Following the Leader: Erik Kwakkel on How and Why to Be an Online Medievalist

By Danièle Cybulskie

One of the best presentations I saw at the International Congress on Medieval Studies this year was by Erik Kwakkel from Leiden University. Chances are, you may already have encountered Kwakkel’s work on medieval manuscripts via his popular blog, his interviews in the media, his academic scholarship, or his lessons at the Khan Academy. He was at the ICMS this year to speak on the topic of how to bring medieval digital manuscripts to the people, how to keep them interested, and (most importantly) why it’s vital to do so.

Erik Kwakkel speaking at this year's International Congress on Medieval Studies
Erik Kwakkel speaking at this year’s International Congress on Medieval Studies

Kwakkel started his work as an online medievalist as an experiment on that very theme: how do we take scholarly research and make it accessible and interesting for people outside of academia? With a grant, some graduate students, and an open mind, Kwakkel started a multi-year project to share fascinating bits of information about medieval manuscripts across many platforms, including a blog, Twitter, and Tumblr. Not every post was an instant success, not every idea worked out, but in that space of experimentation, Kwakkel’s knowledge grew, as did his following.


The focus of his talk, though, was not on his personal or collective successes. Instead, Kwakkel was there to encourage and help other academics to make the same leap. His personal mission is to show the world how smart, how pretty, and how modern medieval manuscripts are because that’s where his passion lies. Any academic, he insists, can do the same with their own field of interest. All that being a public medievalist really requires is the courage to get started.

To draw a wide and consistent audience to your online scholarship, according to Kwakkel, requires many of the same things which (I would argue) make any website, or even classroom presentation, attractive: lots of visuals, solid scholarship, and your own personal voice. (For Kwakkel, this means a sense of humour.) It also requires a bit of planning as to who your target audience should be, and how much time you want to devote to your online work. This shouldn’t be daunting, though, because it should be a natural extension of your own personality – being yourself is a critical component of being successful online. As Kwakkel says, being yourself means people who like the same things will be attracted to your online presence, while people who don’t, won’t. It also means that it’s easier to create consistent content, especially across multiple platforms.

There were a couple of points which Kwakkel made that were more specific to the academic crowd, especially graduate students just starting out: don’t engage the trolls, and don’t post your work online before you publish it. Following these two rules will keep academics from tarnishing their professional reputations in heated exchanges, and will protect their unpublished work from being hijacked by unethical scholars. These two small caveats leave a wide open field for engaging fruitfully and positively with an interested public, though (as well as online colleagues from across the world), and for sharing peripheral research that is really interesting, but not enough to build an article or book around.


All this is important, solid information which will lead to online success, but the most brilliant part of Kwakkel’s talk (and his work) comes down to his personal philosophy around scholarship and the public. For Kwakkel, the scholar has a duty to bring his/her work to the people, to give them information that they can learn, use, and spread widely for everyone’s benefit. No more hiding in libraries: scholars need to hit the Internet to share the information they love with the people who are clamouring for it because knowledge is fundamentally meant to be shared. Kwakkel doesn’t just preach this; he lives it. And he believes anyone else can – and should – do the same. For those who don’t know where to start, he’s more than happy to show the way.

Buy Daniele's new book
Buy Daniele’s new book

As you might imagine, Erik Kwakkel and I are in complete agreement when it comes to bringing medieval scholarship to a wider public. It’s important, it’s easy (with some practice and an open mind), and everyone should give it a try in the way that suits them best. To see, learn from, and be inspired by Kwakkel’s example, check out his blog, or follow him on Twitter or Tumblr.

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