Found History

by Tom Scheinfeldt

Rethinking Access

[This week and next I’ll be facilitating the discussion of “Learning & Information” at the IMLS UpNext: Future of Museums and Libraries wiki. The following is adapted from the first open thread. Please leave any comments at UpNext to join in the wider discussion!]

In addition to the questions posted on the main page for this theme—I will be starting threads for each of those over the course of the next two weeks—something that has been on my mind lately is the question, “What is access?”

Over the past ten or fifteen years, libraries and museums have made great strides in putting collections online. That is an achievement in itself. But beyond a good search and usable interfaces, what responsibilities do museums and libraries have to their online visitors to contextualize those materials, to interpret them, to scaffold them appropriately for scholarly, classroom, and general use?

My personal feeling is that our definition of what constitutes “access” has been too narrow, that real access has to mean more than the broad availability of digitized collections. Rather, in my vision, true access to library and museum resources must include access to the expertise and expert knowledge that undergirds and defines our collections. This is not to say that museum and library websites don’t provide that broader kind of access; they often do. It’s just to say that the two functions are usually performed separately: first comes database access to collections material, then comes (sometimes yes, sometimes no, often depending on available funding) contextual and interpretive access.

What I’d like to see in the future—funders take note!—is a more inclusive definition of access that incorporates both things (what I’m calling database access and contextual access) from the beginning. So, in my brave new world, as a matter of course, every “access” project funded by agencies like IMLS would include support both for mounting collections online and for interpretive exhibits and other contextual and teaching resources. In this future, funding access equals funding interpretation and education.

Is this already happening? If so, how are museums and libraries treating access more broadly? If not, what problems do you see with my vision?

[Please leave comments at UpNext.]

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