Episode 11: Jay Cosnett and Erin Brasell of Oregon Historical Society

My guests today are Jay Cosnett and Erin Brasell from the Oregon Historical Society, and they’re talking with me about their recently-launched blog, Dear Oregon.


NICK: Hi, and welcome to What’s On, the Cuberis podcast. I’m Nick Faber.

My guests today are Jay Cosnett and Erin Brasell from the Oregon Historical Society, and they’re talking with me about their recently-launched blog, Dear Oregon.

I met Jay last year in Vancouver, at the Museums and the Web conference. It was my first time at MW, and I was co-hosting a content strategy workshop with our CEO Eric. I’d like to think that everyone in the class got something out of our session, but Jay, in particular, seemed to be especially excited to be there.

JAY: So I walked in thinking, well I know a little about content strategy, but not focused on museums, this will be great. But then, in like the first two minutes, Nick says, “So, content strategy is a big topic, but what we’re going to do to get your feet wet in an actual project, we’re going to pretend that your organization is starting a blog. And I was like [clap, clap] awesome. Because, of course, we were…

ERIN: We were starting a blog!

NICK: A few months ago, I checked in on the OHS website to see how the blog was going. And I was so thrilled to see that their new blog, Dear Oregon, had not only launched but was producing some really rich collections-based content. So I reached out to Jay to see if he wanted to talk about the blog, and he insisted that I meet Erin Brasell, too, who Jay described as the brains behind the blog, and they joined me over Skype. Since I’d never been to the Oregon Historical Society, I wanted to know a little bit about what I’d find there, and that’s where we’ll pick up the conversation.

ERIN: Our mission is to preserve our state’s history and make it accessible to everyone in ways that advance knowledge and inspire curiosity about all the people, places, and events that have shaped Oregon.

And it’s a mouthful, and it’s a pretty broad mission, but we do work to advance the mission in a number of ways, including, we have permanent and temporary exhibits, both here in the building and online. We have a research library, we do a number of public programs and workshops here in our downtown location. We also partner with other organizations across the state.

And the Oregon Historical Society recently launched a digital collections site in 2017, which makes available online thousands of images. We also have oral histories and documents from our collections. And they’re constantly being updated. So, like hundreds a week, usually?

JAY: Yes, hundreds a week. There’s tens of thousands of documents on there and the diversity is astounding. And there’s just more and more stuff up there all the time. And part of what’s important about that is that even though we’re located in downtown Portland, we’re the Oregon Historical Society. So we’re really charged — we’re not a part of the government, we’re an independent nonprofit that is charged with — we have a duty to preserve and share the history of the entire state with the entire state.

So one of the reasons that — my title is web strategist — one of the reasons I was hired almost five years ago was because we needed to do a better job providing services to people who aren’t physically here. And so that’s really where the web comes in. So the digital collections site has been a huge leap forward in our abilities to provide access to our materials to people who aren’t just here.

NICK: Awesome, and actually, I had this as a question later on, but Jay, since you mentioned being a web strategist, could tell me a little bit more about what you do at the Oregon Historical Society?

JAY: Sure, so my title is web strategist and it’s really “web everything.” So on a typical day, I might do anything from input and manage content to write code to sit down and meet with folks and figure out where our web strategy should be in five years. So I do everything from the 30,000-foot perspective down to the nitty-gritty of why isn’t this page working. And that’s fun for me, because I’ve been in web development for 20 years, and I’ve done all of those different things at one point or another as part of a team, and so now I pretty much get to play with all the fun toys and participate in all the different aspects of communicating and working with the public online. And so that, to me, is just very satisfying.

NICK: And how about you, Erin? What’s your title?

ERIN: Yeah, so I’m the editorial design and production manager for the Oregon Historical Quarterly. And the Quarterly is a peer-reviewed public history journal that’s published by the Oregon Historical Society. And we’ve been publishing continuously since 1900. And so the Quarterly is a benefit of our membership. On a day-to-day basis, I’m responsible for production at the OHQ, meaning design and layouts, setting schedules. I also do editorial work, including bringing some manuscripts for peer review and getting the files ready to go to the printer and managing that sort of process.

NICK: So blogging is not your full-time job. And managing a blog is not your full-time job.

ERIN: And it’s funny, we wrote a little piece of it into my job description and this sort of goes into one of the motivations for creating the blog was, I was personally motivated to become involved with it because OHQ produces this great scholarship about Oregon and the Pacific Northwest, and I wanted to get some of that information out beyond just our readership, which ranges between 4,000-4,500 on any given print cycle.

But there’s so much information that we produce, and the Oregon Historical Society just didn’t have a platform to disseminate the information more widely than just what we print in OHQ.

JAY: Absolutely, and the other thing, too, the blog really fills a gap. Especially in our content strategy and in our social media strategy. We put out a lot of really cool and interesting chunks and nuggets of content relating to items in our collection, relating to events, either current or historical, through social media. But there’s only so much you can put in a Facebook post. There’s even less that you can put on Instagram or Twitter. And so in between that and — how long is a typical OHQ article? 5,000 words?

ERIN: Well, it can range from 3,000 to 9 or 10,000 words, so a pretty big range, but that’s a lot.

JAY: That’s a lot, and in between a tweet and 5,000 words is a pretty big gap. And there are a lot of, again, items in our collection, events in history, either well-known or obscure, people, places, all these things that there’s more to say than you could fit in a Facebook post but we don’t necessarily have the bandwidth or reader interest to write an OHQ article about every single thing like that. And so the blog really allows us to hit that sweet spot and to not have to be as soup-to-nuts comprehensive.

When it comes to scholarship, we should also mention we have a number of digital history projects that put historical content out there online, and one of them is the Oregon Encyclopedia, which is a fantastic resource, peer-reviewed, has a fantastic stable of writers and historians that develop content for it on a continuous basis.

ERIN: And a pretty robust editorial board, too, so it is an authoritative source on Oregon History, so it’s really important.

JAY: Absolutely. And if you’re going to write an OE entry or an OHQ article about a subject, you can be darn well sure that it’s going to be comprehensive. It’s going to be reviewed, fact-checked, this is not a trivial process. It’s also not a shallow or…

NICK: Ephemeral was the word that I was thinking of for social media…

JAY: Right, and so, for the blog, we can kind of dance between those boundaries. We can have — one of my favorite blog posts is a wonderful woman in our museum, a cataloger, Silvie Andrews, talking about this really bizarre Victorian-era tricycle in our collection. And she talked about it, and she shows how it runs on a video, and it’s just, nowhere else could we say, ‘Here’s this weird thing that is in our warehouse, that doesn’t necessarily fit into some bigger picture story. It’s just weird. And it’s cool. So take a look.’

ERIN: The cool thing about it is the mechanics of it. So it doesn’t have pedals, it has these leather stirrups that you kind of push down and force your seat up, and then it propels itself forward in that way. So it’s really awkward, and obviously didn’t catch on because there aren’t many of them, but the blog is a great place for us to put that out there for people to see and hopefully generate interest in other things that are going on.

And one of the other things that I really like about the blog is it gives us a platform to stay relevant with rapid responses to current events that are going on. And so there are a number of things we published recently in OHQ that deal with immigration, citizenship, a lot of the really hot topics right now, that are really put in perspecitve. Some of the things that we’re seeing in the news today that need a little more thought than what can be put on Twitter or Facebook. It gives us the space to do some of that analysis and bring in these resources that we have and this scholarship that we produce, and put it out there for people to consider. So that’s some of the work that I’m really excited about.

NICK: So obviously you do need to leave some room in your editorial plan for these topical stories that you can relate your collections to, but beyond that, how do you decide— you know, the funky Victorian tricycle — how do you decide which stories are best to tell and when?

ERIN: When we started out, we basically started out with a list of ideas that we had gathered over the course of a year or so. Talking to colleagues, going out to coffee, having folks pitch stuff to us, us finding interesting things in the collection that we sort of ask people to run with… So right now our editorial calendar is part strategic, in that we have certain events that we would like to promote…

JAY: We have a huge event coming up, which is the opening of our signature exhibit on Oregon history, which is called Experience Oregon. We had a previous exhibit that was in the same space, that covered roughly the same subject matter called Oregon, My Oregon, that was opened in 2005. And so it’s a big deal that we closed this big exhibit and completely created a new one from scratch. And that’s opening February 14, and that’s a big deal, and so one of the things, again, fun about the blog.

The blog lets us tell, again, these little interesting stories within the story.

NICK: Well, so one of the things I wanted you about was, Experience Oregon, as you mentioned, is replacing Oregon My Oregon, and having not been to the museum or the Historical Society, from my perspective I would assume that those are sort of marquee exhibitions, sort of all-encompassing broad exhibitions about your state’s history. And so while the former version of it was closed for renovation while you’re building Experience Oregon, did you see your blog as an opportunity to — in addition to marketing the exhibition itself — to sort of supplement or augment the stories that would have been told if there hadn’t been a renovation or the types of stories that will be told when the new exhibition opens. Do you see the blog as sort of a digital version of what that’s going to be?

ERIN: I definitely see it as potentially a digital supplement. Because like you said, if we had unlimited space, we would tell all the stories of all the people and places and events in Oregon. But we are limited by exhibit space, and so we do have plans to try to make connections to the new exhibit, especially since it is designed to provide an entry point for people coming in to learn about the history of Oregon. And so, getting into the specific stories and things on the blog, and particularly through the artifacts that are on display, and the documents from our collection that are going to be on display, it provides a really nice space to get into a deeper history associated with those things that will be there for visitors to see when it opens.

JAY: Absolutely. I think in some ways when we knew we were going to have to close the exhibit, this was actually long before we even thought of the blog. It’s certainly long before the blog was launched.

ERIN: I think the exhibit has been a three-year process. The idea to redo Oregon, My Oregon, to actually opening the door. So, I think we’ve been working on the blog for about two years.

JAY: We’ve been working on the blog for about two years, but it’s only been open to the public, as it were, since November. So really, all different aspects of our websites have been getting beefed up over time to fill that gap. With new entries on the Oregon Encyclopedia, we’ve added some digital exhibits, of course, the OHS digital collections site has been expanding during that period that the old exhibit was closed.

So really, in some ways having to close a big exhibit like that was really a blessing. At least, for someone like me with my nefarious purpose do more of our work online. Because we had to. It highlighted the need to do a better job and a more comprehensive job of telling the stories of Oregon’s History online. And to provide people with the resources, so that they can learn more about the stories that are interesting to them. And that’s what I think is going to be really interesting. Because now we sort of had to beef up what we did online with the closure of the exhibit, and because we knew we had to anyway, but now that we’re opening the exhibit, that exhibit is really going to be the gateway drug to Oregon History.

It’s going to be wonderful in and of itself, but every photograph, every little text panel, chances are there’s a full-blown article on the Oregon Encyclopedia about that person, place or thing. There’s probably a few OHQ articles that relate to that. There could be digital exhibits or primary sources that are on the Oregon History Project or the digital collections site. There could be a wealth of content. And in a physical exhibit, you only have space for one paragraph or one little photograph.

So we’re really hoping that we can connect people to the online resources that are necessarily more detailed and more exhaustive through the physical exhibit because you never know. Somebody walks through a 3,000 square foot exhibit, you don’t know what’s going to capture somebody’s attention. You don’t know what they’ll wish they could learn more about. You have to make your curatorial decisions, and balance everything. But then someone’s going to really want to do a deep dive into this one thing. And if we can make it easy for them to find that one thing, well, then we win.

NICK: Well, so, on a similar note to the idea of somebody in your exhibit seeing something that grabs their attention and being able to find a full-fledged article about it online, I’ve noticed that on your blog, at the bottom of your posts, there’s related collection items. And I was wondering if that — how should I put it? — was your content management system built with that in mind? Was this something you have to manually do? I am wondering about the technical aspect of it, but also strategically, how important to you was it that somebody reads an article and then decides they want to dive into your collections?

JAY: So that’s very important, and that’s actually a feature that predates the blog. That was something that was developed when we designed the strategy behind our current website, which was launched in November of 2015. A big problem with a website for an organization like ours, or for a lot of organizations, is that you want to provide people with an easy way to find the content that they’re looking for. Right? The basic user experience design. But how do you help people find the content they don’t know they’re looking for? How do you help people find the content that they don’t know you have?

An organization like ours, we record lectures into podcasts, we make videos of our programs, we have OHQ articles, we have OE articles, we have Oregon History Project primary sources, we have things on our digital collections site. All of which could relate to a particular subject matter, but no one’s going to know to search for that stuff just off the top of your head. So that’s where we came up with this idea of these related content blades that would be able to go at the bottom of any post. So if it’s a program about XYZ topic, what do we have? Do we have articles? Do we have primary sources? Do we have collection items? Do we have things in our store? Books about it that somebody could buy? All of these types of things, we can put at the bottom of the post. And it’s extremely important for helping people understand — again, you can’t search for something you don’t know exists. And this is our way of exposing that.

The blog is just that many more opportunities to talk about a topic and then say, “look at all the resources we’ve got.”

The other thing that I love as the webmaster is that I get to do it the other way around. We’ve got an event or an exhibit or something else on a topic, if we’ve got a blog post on it, you can be sure you’ll find it at the bottom of the page.

NICK: Well that’s great. I’ve been working on this, I don’t know, mantra when working with clients on content strategy, of ‘creating no dead ends.’ So when I’m on your blog post, I can click through to a related object page, and then when I’m on that object page, I can find other related objects, or yet another blog post about it, so I think it’s really exciting to me that you guys have that built into your website and that you’re making a practice of doing it on all types of pages and posts. So kudos.

JAY: And again, search is OK, but you can’t search for something you don’t know you want to find, and that you don’t know exists. So we had to come up with these ways of — like you said, no page should be a dead end. There should always be, “Learn more,” “Read more,” there should be that subtle call to action somewhere, and that’s why all those related content links are purposeful. “Read this.” “Watch this.” “Listen to this podcast.” “Do something.” “Take action.” Because if somebody wants to, you don’t want to say, “No, you’re done.” Right?

NICK: Right.

JAY: That’s the dead end.

NICK: Because you don’t know if they’re ever going to come back to your site actually, you know?

JAY: Exactly.

NICK: And maybe ultimately you could get a donation from them, or convert them into a visitor or member.

JAY: Absolutely.

NICK: Was there anything that we didn’t get a chance to talk about that you really wanted to make sure that you address?

ERIN: Well, actually, one thing that I was thinking about was — that we really didn’t get to touch on — was why it took two years…

JAY: Oh sure!

ERIN: …to get the ball rolling. Partially because we aren’t dedicated blogging staff, but also we really took our time planning and thinking about it, and I think we were the butt of many jokes at OHS. The blog was the Canadian girlfriend, right? Like, there’s a blog, it’s there! And people were like “sure, OK, great”, like, “Let’s get another staff meeting update on what you guys are doing.

But a happy outcome of that really elongated process is that people kept hearing about it and thinking about it, and eventually it worked its way into people’s everyday jobs. So we now have managers who understand why we have a blog and are totally behind the blog, and have now written into people’s job descriptions, “One of your professional goals this year is to produce at least one blog post about the work that you’re doing.”

NICK: Cool!

ERIN: And I don’t think that would have happened if we had quickly gone through the process, released it…

JAY: “Oh, by the way, we have a blog.”

ERIN: Yeah, by the way, you’re gonna start writing for this. And instead, we’re creating this really rich content that’s developed by the experts in our building and it’s a great marketing tool because it is real. It’s not just fluff. There is substance to it. And I don’t think that would have happened if we had gone about it a different way.

JAY: We also found out that in the first month of its launch, the section of the website that holds all the blog posts jumped to number four in page views.

NICK: Awesome!

JAY: So we took a long time to do it right, but we’re reaping the dividends, and it’s been successful, and I’m sure it will only be more so. So just wait to see what kind of cool posts we have coming up in February!

NICK: That was Jay Cosnett and Erin Brassel of the Oregon Historical Society. I want to thank Jay and Erin for talking with me, and I want to thank you for listening.

If you’d like to hear more episodes of What’s on, head over to cuberis.com/podcast. You can also find a link to our ebook, The Art of Storytelling, on our site.

And if you’d like to be a guest on a future episode, or know a museum professional doing great work online for their institution, send me an email. You can reach me at nick@cuberis.com

Until next time, I’m Nick Faber. What’s your story? And how will you tell it?