Blogs, Social Media and the Conference Experience

Despite the title of this blog, writing in it hasn’t become a habit at all. Reading Lucinda Matthews-Jones’ write up of a roundtable on blogging at a recent conference, I began to think about why my blog was so badly neglected. I think it is because I let it become academic work: ‘another thing that needed to be added to the list’, as Lucie puts it.  In thinking that my blog posts had to be profound mini-articles, I felt a bit inhibited. I was reminded of one of my subjects, Frank Forster, and his attempt to make his diary ‘a literary work’ rather than a record of his daily life. This was a decision that he almost immediately reversed, and I’m tempted to do the same.

I’ve realised that one of the best things about blogs is about how they can be part of a wider conversation and that, in my attempt to produce little nuggets of individual introspection, I was perhaps missing the point of the medium. That doesn’t mean I won’t continue to talk about sources and theory here, but it doesn’t have to be the only thing that I address. So today’s post is about the last few conferences I’ve spoken at and the ways in which online interaction has transformed my experience of them.

First was the wonderful Unofficial Histories conference, organised by Fiona Cosson and Ian Gwinn and held at the Bishopsgate Institute in London on May 19th. I wasn’t supposed to be presenting at this conference but stepped in at the last minute to fill a gap left by someone who was unable to give their paper. I would have been attending anyway, but I was glad to give a paper on the diaries of Frank Forster again, after some time away from him. Every talk I attended was very thought-provoking, and highlights for me included Rosa Ainley’s talk on the ‘unauthorised biography’ of a suburban semi-detached house (2 Ennerdale Drive), Hilda Kean on public history, Alison Ronan on anti-war women in Manchester during WW1, and Andrew Flinn on workers’ libraries and archives.

What struck me about this conference was how my experience of it was enhanced by social media, particularly twitter, and blogs. Fiona was very successful at promoting the conference hashtag and several attendees were live-tweeting the conference throughout the day. I find it difficult to concentrate on a conference and tweet at the same time, but it was great to find that, after we got home, several of us started following each other on twitter and the conversation continued. Alongside the private e-mail correspondence and personal conversations was a much more public, if unofficial, record of the conference, such as in these blog posts by Hilda Kean and Rosa Ainley.

This was also true of the Writing Lives symposium organised by Hannah Andrews at the University of Warwick on May 25th. This was an excellent and really inspiring day, and a truly interdisciplinary one, with perspectives from history, literature, film and television, education and many more subjects. I spoke in the afternoon session, which allowed for the traditional post-lunch dip in concentration with short and snappy ten minute presentations. I talked about Frank Forster again, but in a much more personal and reflective vein. This was probably my favourite talk I have given to date, because I felt that I was speaking very honestly about what drives me as a historian and about the real anxieties of ‘using’ past lives for my own ends. The round table discussion that followed was lively and stimulating and, because it was recorded, has gone beyond the conference itself. Like the Unofficial Histories conference, this was live-tweeted – you can see all the tweets in a Storify here – and I was delighted to see, after a long and traumatic train journey, that many other speakers and attendees had followed me on twitter, where the connections and conversation continues …

Finally, this Saturday, I presented a paper at ‘The Book Through Time’ conference at Merton College, Oxford, organised by the Book History Research Network and the Merton History of the Book Group. This was, perhaps, less technologically ‘wired’ than the other two conferences but, as BHRN days always are, a very friendly and intellectually stimulating day. There are two things in particular that I love about book history conferences. The first is the vast chronological range you tend to see represented, from medieval manuscripts to e-readers. The second is that, invariably, conference organisers make a real effort to build in a practical workshop or visit into the programme. On this occasion, I attended a printing demonstration at Paul Nash’s Bodleian Printing Workshop, currently housed at the Story Museum. I’ve seen letterpress printing demonstrated a number of times, but Paul is incredible at explaining the process in both a learned and accessible way. As Paul stood in front of the compositing cases, I thought of the poor compositors setting Das Kapital, who were simply not fast or accurate enough to satisfy Marx.

Due to other commitments, these are the last conferences that I will be speaking at this summer. But due to the conversations that started or were continued at these conferences –  and that are still being sparked by further discussions on social media and blogs –  it’s been a very fruitful couple of weeks.

I will try to squeeze the odd blog post in somewhere too, but I can’t (and won’t) promise a ‘literary work’.

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