Peter Konieczny (pronounced Co-nietch-knee) has been a regular presence at the International Medieval Congress at Kalamazoo (“the Zoo”) for nearly two decades. He first began attending the congress in 1996, when he was an undergraduate studying history and politics at the University of Toronto, and since then has only missed two of the annual conferences. While Peter is known for his quiet and unassuming demeanor at Kalamazoo, very approachable and friendly, this masks the profound impact and influence he has on the field of medieval studies. Indeed, as the founder and co-owner of the popular website Medievalists.net, Peter has become a force in how medieval scholarship is made accessible or communicated to the public via the internet and social media.
I was recently reminded of Peter’s influence when I forwarded him a link to a short interview I had with the great medieval historian Dr. Alfred J. Andrea (a friend and mentor). I published the interview on my blog, which on a typical day might receive 50 to 70 “views.” When Peter agreed to post the interview on his Facebook page for medievalist.net, I thanked him, but did not immediately think much of it. About 20 or 25 minutes later, however, my stats on my little blog had gone through the roof. Those who follow Peter’s page, people with a significant interest in all things medieval, had read the interview and then shared it with others. As a result, the interview was launched into cyber space and Al was getting a lot of well-deserved press for his excellent career as a medieval historian. In response to all of this, due to his ability to influence what people interested in the Middle Ages read, I joked with Peter that he was a “dangerous man.”
As it turns out, those initial impressions were true. Peter’s extraordinary (but largely unnoticed) influence over how scholarly studies of the Middle Ages are communicated in the online world is much more extensive than I had ever really considered up to this point. He has over 270,000 people who have “liked” the Medievalists.net Facebook page, which means that his postings on Facebook are much more likely to show up in the “feeds” of more than a quarter of a million Facebook users. Additionally, Medievalists.net has over 37,000 followers on Twitter, 4,500 followers on Tumblr, 2400 on Pinterest and 1200 on Google Plus. He also has an email list with about 8000 people who have signed up to receive updates and announcements.
In other words, if you have a book on the Middle Ages that you would like to advertise, it might be a good idea to be on Peter’s good side. Indeed, when I asked Peter how many publishers send him copies of their new releases, he responded, quite casually, “All of them.”
Why not? A favorable Facebook posting by Peter on any such book could result in thousands of potential additional sales. Or, as one scholar on Twitter noted:
It was earlier this year at Kalamazoo that Peter understood how influential he had become in the medieval studies community. Mostly by accident, he sat in on a business luncheon during the International Congress on Medieval Studies and was seated between the medieval studies program directors at Western Michigan University and the University of Leeds. His table was to talk about public engagement and as the conversation continued on, Peter noted:
“I wound up doing more and more of the talking and giving ideas. At one point I realized that everyone at the table had finished their meals and my plate was still half-full! Somehow I have become the expert in reaching out to the world beyond academia. It’s a strange, strange world we live in.”
At this point, I should make clear that Medievalists.net is not solely Peter’s venture. While Peter, a former librarian for the University of Toronto and Oxford College (Toronto), is the founder of the website, it was only a few months after he launched the site in 2008 that he teamed up with Sandra Alvarez, who is a co-owner of the business. As the busy father of a nine year old, Peter has alway been grateful for Sandra’s help. In addition to updating the website and its various social media extensions, as mentioned above, Sandra and Peter attend conferences on behalf of Medievalists.net. At Kalamazoo, for example, they have conducted video interviews with scholars, provided reporting on events and scholarly papers presented there, hosted roundtable discussions with academics, and on one occasion hosted an open bar on the Wednesday night before the congress started.
Above: Peter and Sandra- friends for over 20 years.
At present, much of their time is split between talking with publishers in the book room and doing business with them, but Peter sees his most important duty as attending paper presentations so he can report on them afterward. Doing so gives the general public access to the new ideas and scholarship happening at such conferences. As Peter notes, before his efforts, “the ideas of a speaker would reach only a couple dozen people, our site allows it to be read by thousands.”
Above: Peter (R) interviewing Howard Clarke from University College, Dublin.
Peter and Sandra’s efforts have certainly made them popular in the community of those interested in medieval studies. They often have many old friends and supporters that they meet with during conferences, and have even had requests for autographs.
Peter’s association with the International Congress on Medieval Studies at Kalamazoo is extensive. Not only has he attended the conference for the last two decades, developing extensive friendships and contacts, but he also mentioned that, as a young man on his first trip to Kalamazoo, he lost his virginity at the conference. Consequently, Kalamazoo has a “fond place” in his heart. When he mentioned this I laughed, assuming he may have been joking, but he was not. Perhaps more importantly, the congress also represents ground zero for his business. Peter does very much view it as a business, I should add, as he identifies himself very explicitly as an “entrepreneur” (and not a librarian any longer).
Very Kindly, Peter has agreed to respond to some questions about his efforts with Medievalists.net here.
- What inspired you to found Medievalists.net in 2008? What is the purpose and goal of your business? What experience did you have doing this sort of thing prior to 2008?
One thing you need to keep in mind is that I had already been involved in medieval online community for seven years at that point – so basically I’m an old timer. Back in 2001, I took the job as editor of www.deremilitari.org the website for the Society of Medieval Military History. At that point I did something rather unheard of for medievalists – I started posting articles online (as well as primary sources). This was an era where few medieval journals had an online presence, and it was really unusual to have one’s articles available on the web. I remember approaching publishers back then asking permission to reprint articles, and for many of them it was such a new concept. In short, we had about a thousand articles or primary sources online, and for the next few years De Re Militari had one of leading medieval websites you could find.
In the meantime, I had started taking part in a few other online projects for medievalists, but I quickly found that academics had real trouble getting their internet work to be taken seriously. Promising efforts such as the ORB basically failed, which was very disappointing. At the same time, I could see that there was a need for the medieval studies community to have some kind of grand website, where they could read about the news, find articles and videos, and highlight some of the great things being done in film, television and music that is medieval-related.
Basically, I saw a big void that no one else was willing to fill, so I brought in my friend Sandra Alvarez and we started getting posts up. At that time I never expected it to be a full-time business, but after about 2 years I could see that we were getting a large number of followers through social media. Since then we have seen us grow far more than I could have possibly believed, to the point where in the last twelve months we have had over 8 million page views.
- How’s business? Medievalists.net appears to be thriving. Is this an industry in which a thoughtful entrepreneur like you can make a comfortable living? Or are many of the benefits intangible?
I would like to say that we are thriving, but the reality is that we have seen a pretty steep fall in revenues. Up until recently, Medievalists.net was basically supported by ads (Google Adsense), but in the last 18 months or so that industry has lost a lot of its business. For us, we have seen this source of income fall by more than 50% over the last year, even while our audience continues to grow. Its a trend that has affected a lot of online publishers and I don’t think that part of the business will recover.
This has led us to try new things, and reset our business model. About a half-year ago we started our digital magazine, and I am just dipping my toe into ebooks. I think you will see that becoming an even more prominent part of Medievalists.net.
When I first started this site, I never thought of myself as an entrepreneur, but it is a role I have grown into, and frankly enjoy. I also think that it is necessary if you want a project like Medievalists.net to succeed. I always try to keep my focus on what our readers will want, because in the end its their support that keeps us going.
- What is the current relationship of medieval scholarship to the online world? How effectively are the ideas of scholars communicated to non-scholars online? It seems that a lot of popular myths about medieval Europe are found online. How can your organization help?
Every week I come across new and exciting projects where scholars are creating online resources about the Middle Ages, and when we share them with our fans I can see a huge amount of interest in them. Moreover, I think for those interested in medieval history and society, they can now find a huge amount of articles and sources available to them, and be able to learn a lot. I think there is always going to be myths about the Middle Ages circulating, in part because some people find those myths to be convenient for them. They might say ‘Oh, even back in the Middle Ages they did things this way, and it has always been done that way. Therefore, we shouldn’t change it.’ When you confront them with evidence to say in medieval times they didn’t act that way, or their beliefs and mentalities were more complex, they don’t want to accept that. We often get the most backlash on our social media pages when we deal with those issues, but I think for every person that wants to remain steadfast in his ways, there are far many more people who will read things with an open mind.
- Are scholars of medieval history or literature at a disadvantage in the online world? They seem to spend several years studying languages and working in achieves, rather than developing the technological skills and savvy necessary to develop a significant online presence or following. Is such an online presence necessary for scholars in the 21st century?
It seems to me that the medieval studies community has only scratched the surface of how to take advantage of our digital world. We have done quite a lot of great things, such as the digitization of manuscripts, but I think medieval studies departments need to do a better job of making use of the Internet and of preparing their students to do the same. Why do graduate classes need to be taught in a classroom instead of via the web? Moreover, why does a medieval studies program not devote part of their curriculum to information technology and project management, which I think are just as necessary as languages or palaeography for a medievalist?
I am thinking more and more about how medieval studies should be taught in higher education, and what kind of model would work in the decades to come. It worries me that our graduate programs produce a lot of bright Masters and PhD students, but when they are finished there are few jobs in academia available to them. I would like to see medieval studies programs find ways to better prepare students for careers beyond the university.
Below: A video of Peter discussing how he became interested in the Middle Ages.