Out of the ordinary: getting digital with Shakespeare’s dead, Tolkien’s tongue and the Bodleian’s treasures.
The Bodleian Digital Comms team is no stranger to developing out of the ordinary content. Want to represent all of the varied and gruesome deaths in Shakespeare in a fun and engaging way? We’re on it!
We manage almost all of the Libraries’ public facing digital ‘stuff’, from our main websites to social media and digital signage. When we tot it all up, it’s over fifty websites, a similar number of blogs, the full range of social media platforms, more than twenty digital screens, a handful of interactive experiences a year, plus…well, not actually a partridge in a pear tree, but there are unicorns in arks.
Whatever the platform, our team’s focus is on finding ways to engage the Libraries’ audiences — whether students, researchers, tourists or those around the globe who can’t actually visit in person — with our work and our collections.
The Bodleian is incredibly privileged to hold the collections we do, and this team feels pretty strongly about our obligation to help make them accessible. We get really (really) excited when we think we can help our visitors see our collections in a way that is usually behind the scenes. Day to day, that means doing our fair share of basic content editing, data wrangling and html tidying.
There might be the odd few hours spent in dusty cupboards trying to figure out why in the world a touch screen isn’t working, but what we really love is running hackathons to help researchers work with our data, or putting Pong on a video wall as a way to help visitors understand our digital preservation work.
We’re in the middle of moving 35 websites to a new platform and a whole new design (no biggie), but the team really shines when it has to find creative solutions to meeting audience needs. For example the Libraries’ recent Tolkien exhibition, which gave us the opportunity to give an exhibition our full attention in a more focused way than ever before.
We knew 2018’s Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth would be the Libraries’ biggest exhibition to date and needed something special. The exhibition would attract serious Tolkien fans, but also visitors who had heard of Tolkien or seen the films but didn’t know much about his work or his life. We wanted to make sure that our digital content provided a way for people to engage with our really special Tolkien collections in a light-hearted (but deadly accurate!) way.
We were able to launch an exhibition microsite months in advance to promote ticket sales (https://tolkien.bodleian.ox.ac.uk) alongside three promotional films (https://youtu.be/1kqinU8YMKo). These started to build the hype before we opened, and provided our audiences with light introductions to what to expect.
All content for the exhibition had to get a tick mark from the Tolkien Trust, so we worked with them and our exhibition colleagues to plan four interactives for our public spaces. Our two biggest were an interactive map of Middle-earth and A ‘Teach Yourself Elvish’ game (we also put together a fun quiz on Tolkien’s work and a walking trail of Tolkien locations around Oxford).
Maps were crucial to Tolkien’s worlds, and we felt that the audience would really benefit from a way of helping match the items in the exhibition to the layout of the stories themselves. Languages were another key aspect of the exhibition, and provide a fun way into Tolkien’s invented worlds.
The map of Middle-earth used Tolkien’s own map as a base. We tracked points of interest as well as journeys from The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, using our own research and the curator’s expertise to develop content showing relevance to the storylines.
The ‘Teach Yourself Elvish’ game followed a familiar Rosetta Stone-style learning process. We presented a series of Elvish words & phrases with their translations, letting people work through them before quizzing themselves on their Elvish skills. We used the local University Tolkien Society to find people to help us record the Elvish words; our team has no Elvish experts but we can all say ‘Alayambo’ in our sleep now.
We had 960,639 interactions with our Tolkien-related content. Almost a million! We’re pretty pleased with that; we knew that Tolkien was popular, but that was more than ten times the number from previous exhibitions.
We really benefited from involving testers who knew the content early on — we didn’t get any negative comments on accuracy, which was our absolute worst fear. And feedback indicated not only that the interactives gave people a chance to experience Tolkien’s worlds in a really positive way, but that we’d been able to provide something that kids would really enjoy in what was an otherwise fairly grown up exhibition.
What’s next for our team? There’s that web redevelopment mentioned above, with some pretty serious thinking to do around how we help library users find the services they need across our various platforms; this will be a big piece of work, and a really important one.
We have also provided at lots of language fun for our Babel exhibition, animated maps for the summer’s Talking Maps show, a new digital signage system that will let us focus on turning our system into what our visitors need, a Wikidata driven project with our collections, more research into our digital audiences and…well, probably a few more fun things thrown in.
Keep an eye out!