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Museums on a cold Montreal day

December 12th, 2013 By Lucy Schrader

Museums and computers and networks, oh my!

The annual MCN conference gathers together information professionals to nut out the best ways to use technology in museums. Since we’re all part of one great GLAMs (Galleries, Libraries, Archives, and Museums) sector, I headed on over to Montreal to snoop out anything the National Library could use.

Here are a handful of things I thought were especially good for a library to pay attention to.


Amelia Wong of the George Washington University museum studies programme suggested we don’t really get you. Presenting research on museums, social media, and community, she showed how institutions’ use of Facebook doesn’t actually match up with sociological definitions of community. Those of us who administrate channels like Facebook and Twitter are often tasked with ‘reaching our community’, but as much as you like us, it turns out we’re just not that close.

What users of museums’ Facebook pages are doing, the research found, is usually more about the content and context of the collection materials and stories posted, rather than the institution itself. People expressed a connection with an artefact of the university they attended, or the town their family is from, or their religious background. Few expressed a connection with the museum that was presenting those artefacts.

Missing were almost all of Nancy K. Baym’s traits of community (see paragraph 6 of this review): shared space, practices, resources and support, identities, and interpersonal relationships. It turns out that by trying to use social media to generate and maintain community, our institutions may be asking entirely the wrong questions.

What’s the alternative? We probably don’t have to shut up shop. Aside from figuring out solid ways to use social media in providing our services, there is a sort of meta-layer of communication available here. Social media can be the ‘Hello, how are you? Fine, thanks.’ of our contact with you. It’s the connective tissue – phatic communication – that allows further and more detailed interaction to take place.

In this context, our social media activities may seem lightweight, but they perform the functions of telling people what they can expect from us, when they want something of greater significance. It’s up to us to ensure you like what you see, and that we’re presenting an honest face.


We have a soft spot for the Digital Public Library of America, who are aggregating and sharing digital content from across the USA: a mission after DigitalNZ’s own heart. Up and running for only six months so far, they provide access to over 5 million digital objects from libraries, archives, and museums. Crucially, the metadata is openly licensed, and is accessible through an API.

I asked if they were interested in USA-related content currently held outside their own shores. (For example, we have this fine photo of American wrestler Ted Christy.) In answer, Emily Gore, Director for Content, noted their mission relates to content held by institutions within the USA, whether it relates to America or not. And as other countries aggregate and open up their data, the question of who holds what becomes less important.

If someone wants to see American wrestler photos from the USA, Europe, and New Zealand, they can combine our APIs and query that. API access has already allowed people to create a bunch of apps to surface the collections, and use the underlying data.

That said, at some point DigitalNZ may decide to harvest the 3000 New Zealand-related items gathered by the DPLA for ourselves, which would speed up access and see the material properly integrated into a single search.

The DPLA is doing a great job reaching new partners around the country, particularly in smaller towns. They’re able to show substantial improvements in access statistics for the collecting institutions that join them, and that helps fuel enthusiasm in, the museum in the next town over. If you’re keen to get your organisation into the DPLA, they’ll send you campaign materials and, the way the Smithsonian tells it, move heaven and earth to get everything going.

Open access

In that openly-accessible vein, I was extremely pleased by the number of people talking about opening up their content, and encouraging others to do the same.

e-Artexte is a library catalogue and repository for contemporary Canadian art publications. Anyone can add their relevant digital publication, with the stipulation that the document is free to download and read. It’s built to explicitly advance openGLAM principles, including entirely open metadata, promotion of reuse and repurposing, open formats, and the long-term preservation of and access to public domain materials.

Artexte acknowledges that openness is hard, in terms of inertia and getting people used to the idea. They’ve worked to make the whole process - technology, user interface, policy - as straightforward as possible, because they know that organisations have limited resources, and every barrier means fewer completions. They recommend including open access thinking as early in the process as possible - adding it to new contracts, for example.

The Royal Ontario Museum has had some good experiences with opening up, and some frustrations with their more closed content. They’ve been able to add their material to Wikipedia and elsewhere with volunteer sessions and some good networking. However, the copyright on their own images means they can’t release them for use in Wikipedia articles, as they’d have to be openly-licenced. Therefore, even the article for the ROM’s barosaurus ‘Gordo’, one of their iconic objects, doesn’t contain the image they would like to present.

The session with the ROM also included discussions by the Peabody Essex Museum, the Los Angeles Museum of Art, and the National Gallery of Denmark, all of which have had positive experiences with opening up their materials and processes. PEM are standardising their photography policy, working more closely with Wikipedia, and making it easier for staff to participate in social media and blogging. LACMA successfully released 20,000 images of artworks, with the only complaints coming from artists who wanted their images replaced with higher-quality versions. Like us, the National Gallery of Denmark is a state institution, and has an obligation to be as open and equitable as possible. When they joined the Google Art Project in 2011, they took the opportunity to release those images to everyone.

Unsurprisingly, these sessions regularly rang with happy sighs of ‘ahh, Rijksmuseum...’

Open education got a good airing thanks to Rolin Moe, talking about his PhD research on Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). He very neatly dissected the hype train’s narrative of the past few years – that education is wrecked, and some plucky millionaires with internet connections will whip it into shape – by noting both the lack of pedagogical theory underpinning the major MOOC providers and the recent swerve of Udacity toward ‘corporate training’.

In short, the underserved populations MOOCs were apparently going to reach still haven’t been served, and some providers are now actively ignoring them. But that doesn’t mean they can’t be built, and Rolin is proposing a museum’s physical presence and socially active potential could augment the online aspects of a more complex and complete educational apparatus. Interested? Have a read of his excellent blog.


Crowdsourcing projects like NYPL’s What’s on the Menu are particularly great for the way they turn content into data. The text isn’t just transcribed, it’s wrapped in metadata (for example, this is a species this is a location, this is an ingredient, this is a price…), creating a database of information you can query and get responses. Now, you’re in a situation where you can find out which regions have a species, or who sold Saratoga potatoes.

At MCN Naturalis Biodiversity Center talked about their on-site and online crowdsourcing efforts. Though they hold rather more insects than the Library, what we do have in common are massive collections that embody an even larger quantity of data. They’ve had some remarkable success crowdsourcing transcriptions of specimen labels, making their collections more findable and usable.

There’s already a lot of demand for a project that would let people make corrections to Papers Past’s automatically-generated text. The benefits there are clear – searches would be more accurate and the transcripts would be more usable – but the idea’s never made it to the top of the pile for a number of reasons.

Scholar’s Workspace

Top of the ‘we should do that’ list was the Getty Scholar’s Workspace, the name covering an ongoing development project that has so far been deployed in a few discrete instances. A fairly mercurial initiative, it’s intended to allow scholars around the world to work collaboratively on a single item.

The first, and closest to completion, is Digital Mellini. Based around a single fascinating manuscript – a 17th century rhyming inventory of one family’s art collection – the Getty has built an interface that can be accessed by a handful of specialists. It provides the digitised source manuscript and the means to make annotations, add uploads, discuss findings and interpretations, and just generally save all the guff that research generates.

This has allowed scholars from different specialisations to pool their intellectual resources and develop a more rounded understanding of the manuscript. They can also avoid duplicating effort, for example by sharing a bibliography or only translating once. (Of course, disagreements about specific translations could easily take up double the time…)

Now, the Getty’s facing the question of how to publish the workspace, and even what it means to publish a tool of this sort. Do they just open the doors to the final state? When do they freeze it? Is it more of an archive? Should it be edited? How will it look? Can viewers add to it in some way?

The workspace has been deployed a handful of times now, with a richer and more versatile feature set. It’s still a matter of pushing out a bespoke instance each time, however. Would groups of researchers - students, genealogists, whoever - benefit from being able to start their own workspace, for any object or topic? I can imagine a class of honours students working together on a set of letters, some in the reading rooms, some at the university library, enriching the source material in a way that improves each of their own research projects. When they’re done, the result is pushed out as a kind of publication their lecturer can refer to, and is available for later classes to build on.

I’d love to work on a project like this, while keeping in mind “the design of digital tools for scholarship is an intellectual responsibility, not a technical task.”

Connecting print, digital, and on-site

Museums are often publishers in a way that libraries (at least, this Library) aren’t. They create and publish content for their exhibitions, books, and increasingly the web. However, the latter hasn’t been as straightforward as pushing the print content online. There’s a whole set of process, presentation, and expectation problems that print groups haven’t really grappled with. On the flip side, digital people have a habit of being in a bit of a rush, ending up less connected with the depth of available expertise.

The Met Museum in New York has been taking a long hard look at the chasm between their print and digital activities, and finding a space in between – less of a middle ground than an effective integration. Their print side brings its connection with the curatorial vision and scholarship, its strong editorial process, and decades of experience. The digital side provides an understanding of flexibility, audience expectations, and facility with using and creating new tools. And as the Met’s Robert Weisberg said, print only becomes analogue at its final step – before that, it’s been digital all the way.

To that end, they’ve launched MetPublications, digital versions of previously analogue publications that can be read in a Google viewer or PDF download. They have held hackathons for print as well as digital outputs. At an organisational level, they’re increasingly viewing themselves as a single publishing entity, regardless of form, and thinking of their readers as users of content.

Harvard Art Museums are currently closed, but are preparing for reopening by working out how they can make print, digital, and on-site work together, in a way that suits their place as a teaching museum. One Jasper Johns project involves a print book with exhibition listings and expert essays, a website including student essays, with a design drawing on the presentation of the exhibition space. Another exhibition is being constructed from a print publication, and will use LayAR to provide the book’s content when an exhibition object is in view.

Although the Library isn’t a publisher in the way these institutions are, we are running more public programmes – exhibitions, events. We’re still learning how to get those online in a way that doesn’t simply recreate the content you’d find in the building, and something akin to the publication apparatus you’d now find at the Met – in kind, if not scale – wouldn’t go astray.

And beyond that, I think there’s something applicable in this connection of analogue and digital. Although we don’t put out books, we do digitise a huge amount of material, and digital objects are – or can be – much more complex than a flat scan. One of the reasons I love Papers Past is how complex those objects are. In one place you’ve got an image of an article, its transcript, its catalogued information and place within the paper, as well as the ability to browse and search further. There’s a massive amount of potential metadata in every collection object, and working out how to bring more of that into the digital object may be part of closing the digital/analogue gap.

The digital divide

The sessions I attended didn’t have a lot to say about the ongoing (and worsening) problem of the digital divide. Digital use and literacy track pretty closely with other indicators of privilege, so just getting everything online doesn’t mean you’re actually reaching everyone equally. It’s a hard problem, and it’s generally less fun to work on than bespoke iPad apps and augmented reality.

There’s work at a policy and service level here at the Library and the wider Department of Internal Affairs to try and close this divide. I’ll hunt around for people who can blog about it, so stay tuned!

There were too many clever people doing clever things to get into a blog post, so here’s more stuff you should check out:

Museum Computer Network



Exhibition spaces

Open access



Online publication

Teaser image: originally memed by MCN attendee Zerahlynne.

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peter ireland
20 December 2013 10:51am


This is great stuff, Should be compulsory thinking for all in our business. And so clearly written. Excellent value.