. Those are some of my favorites; it’s fun to see these images.
One of the main ideas with the collection is the Wisconsin Idea, and with the Web you get to expand that even further. While our core mission is to the scholars and faculty, it’s likely that most of our users are coming from well outside those boundaries. It’s amazing to think that the papers of Aldo Leopold can be accessed by anyone interested in that history, not just a scholar in Madison.
Q. How did the social media aspect of this come about?
A. It was a bit of a lark. About five or six years ago there was something librarians were calling Web 2.0, about using new media tools to engage with users. I had seen this thing called Facebook, and I didn’t even have my own page yet. It was free, so was Twitter, so we just started experimenting. I took to it, and I loved it.
Q. What’s one of the coolest things you’ve been able to share?
A. There’s a photo from the UW-La Crosse steamboat collection. It’s a portrait that has these two young women in it and they’re looking down at something in their hands. And it looks like they’re texting, it really does. So it ended up just being a funny caption of the girls texting. And then we have a photo from the early 1900s that I found and it’s Teddy Roosevelt in a car on top of Bascom. But it looks like he’s texting. I think that kind of represents our viewpoint a little bit, finding these great images from the past and putting a quirky, contemporary spin on it.
Q. Does it work? Have you brought more people to the collection?
A. I think so. Our Facebook page is definitely a place where people come and talk and interact. It’s a loyal group. On Twitter we keep growing and have great interactions.
Q. What should people be doing to take care of their own digital collections, such as family photos?
A. Store it properly. If you’re scanning, try to scan at the highest resolutions. Take the time to add descriptions — who it is, where it is. People 100 years from now, family members doing genealogy who are looking for you, will be very happy for that.
Q. How much of your day is spent on social media?
A. Not that much, really. There’s not a lot of planning that goes into it. I just try to tie it in with major things going on on campus, so there’s a little planning there. There are days when I have a hard time thinking of what to post. Then I just end up posting pictures of kittens because it’s true that the Internet was built for pictures of cute animals. There are some truths that are universal.
— Interview by Jane Burns