Innovation, Use, and Sustainability

Revised notes for remarks I delivered on the topic of “Tools: Encouraging Innovation” at the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) National Digital Platform summit last month at the New York Public Library.

What do we mean when we talk about innovation? To me innovation implies not just the “new” but the “useful.” And not just the “useful” but the “implemented” and the “used.” Used, that is, by others.

If a tool stays in house, in just the one place where it was developed, it may be new and it may be interesting—let’s say “inventive”—but it is not “innovative.” Other terms we use in this context—”ground breaking” and “cutting edge,” for example—share this meaning. Ground is broken for others to build upon. The cutting edge preceeds the rest of the blade.

The IMLS program that has been charged and most generously endowed with encouraging innovation in the digital realm is the National Leadership Grants: Advancing Digital Resources program. The idea that innovation is tied to use is implicit in the title of the program: the word “leadership” implies a “following.” It implies that the digital resources that the program advances will be examples to the field to be followed widely, that the people who receive the grants will become leaders and gain followers, that the projects supported by the program will be implemented and used.

This is going to be difficult to say in present company, because I am a huge admirer of the NLG program and its staff of program officers. I am also an extremely grateful recipeint of its funds. Nevertheless, in my estimation as an observer of the program, a panelist, and an adwardee, the program has too often fallen short in this regard: it has supported a multitude of new and incredibly inventive work, but that work has too rarely been taken up by colleagues outside of the originating institution. The projects the NLG program has spawned have been creative, exciting, and new, but they have too rarely been truly innovative. This is to say that the ratio of “leaders” to “followers” is out of whack. A model that’s not taken up by others is no model at all.

I would suggest two related remedies for the Leadership Grants’ lack of followers:

  1. More emphasis on platforms. Surely the NLG program has produced some widely used digital library and museum platforms, including the ones I have worked on. But I think it bears emphasizing that the limited funds available for grants would generate better returns if they went to enabling technologies rather than end prodcuts, to platforms rather than projects. Funding platforms doesn’t just mean funding software—there are also be social and institutional platforms like standards and convening bodies—but IMLS should be funding tools that allow lots of people to do good work, not the good work itself of just a few.
  2. More emphasis on outreach. Big business doesn’t launch new products without a sale force. If we want people to use our products, we shouldn’t launch them without people on staff who are dedicated to encouraging their use. This should be refelected in our budgets, a much bigger chunk of which should go to outreach. That also means more flexibility in the guidelines and among panelists and program officers to support travel, advertizing, and other marketing costs.

Sustainability is a red herring

These are anecdotal impressions, but it is my belief that the NLG program could be usefully reformed by a more laser-like focus on these and other uptake and go-to-market strategies in the guidelines and evaluation criteria for proposals. In recent years, a higher and higher premium has been placed on sustainability in the guidelines. I believe the effort we require applicants to spend crafting sustainability plans and grantees to spend implementing them would be better spent on outreach—on sales. The greatest guarantor of sustainiability is use. When things are used they are sustained. When things become so widely implemented that the field can’t do without them, they are sustained. Like the banks, tools and platforms that become too big to fail are sustained. Sustainability is very simply a fuction of use, and we should recognize this in allocating scare energies and resources.

No Holds Barred

About six months ago, I was asked by the executive director of a prestigious but somewhat hidebound—I guess “venerable” would be the word—cultural heritage institution to join the next meeting of the board and provide an assessment of the organization’s digital programs. I was told not to pull any punches. This is what I said.

  1. You don’t have a mobile strategy. This is by far your most pressing need. According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, already more than 45% of Americans own a smartphone. That number rises to 66% among 18-29 year olds and 68% among families with incomes of more than $75,000. These are people on the go. You are in the travel and tourism business. If you are only reaching these people when they’re at their desks at work—as opposed to in their cars, on their lunch breaks, while they’re chasing the kids around on Saturday morning—you aren’t reaching them in a way that will translate into visits. This isn’t something for the future. Unfortunately, it’s something for two years ago.
  2. You don’t have an integrated social strategy. I could critique your website, and of course it needs work. But a redesign is a relatively straightforward thing these days. The more important thing to realize is that you shouldn’t expect more than a fraction of your digital audience these to interact directly with your website. Rather, most potential audience members will want to interact with you and your content on their chosen turf, and these days that means Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Tumblr, and Wikipedia, depending on the demographic. You have to be ready to go all in with social media and dedicate at least as much thought and resources to your social media presence as to your web presence.
  3. Your current set of researcher tools and resources aren’t well-matched to what we know about researcher needs and expectations. Ithaka Research, a respected think tank that studies higher education and the humanities, recently released a report entitled “Supporting the Changing Research Practices of Historians” (I’d encourage everyone here to give it a good read; it has a ton of recommendations for organizations like this one grappling with the changing information landscape as it relates to history). One of its key findings is that Google is now firmly established as researchers’ first (and sometimes last) stop for research. Lament all you want, but it means that if you want to serve researchers better, your best bet isn’t to make your own online catalog better but instead to make sure your stuff shows up in Google. As the Library of Congress’s Trevor Owens puts it: “the next time someone tells you that they want to make a ‘gateway’ a ‘portal’ or a ‘registry’ of some set of historical materials you can probably stop reading. It already exists and it’s Google.” This speaks to a more general point, which is related closely to my previous point. Researchers come to your collection with a set of digital research practices and tools that they want to use, first and foremost among these being Google. Increasingly, researchers are looking to interact with your collections outside of your website. They are looking to pull collection items into personal reference management tools like Zotero. More sophisticated digital researchers are looking for ways to dump large data sets into an Excel spreadsheet for manipulation, analysis, and presentation. The most sophisticated digital historians are looking for direct connections to your database through open APIs. The lesson here is that whatever resources you have to dedicate to online research collections should go towards minimizing the time people spend on your website. We tend to evaluate the success of our web pages with metrics like numbers of page views, time spent per page, and bounce rate. But when it comes to search the metrics are reversed: We don’t want people looking at lots of pages or spending a lot of time on our websites. We want our research infrastructure to be essentially invisible, or at least to be visible for only a very short period of time. What we really want with search is to allow researchers to get in and get out as quickly as possible with just what they were looking for.
  4. You aren’t making good use of the organization’s most valuable—and I mean that in terms of its share of the annual budget—resource: its staff expertise. Few things are certain when it comes to Internet strategy. The Internet is an incredibly complex ecosystem, and it changes extremely quickly. What works for one project or organization may not work for another organization six months from now. However, one ironclad rule of the Internet is content drives traffic. Fresh, substantive content improves page rank, raises social media visibility, and brings people to the website. Your website should be changing and growing every day. The way to do that is to allow and encourage (even insist) that every staff member, down to the interns and docents, contribute something to the website. Everybody here should be blogging. Everyone should be experimenting. The web is the perfect platform for letting staff experiment: the web allows us to FAIL QUICKLY.
  5. You aren’t going to make any money. Digital is not a revenue center, it’s an operating cost like the reading room, or the permanent galleries, or the education department. You shouldn’t expect increased revenues from a website redesign any more than you should from a new coat of paint for the front door. But just like the reading room, the education programs, and the fresh coat of paint, digital media is vital to the organization’s mission in the 21st century. There are grants for special programs and possibly for initial capital expenditures (start-up costs), but on the whole, cultural organizations should consider digital as a cost of doing business. This means reconfiguring existing resources to meet the digital challenge. One important thing to remember about digital work is that its costs are almost entirely human (these days the necessary technology, software, equipment, bandwidth is cheap and getting cheaper). That means organizations should be able to afford a healthy digital strategy if they begin thinking about digital work as an integral part of the duties of existing staff in the ways I described earlier. You probably need a head of digital programs and possibly a technical assistant, but beyond that, you can achieve great success through rethinking/retraining existing human resources.

I’m happy to say that, aside from a few chilly looks (mainly from the staff members, rather than the board members, in the room), my no-holds-barred advice was graciously received. Time will tell if it was well received.

For Your Listening Pleasure: History Conversations

A few years back I had the bright idea to launch a second podcast (Digital Campus being the first). It languished. In fact, I only ever managed to record three episodes. The last one was recorded in February 2008.

It’s time to retire the website, but I don’t want to lose what I believe is some valuable content, especially the conversation I had with friends shortly after Roy’s death. So, here it is. The entire run of History Conversations, “an occasional dialogue with historians and history lovers about their interests, their ideas, and their lives in history,” in a single post.


Hello, World

In this pre-inaugural episode of History Conversations, Tom tests out his software and explains a little of the rationale behind the show. Join us in a couple weeks for our first conversation.

Running time: 4:41
Download the .mp3
[audio:http://foundhistory.org/audio/hc_0.mp3]


Episode 1 – Peter Liebhold

Tom kicks off the podcast with a conversation with Peter Liebhold, Chair and Curator of the Division of Work and Industry at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. Tom asks Peter about his daily work at the Museum, his straight and not-so-straight road into history, and the role of public history … and pledges not to go another four months between episodes.

Running time: 29:29
Download the .mp3
[audio:http://foundhistory.org/audio/hc_1.mp3]


Episode 2 – Roy Rosenzweig, In Memoriam

In Episode 2 we remember Roy Rosenzweig, friend, colleague and pioneer in all manner of public history. Guests Mike O’Malley (co-founder of the Center for History and New Media and Associate Professor of History at George Mason University), Steve Brier (Vice President for Information Technology and External Programs at the CUNY Graduate Center and co-founder the American Social History Project), and Josh Brown (Executive Director of the American Social History Project and Professor of History in the Ph.D. program at the CUNY Graduate Center) join Tom for a conversation about Roy’s life, work, and long commitment to democratizing history.

Running time: 32:22
Download the .mp3
[audio:http://foundhistory.org/audio/hc_2.mp3]


Episode 3 – A Look Back at Braddock

This month the volunteer historians of the Look Back at Braddock project join Tom for a conversation about the challenges and opportunities posed by local history. Located near the center of Fairfax County, Virginia, Braddock District has changed rapidly in the 20th century, and members of the community have taken it upon themselves to document the changes. Working largely without funding, John Browne, Mary Lipsey, Gil Donahue, and their colleagues have produced a rich oral history collection, a successful book, and a new website. What does it take for a group of committed amateurs to launch and sustain a multi-year history project and what keeps them going? Find out here in Episode 3 of History Conversations.

Running time: 31:42
Download the .mp3
[audio:http://foundhistory.org/audio/hc_3.mp3]

Omeka and Its Peers

As an open source, not-for-profit, warm-and-fuzzy, community service oriented project, we don’t normally like to talk about market rivals or competitive products when we talk about Omeka. Nevertheless, we are often asked to compare Omeka with other products. "Who’s Omeka’s competition?" is a fairly frequent question. Like many FAQs, there is an easy answer and a more complicated one.

The easy answer is there is no competition. 😉 Omeka’s mix of ease of use, focus on presentation and narrative exhibition, adherence to standards, accommodation for library, museum, and academic users, open source license, open code flexibility, and low ($0) price tag really make it one of a kind. If you are a librarian, archivist, museum professional, or scholar who wants a free, open, relatively simple platform for building a compelling online exhibition, there really isn’t any alternative.

digital_amherst

[Figure 1. Digital Amherst, an award-winning Omeka powered project of the Jones Library in Amherst, MA.]

The more complicated answer is that there are lots of products on the market that do one or some of the things Omeka does. The emergence of the web has brought scholars and librarians, archivists, and museum professionals into increasingly closer contact and conversation as humanists are required to think differently and more deeply about the nature of information and librarians are required to play an ever more public role online. Yet these groups’ respective tool sets have remained largely separate. Library and archives professionals operate in a world of institutional repositories (Fedora, DSpace), integrated library systems (Evergreen, Ex Libris), and digital collections systems (CONTENTdm, Greenstone). Museum professionals operate in a world of collections management systems (TMS, KE Emu, PastPerfect) and online exhibition packages (Pachyderm, eMuseum). The humanist or interpretive professional’s online tool set is usually based around an off-the-rack web content management system such as WordPress (for blogs), MediaWiki (for wikis), or Drupal (for community sites). Alas, even today too much of this front facing work is still being done in Microsoft Publisher.

The collections professional’s tools are excellent for preserving digital collections, maintaining standardized metadata, and providing discovery services. They are less effective when it comes to exhibiting collections or providing the rich visual and interpretive context today’s web users expect. They are also often difficult to deploy and expensive to maintain. The blogs, wikis, and off-the-rack content management systems of the humanist (and, indeed, of the public programs staff within collecting institutions, especially museums) are the opposite: bad at handling collections and standardized metadata, good at building engaging experiences, and relatively simple and inexpensive to deploy and maintain.

Omeka aims to fill this gap by providing a collections-focused web publishing platform that offers both rigorous adherence to standards and interoperability with the collections professional’s toolkit and the design flexibility, interpretive opportunities, and ease of use of popular web authoring tools.

omeka_tech_ecosystem

[Figure 2. Omeka Technology Ecosystem]

By combining these functions, Omeka helps advance collaboration of many sorts: between collections professionals and interpretive professionals, between collecting institutions and scholars, between a "back of the house" and "front of the house" staff, and so on.

omeka_user_ecosystem

[Figure 3. Omeka User Ecosystem]

In doing so, Omeka also helps advance the convergence and communication between librarians, archivists, museum professionals, and scholars that the digital age has sparked, allowing LAM professionals to participate more fully in the scholarship of the humanities and humanists to bring sophisticated information management techniques to their scholarship.

Which brings us back to the short answer. There really is no competition.

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.]

Things of History, History of Things

I have just started listening to an new podcast from the BBC, A History of the World in 100 Objects, written and narrated by Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum. Aside from the obvious reductionism and the occasionally irritating interstitials (lots of ambient chanting and pan flute music), the show is excellent, taking one hundred objects from the British Museum’s collections to tell the history of the world from the point of view of its material culture. MacGregor is a natural, and his guests—fellow curators, historians, archaeologists, anthropologists, and others—are engaging story tellers.

Yet even more interesting from an educational point of view are the live “readings” of artifacts these scholars provide, demonstrating to the audience just how experts tease knowledge from primary source objects. This is much the lesson we at CHNM attempted in our Object of History collaboration with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. The focus was narrower—six iconic objects in U.S. History—but the idea was the same: objects have histories and their curators very particular expertise in bringing those histories to light.

Benchmarking Open Source: Measuring Success by "Low End" Adoption

In an article about Kuali adoption, the Chronicle of Higher Education quotes Campus Computing Project director, Kenneth C. Green as saying,

With due respect to the elites that are at the core of Sakai and also Kuali, the real issue is not the deployment of Kuali or Sakai at MIT, at Michigan, at Indiana, or at Stanford. It’s really what happens at other institutions, the non-elites.

Indeed, all government- and charity (read, “foundation”)-funded open source projects should measure their success by adoption at the “low end.” That goes for library and museum technology as well; we could easily replace MIT, Michigan, Indiana, and Stanford in Mr. Green’s quote with Beinecke, Huntington, MoMA, and Getty, Though we still have a long way to go—the launch of Omeka.net will help a lot—Omeka aims at just that target.

An Unexpected Honor

Yesterday I received a letter from Google addressed to Robert T. Gunther at Found History. As founder of the Museum of the History of Science at Oxford, where I did my doctoral work, and a major figure in my dissertation, I am very honored to welcome Dr. Gunther to the Found History staff. Despite having passed away in 1940, it is my hope that Dr. Gunther will make significant contribution to this blog’s coverage of the history of scientific instrumentation.

SI and Flickr Commons

Originally published in the journal Archival Science, the Smithsonian Institution Libraries has just released under open access terms a report of the Institution’s experience with Flickr Commons. Written by Martin Kalfatovic, Effie Kapsalis, Katherine Spiess, Anne Van Camp, and Mike Edson, the report recounts what the authors deem a mostly successful experiment with Web 2.0, one that provided insights into the opportunities and challenges of both social media and library, archives, and museum collaborations. Stressing the importance of “going where the visitors are,” the report also recognizes that engaging visitors in external commercial venues like Flickr cannot be a replacement for local digital preservation and outreach programs and strategies:

Our Flickr pilot project is part of an emerging strategy to ‘‘go where they are’’ in the Web 2.0 environment. The Smithsonian seeks to ‘‘go there’’ to increase access for educational and research purposes, and fully realize that in doing so we are going to a virtual location that is commercial and not a trusted website in many educational environments. Therefore, our strategy is to use this type of site in context and in parallel with development of access to these collections through Smithsonian web sites.

The Conscience Un-Conference: Using Social Media for Good

Inspired in part by THATCamp, the Conscience Un-Conference: Using Social Media for Good is now open for applications. Co-hosted by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) and the Center for History and New Media, the Conscience Un-Conference is a free, one-day “un-conference” that intends to bring together interesting and interested people to talk about the problems, practicalities, and opportunities of using social media to further the missions of “institutions of conscience”—those concerned with violence and atrocities, human rights, and related issues. I feel very fortunate to be among the great group from USHMM planning the event.

conscience_banner

The un-conference will be held on Saturday, December 5, 2009 from 8:30am to 5:30pm at USHMM in Washington, DC. To learn more and submit an application, visit http://www.ushmm.org/social/blog/.