Archive for August, 2010

Emerging technologies. Immaterial Matters?


A tweet from Lorcan Dempsey @lorcanD caught my eye this morning – it referenced an Ariadne article ‘Emerging Technologies in Academic Libraries (emtacl10)’ a new international conference for academic libraries held in April this year in Trondheim, Norway. The article is in fact a report from Andrew Walsh an academic librarian from the University of Huddersfield, England. Then I saw another tweet from @DigitalKoans about the value academic libraries offer to researchers being analysed to ascertain how what libraries do is beneficial to the research process.

Strikes me the word “research” itself implies that the researcher (party) has explored research materials (collection material) that are made usefully available (a library) to the researcher. This research was (I’m surmising) a means of exploring “how much” value academic libraries generate and therefore increase the potential and therefore value (tangible and intangible) of new research. Lastly I spotted a reference to ways to learning how to write good grant applications from Richard Urban @Musebrarian that I thought “ah ha!” and quickly retweeted the reference.

What struck me about the information in this Ariadne article was the radical changes occurring (impact and issues arising) at one part of the collecting sector and how different the working experience is in the other parts of the collecting sector. On occasion I have been asked to give a sense of what I think is happening in the collecting sector in Australia and I’m going to attempt to do so more here. I’ll come back to the second and third references on value and grant writing further along.

Image provided with a Creative Commons Licence from Jurvetson on Flickr

I’m going to break radical change (and issues) down into bite-sized chunks and use scenarios to think more broadly about the collecting sector and emerging technologies. The collecting sector is a very complex field to be working in and the word collecting is so widely applicable. To make distinctions in work practice and approaches it can therefore be important to see in what context collecting occurs and why.


Organisation Size

>> Small local volunteer supported collecting organisations

These collecting organisations can be found ALL over Australia and may have a library collection, an archive of primary materials, historic buildings, native or exotic trees, specimens, artworks or made objects. These organisations might be known as an historical society, a visitor centre, a cultural centre or a museum. Rather than focus on the name or type of the organisation I focus in on what is being collected and my thoughts wander back to why – what is driving this? Then I look at the scale, any public infrastructure, resources available (staff, recurrent budget or grant opportunities) and the services provided. Many issues are faced by volunteer based organisations, to name a few: secure and appropriate premises for keeping collection material, technical expertise to enable digitisation and practice guidance. Outreach supports are crucial for these types of organisations and good advice and support at critical times can mean the world of difference in terms of making progress and continuity.

The notion of emerging technologies might seem incongruent to talk about when organisations like this are faced with these bottom line issues. But… I have to say, I have been enormously impressed by the positive thinking, commitment and power to surprise of the volunteer workforce. In my limited experience working across the GLAMs I’m constantly staggered at the careful attention to core issues and the ability to clear some head space and explore social media.


>> Medium-large sized organisations with paid professional staff

These collecting organisations are established as regional, state and national entities often. The organisations may have a primary collecting domain but will often have adjunct and diverse other collections, e.g. a museum that has a library and an archive. It would be disingenuous to say that the same issues faced by volunteer organisations are the same for these medium to large sized collecting organisations. So to qualify this statement I’d say the issues may be similar but the capacity to resolve them and address the risks is greater in these organisations. This capacity arises from the fact that the organisations have been formalised as publicly funded entities, there is recurrent funding and people are specifically trained to undertake core collecting tasks.

The notion of emerging technologies doesn’t seem incongruent at all to talk about in the context of these organisations. What I really like about the collecting community though is that innovation, nimbleness and curiosity – isn’t – the preserve of the paid workforce and social media is increasingly a means of collecting practitioners in organisations large and small establishing new peer networks and drawing upon each others’ know-how (and ventures forth).


The Why: Sustainability and Relevance

In the base social/economic sense collecting organisations collect to provide resources for their community to exploit. When that idea is dug into a little more there are very specific reasons that collecting organisations collect and make their collections publicly accessible. What is behind this is the relevance to the community (there is an interest in accessing the collection) and that interest is sustained, i.e there is continued desire/need and therefore expectation.

This is where I’d like to draw attention to the second article – and that is the ability (and necessity in many cases) to be able to continue to demonstrate the sustained interest (desire/need) and relevance of maintaining a collection and providing access to it. It seemed extraordinary to me that after 20 years of working in this field I am still seeing reports like this emerging and I’m still inclined to respond with intensity when articulating and asserting the value I know so well that is generated through collecting.


Technology and Value

Image provides with a Creative Commons Licence from theplanetdotcom via Flickr

Australia currently has a hung parliament, one of the issues being debated was the National Broadband Network (NBN). Whatever comes out of the negotiations between the political parties here in Australia will be important for collecting organisations large and small in the longer term. The demand for online content (and by extension it is assumed virtual access to collections) isn’t showing any signs of going away. Opportunities for organisations large and small to secure funding and advice to digitise their collections is a prime means of making the most of this community desire/need to access content online. The pace and level at which this happens is where the sticking point is when the situation of these two collecting organisations is considered. I don’t have ready answers inexcept that I point back to: The Why and How. To sustain collecting and maintain relevance to audiences and user communities is about having a good understanding of what those audiences and communities desire/need and therefore will support with people power and/or $. Which brings me to the last tweet I mentioned with a link to the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) in the US – which i explored a little and found some good sample grant applications to look at. While these resources are focused on the IMLS grants and US organisations, much of the same information required by the IMLS is the kind of information required by grant bodies here in Australia.


GLAM Transmedia

A story becomes richer when it is experienced in multiple platforms. This is the underlying principle behind transmedia production — a technique increasingly being used by publishing, broadcasters, the advertising industry and now the cultural sector to promote a product, like an exhibition. Marketing and publicity are relying less on the traditional forms of advertising and are using stories to promote an idea. Museums and other collecting institutions have an advantage in using this strategy because they do not have to invent a strong narrative — history has already written the script.

The CAN Outreach Blog has asked the directors of two production companies specialising in this area how cultural organisations can adopt this communication style on a budget – Nathan Anderson, of Envelop Entertainment, and Jennifer Wilson, of The Project Factory. Ms Wilson says the key to a successful transmedia strategy is to ensure messages on both platforms are consistent but not interdependent. One of the most recent projects she has worked on in this field is designing a game for the ABC’s animation series The gradual demise of Phillipa Finch by artist Emma Magenta. The game is designed to be played on all smartphone devices. Ms Wilson says the player does not need to have watched the television show to play the game and vice versa.

There are exciting possibilities for museums to develop transmedia stories within the exhibition space using a mix of mobile devices, print media and public programmes. Ms Wilson suggests institutions could develop their exhibitions by integrating apps into the experience — using augmented reality to contextualise the object, offering more information about its history through collection access and to transform the artefact into the subject of interactive games.

Augmented reality applications are readily available to download for free on smartphones and can be used to enhance the museum viewer experience. Mobile augmented reality browsers Junaio and Layar take the museum experience into the virtual space. Sydney-based mobile and online innovation company, MOB Labs, has been experimenting with the Powerhouse Museum’s historic photographs using Layar. Ms Wilson is excited by the possibilities Junaio offers. Reality can be augmented by altering the longitude, latitude and altitude points in the mobile phone. For example, holding the phone up to view an Egyptian mummy in a museum can transport the viewer to a pyramid outside Cairo.

Mr Anderson set-up a transmedia production company and studio in early 2009 to meet this growing trend of cross-platform entertainment. Game development is particularly significant in television and film industries, with soap operas starting to use online games. Museums, galleries and libraries are increasingly needing to compete with mainstream leisure activities, like sporting matches and television, so they are turning to developing games to deepen the audience’s experience with the story or product. This has meant games are flooding the market making it a highly competitive medium.

The Tate Britain developed iPhone game Tate Trumps that encourages players to think about its art collection from a different perspective. Players build a deck of cards from the Tate’s collection of artworks. Players can choose to play one of three games – mood, battle and collector – using the principles of ‘paper, scissors, rock’ to see which artwork out plays the other. Viewers can play the game in the gallery or at home. Mr Anderson says the game met two main principles of a successful campaign – crossing over into the real world and creating a social experience.

Museums could adopt a similar campaign to that of the History Channel / foursquare partnership. Using the principles of play, foursquare takes participants to the site of the Gettysburg address. Mr Anderson believes this is more powerful than the documentary screened on television. On the flip-side, foursquare may not have enough participants in Australia to support this type of project unless it became part of a specific school program.

The ABC has recently experimented with alternate reality games which sit on the boundary between education and entertainment. Sam Doust developed a web-based documentary and game based on a leading atmospheric science researcher who whistleblows on the philanthropic project Bluebird. This project was viewed as having limited success as there were a small number of viewers but each one was highly engaged.

For those interested in this field, there is a site with a collection of blog posts on transmedia production.


One website for Victoria’s collections: Georgia Melville

Victoria will lead the way in taking responsibility for making its state’s collections available on one website. With the support of Museum Victoria and the State Government, the Victorian branch of Museums Australia is designing and building a website that allows galleries, libraries, historical societies, archives and museums to upload their own collections to the site. It will function in a similar way to Collectish but will be only available to publicly accessible collections. Georgia Melville is project managing Victorian Collections and offers some insights into the development phase of the initiative.

Victorian Collections is a free and easy to use online cataloguing system being developed by Museum Victoria’s team, and project managed by us at Museums Australia (Victoria). Once developed, the aim of the system is to assist community museums and galleries, keeping places and historical societies, sporting, church, military and other community groups in the state of Victoria to record their local heritage and culture, and ensure their collections are well-documented for the future. Victorian Collections is especially aimed at groups wanting to take that initial step from manual to digital cataloguing and all records will be password protected and securely and permanently stored online. This is possible thanks to funding received from the Department of Innovation, Industry and Regional Development and in-kind support by Museum Victoria and DELL.

The MA (Vic) Victorian Collections Team – Laura Miles, Peta Knott and Georgia Melville. Image courtesy of Jon Augier / Museum Victoria

Each participating group will most probably have a publicly accessible organisation page comprising contact, location and collection details. We then plan to link this page to any catalogue records that the group wishes to make public. Website visitors should also be able to search the online catalogue by organisation or across the entire Victorian Collections catalogue by region, keyword or theme. Publicly available catalogue records may also include functions to tag and comment on items to encourage dialogue between the public and collection organisations. We also hope to include a forum space for organisations to discuss their collections and seek advice about cataloguing methods.

The MV ICT Victorian Collections Team – Frank Radocaj, Tim Hart and Forbes Hawkins. Image courtesy of Jon Augier / Museum Victoria

Tim Hart, Forbes Hawkins and Frank Radocaj from Museum Victoria’s Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) Department are currently developing the software component of Victorian Collections, which will be available to community museums and other collecting organisations by mid 2011. Meanwhile, Peta Knott and I from Museums Australia (Victoria), under the guidance of Laura Miles, our Executive Director, are providing training and advice on different aspects of cataloguing to interested organisations in preparation for the online system.

Further information about the project is available which over the coming months will be regularly updated with ongoing project developments and cataloguing advice. Please feel free to contact Peta or I at anytime on (03) 8341 7344 or

Georgia Melville