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.