by Mara Gregory

If you have ever secretly wanted to draw in a library book (or are actually guilty of doing so) #ColorOurCollections, an annual social media campaign hosted by the New York Academy of Medicine (NYAM) Library, will likely appeal to you. Launched in 2016, #ColorOurCollections is a week in February when cultural heritage institutions around the world share coloring books made up of images from their collections, and invite the public to get creative. Inspired by the adult coloring trend, this event allows audiences of all ages to engage with historical materials in a fun and interactive way. 

Social media graphic for #ColorOurCollections, from NYAM Library toolkit

The NYAM Library is an independent institution that holds major collections related to the history of medicine and public health. As part of its mission to make these histories broadly accessible, the Library hosts a variety of public programs and has an active social media presence. Staff at the Library initially developed the idea for #ColorOurCollections as a way to build relationships with other institutions and to raise awareness of the Library’s unique holdings. In 2016, an impressive 200 institutions joined the coloring festival, and the NYAM Library has continued to coordinate the campaign every year since then. In addition to conducting outreach to potential participants, the NYAM Library provides detailed guidelines for institutions and hosts a website with downloadable PDFs of the coloring books. Institutions promote their coloring books on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and Pinterest, as well as through blog posts and in-person coloring events. 

During the most recent campaign, on February 7-11, 2022, 101 institutions participated, including public libraries, digital libraries, universities, historical societies, museums, corporations, botanical gardens, and historic landmarks. Although many are located in the United States, there are also representatives from the United Kingdom, Canada, France, Spain, Poland, and other countries. Unsurprisingly, given this diversity, a prospective colorist can choose from a huge array of images. Coloring books include black-and-white versions of book covers, illustrations, maps, engravings, photographs, cartoons, patent drawings, advertisements, and more. Anatomical drawings, botanical specimens, and animals (real and mythical) feature prominently. Many coloring pages are decidedly whimsical or mysterious, depicting anthropomorphic butterflies, dancing skeletons, animals in fancy dress, or a mountain goat with “an exquisitely sweet expression.” Coloring enthusiasts may also enjoy filling in intricately detailed illustrations from a 19th-century edition of Chaucer’s works (University Library at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign), images of historic playing cards (Bibliothèque municipale de Soissons), a 16th-century chart used for urine analysis (National Library of Medicine), or motorcycle ads from the 1950s (Harley-Davidson Archives). It appears that institutions select images for their aesthetic qualities as well as their potential to inspire wonder and interest in the collections. 

An “Exquisitely Sweet Expression,” from the 2022 Washington State Library Coloring Book [colored by a family member of this author]

To encourage further engagement with the institutions and their collections, the NYAM Library provides templates for the coloring books with space for institutions to add their names or logos. Guidelines also strongly encourage institutions to cite the sources of all images. However, participants have implemented this guidance unevenly. Some, like the National Library of Medicine, provide full citations and helpful blurbs with historical background. Other coloring books include no citations at all. A number of institutions also neglected to include their name or logo on any of the coloring book pages. As a result, many images are removed from their context, leaving one to wonder: What is this? Who created it, when, and why? While many people may join #ColorOurCollections for a brief and relaxing diversion, others may wish to learn more. The coloring books that include links back to the institutions and their collections are therefore more likely to successfully convert a fun activity into longer term engagement with the institution.

Coloring book page template, from  NYAM Library toolkit

Although most of the outreach for #ColorOurCollections occurs during one week in February, this project has produced new archives of material that the public may access at any time. The NYAM Library’s Our Collections, Colored pinterest board is a kaleidoscopic gallery of images colored in past years. The NYAM website also preserves all the coloring books created by participating institutions. Although scrolling through the various books can be a joyful experience, searching for any particular topic is not easy. The website has no search function. Instead, users may explore the coloring books by filtering for the year posted or by the contributing institution. The website does include topical tags, but buries these at the bottom of each page beneath a list of hundreds of institutions. Improvements to the user experience of the website would likely foster more engagement with the coloring books outside the annual week of the campaign.

Overall, #ColorOurCollections is a clever project, building on the popularity of adult coloring to reach wide audiences, including people that might otherwise never interact with the participating institutions. This campaign also democratizes a recent trend of artists drawing on archival sources for inspiration. With #ColorOurCollections, anyone can be an artist, and anyone can engage with rare and curious items from cultural heritage collections. Certainly, some people may color an image of prancing unicorns simply because it is fun, and not because they have any particular interest in 17th-century texts or the library where they are held. But others may start to follow that institution on social media, explore its website, or even plan an in-person visit. In 2016, staff from the NYAM Library reported that the first campaign was a success, resulting in over 9,000 total Tweets, new followers across the Library’s social media accounts, and coverage in the press. While exact metrics are unavailable for later years, this success has likely continued. In addition, #ColorOurCollections is an excellent example of a collaborative campaign, in which cultural heritage institutions pursue a shared goal and promote each other’s work. 

This author, for one, is looking forward to next year’s campaign and a new suite of weird and wonderful images to explore and color.

Books Unbanned at the Brooklyn Public Library

by Klara Pokrzywa

The Brooklyn Public Library’s Books Unbanned was created as a response to the American Library Association’s report on book banning in 2021. That year saw the greatest number of book challenges and bans since the ALA began collecting data in 2000, with most bans occurring in school and public libraries. The report’s findings prompted an outcry among library professionals and teachers—and in April 2022, the Brooklyn Public Library announced that they would allow teenagers and young adults (13-21) from around the country to receive an electronic BPL library card. Since children and teenagers are the most impacted by these book bans, Books Unbanned seeks to provide them with electronic copies of commonly banned books, as well as the tools to prevent or challenge bans in their communities.

            The National Teen BPL eCard gives teens across the country access to a list of “always available” books in addition to the BPL’s full electronic catalog. These “always available” titles are chosen based on data from the ALA’s list of frequently banned books, and, as the BPL and ALA both note, are overwhelmingly by or about LGBT people and/or people of color. By removing the long waits for popular titles that often plague ebook checkout, the BPL ensures that teens will have access to these books as quickly and as easily as possible. Despite the complexities of licensing permissions this surely took, this tactic is not only beneficial to potential readers, but also beneficial for the BPL, as it ensures that they can accommodate for the spike of interest in popular titles in the wake of media coverage about the bans. By making some titles always available, the BPL is signaling that they understand the bans are an exceptional problem that requires exceptional solutions.

            One caveat of the project, however, is the lack of communication about how long the eCards will be available. On the sidebar where the BPL website encourages teens to apply, it notes that the eCards are always available for teens in New York State, and available “for a limited time” for teens nationwide. That specification may cause a website visitor who is planning to apply for the first time to wonder whether the national card will be eventually discontinued, or what the parameters of receiving one are. This information is easy enough to locate through external sources: each eCard will be active for one year after receiving it, with the option to renew, and the initiative will be run indefinitely, meaning that readers need not worry about their card being discontinued after receiving it. Unfortunately, the Books Unbanned webpage itself does not communicate this, which could discourage potential readers who do not seek out an answer on their own from applying.

            In addition to electronic catalog access, Books Unbanned offers a variety of resources and programming related to the surge in book bans. The project is closely affiliated with existing programming for teens at the BPL, such as the Teen Bookmatch service, where teens trained in reader’s advisory can recommend books to their peers looking for their next read. By referring visitors to the Books Unbanned page out to these existing resources, the BPL is demonstrating an eye for the longevity of the program beyond the initial window of media attention: integrating new readers into a community of teen patrons will both encourage them to continue reading habits access to the BPL’s collection might foster, and ensure that the BPL is integrating the new initiative into existing outreach efforts. This is also evident in the creation of the Intellectual Freedom Teen Council, which meets once a month to discuss book bans and other censorship issues relevant to teenagers. These meetings are virtual so that teenagers around the country can join. The variety of outreach programming on this topic helps underscore the BPL’s commitment to their teen readership and ensure that the project is not only reacting to the bans, but also proactive about trying to combat and prevent them.

            These efforts are particularly important to note in light of the perhaps obvious fact that the BPL typically serves a more local, albeit sizable, population. Books Unbanned employs familiar tactics for expanding outreach to a new demographic: creating community between existing patrons and new ones, ensuring that different access needs are being met, and using existing resources, such as an already-extensive electronic catalog, for new purposes. The unusual scope of the project—public libraries do not often serve a national population—complicates and raises the stakes of these tactics, particularly given the charged political context in which they occur. The library’s expanded reach has also come with expanded risks for both librarians and patrons: Summer Boisimer, a teacher in Oklahoma, was reprimanded by her school’s administration and publicly castigated by her state’s education secretary for referring students to the Books Unbanned program. She was placed on administrative leave, and, in September, resigned from her position. While this story in many ways only further highlights the necessity of Books Unbanned, it is also a reminder that outreach projects can have unintended consequences that libraries must take into account when proposing and defending their programs.

            Despite these risks, Books Unbanned has been overall popular: in a September 2022 interview with CNN, the BPL’s chief librarian Nick Higgins spoke of the program’s success, saying that over 5,000 eCards have been issued to young people across the country. Teenagers from all 50 states and Washington, D.C. have received cards, going above and beyond the initiative’s goal of providing books to students nationwide. This success underscores an outreach thesis Books Unbanned has in common with smaller projects: that expanding access to new demographics and innovating new methods of responding to changes in the profession is worth the time and funding it takes to do so. Books Unbanned is a complex project that relies heavily on technology, external promotion, risk mitigation, and the engagement of patrons librarians will never meet face-to-face. Its payoff is a convincing argument to internal and external BPL stakeholders for the continued funding of such projects, since the risk the library took on investing a great deal of resources into serving a new—and very distant—population was rewarded not only by increased usage, but also frequent and positive national coverage. The precedent set by Books Unbanned means that the staff at BPL has a persuasive case to point to when fundraising for future projects: in this, as with so much library outreach, success may beget further success.

Further Reading:

“Brooklyn Public Library has issued 5,100 free library cards to make banned books available for teens” by Nicole Chavez for CNN

“How the Brooklyn Library Helped Fight Book Bans in Oklahoma” by James Barron for The New York Times

“Top 10 Most Challenged Books of 2021” by the American Library Association

“The Library Bill of Rights” by the American Library Association

A Tale of Two House Museum Tours

by Clark Geiling

Amidst the cobblestone streets and brownstones of Boston’s Beacon Hill neighborhood stands the Nichols House Museum, an impressive four-story brick estate designed by the architect Charles Bulfinch in 1804. Though the structure has existed since the early 1800s, its life as a historic house museum began with Rose Standish Nichols, a landscape architect, suffragette, and anti-war activist who resided in the home from 1885 until her death in 1960. To bring people into the space, the museum offers a general history tour Wednesday through Sunday all months of the year and a special “hidden spaces” tour once a month. The general tour is $16 for general admission, $8 for students, and free for museum members and EBT card holders, which serves to alleviate financial barriers for low-income community members who want to visit the home. This program focuses on the Nichols family, with particular attention given to the life and achievements of Rose Standish Nichols. In the later decades of her life, Nichols felt it important to curate a space where people in the greater Boston community could appreciate the beauty of both the home itself and the art and craftsmanship within. As a landscape architect, she was interested in bringing aesthetic beauty to anyone who wished to enjoy it. While walking through the home, the tour guides highlight many of the same things that Nichols herself wished to highlight–the extensive collection of Asian art, much of which was made for export, the furniture that Nichols hand carved at her artists’ colony in New Hampshire, and Flemish tapestries her mother painstakingly preserved. But between descriptions of these artistic objects, a story emerges about Nichols herself: That of a progressive and driven woman from a distinctly upper class background, who devoted her life to her career, and to the feminist and pacificst concerns of the time. Throughout the tour, I noted that most visitors were women between the ages of 17 and 60, and many inquiries were related to how Nichols, as a working woman who never married, was received by society in her lifetime. For those interested in a general overview of who Nichols was, what she built, and how she fits into the greater landscape of women’s history in Boston, this tour is a great place to get your feet wet. Delightfully, the tour concludes in the home’s kitchen and visitor’s center, where visitors are offered Rose Standish Nichols’ favorite blend of tea. As we walked down Mount Vernon street with our tea in hand, my friend who I brought on the tour with me remarked that it felt like “living a day in her life”. The audiences of both the general tour and the “hidden histories” tour had similar demographics in terms of gender and age, but the hidden histories tour had a much larger group of attendees. This program is unique in that it seeks to make visible the legacies of the women who were employed by the Nichols family as domestic servants. Interestingly, although the hidden histories tour was geared towards working class experiences, it had a flat fee of $17 and no option to present an EBT card in exchange for a free ticket. While I commend the Nichols House Museum for trying to bring in low-income visitors for their general tour, I felt that it was somewhat ironic that low-income visitors faced potential cost barriers when it came to attending the tour centered around working class history. While it feels important to acknowledge the cost of tickets as an area of growth for the museum, the tour itself provides a fascinating look into the conditions of labor for domestic workers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Unlike the general tour, this program takes visitors into the maids’ living quarters, the root cellar, and through the back staircases they would have used to move through the home. Importantly, it complicates some of the narratives presented in the general tour, creating a more textured picture of how women lived during the so-called Gilded Age. The difference in turnout between the general tour and the hidden histories tour provided a glimpse into the effectiveness of various kinds of outreach. The tours had many things in common–same museum, same day of the week, same time of day. What set them apart was their content. A general tour of a house museum on its own might be interesting to local history buffs, particularly those interested in women’s history, but a tour that allows visitors to access a secret, “hidden” history provides a level of intrigue that the former might not. Interestingly, the general tour is conducted by a museum professional, while the hidden histories tour is led by a volunteer from the neighborhood who self defines as a “hobby historian”.In this way, the hidden histories tour performs two types of outreach that the general tour does not. First, it contradicts and stretches the historical record presented in the general tour. This creates a more transparent view of how the archive documents history. In the hidden histories tour, the volunteer guide notes that the museum has far less documentation about the domestic staff than they wish to but feel it’s important to present the information they do have, however incomplete. Though the “evidence” that supports the hidden histories tour is less extensive that the “evidence” behind the general tour, the stories themselves are equivalent in value. The museum knows the limits of its knowledge and had no qualms about inviting visitors to share anything they might know. Second, the hidden histories tour guide shares his own story with visitors. He started as a casual volunteer, became passionate about the project, and eventually was able to give tours on subjects he was interested in. His relationship with the museum communicates to visitors that, in addition to going on tours, they can engage with the museum and its history through their volunteer program. While the general history tour is a worthy and engaging project in its own right, the hidden histories tour offers visitors new avenues for connecting with the Nichols House Museum. These avenues may just bridge the gap between passive participant and enthusiastic museum advocate.