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Putting Pinterest to the Test

Lady Gaga sleeveface
Source: Bowling Green State University Music Library

A highly costumed Lady Gaga leans against the wall of an elevator. No, wait. While the face may be hers (it appears on the album cover for "Lady Gaga The Remix"), the arms, legs, and torso belong to somebody else. That's right. This is another instance of sleevefacing by the librarians at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. (Sleevefacing is an internet phenomenon wherein a person uses a music album sleeve to obscure his face in order to create an illusion.) The librarians are intent on sharing with the world select items from a massive collection of popular music. The venue for the photograph: Pinterest, a social content sharing site that allows members to "pin" up images and videos to "pinboards."

About 550 miles southeast in North Carolina, a faculty member in communications at Queens University of Charlotte experimented with Pinterest to allow his students to record what they saw and did while working at September's Democratic National Convention.

While one institution is using Pinterest to create an archive that documents a broadcastable event like a political convention, the other is sharing objects from its existing collections, using the site to publicize once-static archives. Both have succeeded in engaging with students.

Capturing a Political Convention on Pinterest

In September, Queens put on a one-credit, two-day seminar that brought together about a hundred communications and political science majors. The students gathered to hear from experts about various aspects of the city and the coming presidential nominating event. The goal was to gain an understanding about the impact a mega-event can have on a city. Then to get some practical experience, the students interned during the convention, working with the host committee, guiding dignitaries, helping local and foreign media, doing jobs for network news organizations, and performing media production for "The Daily Show" with Jon Stewart.

Faculty wanted a way to archive the student experience; so as part of the assignment, participants were asked to chronicle their experiences on Pinterest. According to John McArthur, an assistant professor in the Knight School of Communication at Queens, the faculty are always on the lookout "for what's next." He had used the site as a one-time experiment in a previous course. Reports were surfacing that Pinterest was surpassing other large social media sites as the top traffic referrer. Then two weeks prior to the convention, the company had replaced its previous "invitation only" access model with open access. "So we just thought that would be a good opportunity for our students," McArthur says.

The resulting Pinterest board drew 1,084 pins (postings made by the students and faculty), including photos of protesters on the streets of Charlotte, visiting politicos and celebrities, and the students themselves posing for the cameras; images of political pins, signs, and posters; and screen captures of websites that were following the convention.

In an article he wrote and published on media site Social Media Club, McArthur recounted how Pinterest turned out to be better suited for after-the-fact archiving than for real-time posting. "The mobile apps do not yet interface well with Twitter or Facebook, or services like HootSuite that allow multiple posting at once," he wrote.

To do his own pinning, McArthur says that he would take an image and post it to his Twitter account as a tweet, and then have it pulled automatically into Pinterest from there.

Also, he noted that while Pinterest "worked beautifully" to combine a cacophony of voices onto one page--called the "board"--some of the site's features could be unpopular with users. For example, the service emails every follower each time somebody adds a new post to the board. While that email is a setting that can be turned off, he chose to leave it on for himself because he "was trying to evaluate how many times people were posting and what they were posting."

Through their usage, McArthur says, students began to view Pinterest as an "online photo gallery as opposed to a real-time updateable site like Twitter or Instagram." From that perspective, he adds, "it became more of an archive than a timeline."

With experience, McArthur now believes that Pinterest is best suited for "very niche courses" because it provides a "great opportunity for instructors to create student-generated archives of information related to class material," less a digital portfolio than a tool students use to share things they come across in the news or online.

For example, he's currently using it in a class on proxemics to study how space and technology combine. When students come across a particular story that might relate to the topic, they'll pin it to the class Pinterest board. "It's much more effective with a smaller number of students," he notes, since it doesn't "quite as often inundate your email box with emails."

McArthur encourages others to just try out the site. "Experimentation is the pathway to innovation with social media in the classroom," he says. "Explain to [your] students that it's an experiment we're trying together, and we're going to see how it works. Part of the outcome is to learn a social media platform you're not familiar with--have a good time with it."

Going Visual with a Music Collection

Having a good time with Pinterest is an idea that would probably appeal to Susannah Cleveland, head of the Music Library and Sound Recordings Archives at Bowling Green's Jerome Library. She and her colleague Liz Tousey were both presenting on cool, free web tools at the annual conference for the Academic Library Association of Ohio, when a co-presenter from another Ohio institution brought up Pinterest. "Both Liz and I saw stars in the sky and started singing," laughs Cleveland. "We thought this could be amazing."

Cleveland and Tousey and their team manage what has become the largest collection of pop music in an academic library anywhere--nearly a million recordings. The library also contains album covers, posters, song books, and popular press books. "Those things are very visual, but we have them shut away," Cleveland says. "We have closed stacks for the popular stuff, so people can't browse it."

That's why Pinterest caught Cleveland's attention. "Pinterest, in particular, returns some of the magic of serendipity to the library experience," she notes. "You miss that when you have to rely on the catalog for [finding] everything, and unfortunately that's what our patrons have to rely on a lot of the time. Browsing in a catalog is not a romantic experience."

Because Pinterest users still have to comply with copyright laws, the library can't simply "pin" album covers onto boards and leave it at that; the rights to those covers and the other materials in the library's collections usually belong to somebody else. That's where the sleevefacing comes into play.

"The temptation is just to say, 'OK, you're interested in Janis Joplin. Let's scan all the covers of Janis Joplin.' We can't do that. We have to resist our impulses with that," Cleveland explains. By sleevefacing albums instead, "we rest in the comfort that we are being transformative enough with those. The object in situ is not going to substitute for the original in anybody's experience at all."

So far the library has pinned about 125 different album covers on its various Pinterest boards. The sleevefacing was already taking place on the Music Library's Facebook page and its blog; but, says Cleveland, each site draws a different set of people. Pinterest's strength lies in "being visual instead of textual. You can scan through it really quickly and just see a lot of really, really interesting stuff with no effort. It's good for casual promotion--general reputation building."

Plus, it doesn't take as much effort to add something to Pinterest as it does to the blog or Facebook, both of which have "a lot more text involved," she notes. "Here, the less text, the better. It releases you of the burden of commentary. People aren't looking for commentary; they're just looking for images."

Early on, Cleveland assumed that students would want to sleeveface their favorite artists. But she discovered that in the age of digital music, "It's all untethered for these students. Most of the music we have is not stuff that these kids know. They don't have mental memories. They can't think off the top of their head, 'What does X album look like?' That's not how they think about music."

While sleevefacing is the board with the biggest draw (the library monitors popularity by the number of "repins" it gets onto others' boards) the use of Pinterest doesn't stop there. The library maintains a number of boards, some for its own collections and some containing repins of others' materials.

For example, the library pins images of its historic sound equipment, sparsely and stunningly photographed by a student assistant who was enrolled in the university's Visual Communication Technology program. That board, Cleveland explains, was added to give men a reason to visit Pinterest--"a little something to care about that wasn't weddings and recipes... It's really kind of technology porn. They should love it." But she adds, "Most of our other boards have a lot more social interaction than that does. You can see how few repins there are. That's a reflection of how few men are on Pinterest."

Aside from being able to get a count of repins that have taken place, Cleveland has no way to tell just what kind of traffic the Pinterest boards generate. Analytics are mostly nonexistent. But even without data telling her so, she still believes Pinterest is helping the library to let the world know "that people are saving these things, and that they're cool. People treat [pop music materials] as ephemeral. And we don't. So we like to keep it out there in the world--we do care about this stuff, and you can come and you can see it and you can study it.

Beyond highlighting the collection, the whole venture has enabled the library to deepen the relationships it has with students. Cleveland and her team will occasionally load up a bookcart with albums and wander through the library looking for just the right photographic sleevefacing opportunity. "We're like, 'Ooh, you know that striped shirt you have on would be just perfect for such-and-such a cover. Do you have a few minutes?' Then you end up talking to that person. Once you've been goofy with them in that way, they're much more comfortable asking for help in the library. It's been a really good way of building relationships. It becomes a social interaction, not just a collection highlight."

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