Posts Tagged ‘digitisation’

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.


Local objects global stories – our Museums Australia conference paper 2009

How do collections and objects “speak” to audiences? How can museums present their collections online in ways that can be resourced and sustained at a local level? Collections Australia Network national project manager Ingrid Mason presented this paper at the 2009 Museums Australia conference to discuss how galleries, libraries, archives and libraries (GLAMs) can bring their collections to life online and engage new audiences. Ingrid’s powerpoint presentation is now available on the collectionsaustralia Slideshare channel for people who could not make it to the conference in Newcastle last month.

It is an inspiring discussion about how the online presence of digitised collections opens up limitless possibilities. By relinquishing control of context, objects can embark on their own journey. Curators, researchers, students and the general public can reinterpret these objects, offering fresh perpectives and contributing valuable information. As Ingrid says in her presentation: ‘New territory… new stories… new practices’.

CAN national project manager Ingrid Mason

An institution must be canny about how it approaches its online strategy. It needs to work within its capacity and in line with its values and mission or mandate – taking into account its funding body’s needs while also establishing who its core audience is.

Museums can hope online collections will add value to current visitor experiences but what about the needs of the unexpected visitors? Little is known about new audiences so the strategy must be continually reassessed.

Shelley Bernstein, at the Brooklyn Museum emphasises that the Digital Media department needs to take risks, try new tactics, make mistakes and re-evaluate. Paula Bray, Visual & Digitisation Services manager at the Powerhouse Museum, has demonstrated that risk-taking can lead to unexpected yet positive results. She applied a no-known copyright restriction to a collection of 19th century glass plate negatives and uploaded them to the photo-sharing website Flickr. The ABC found the Tyrrell Collection on the Flickr Commons and invited the Powerhouse to collaborate on the Sydney Sidetracks project. Sidetracks is an interactive map offering historical stories based on public collections and archives. The Manchester Art Gallery was instructed by the national government to use online collections to reach wider audiences. Not only were visitor numbers falling but sections of the population were under-represented. Kim Gowland and Jane Wilcox invested in extensive audience segmentation analysis through meetings, online forums, surveys and by commissioning research. This enabled them to develop strategies for each audience type from ‘kids-first families’ and ‘learning families’ to ‘lifestylers’ and ‘third-spacers’.

We will be blogging about the Powerhouse Museum Flickr Commons and the Manchester Art Gallery MA conference presentations over the next week so stay tuned. You could even subscribe to our RSS feed by clicking the orange icon at the top right-hand side of the page.

So the most important thing to remember is that the online collection – social media partnership is an ongoing experiment where the only rule is to continually re-evaluate your strategy.

Sarah Rhodes


A round-up of discussions relating to community-managed museums

Community-managed cultural institutions need to share ideas on how to use digital media to reach their audiences more effectively. Here is a round-up of discussion forums that might touch on some of the issues you have been facing.

First of all, we would like to invite anyone who would like to share their ideas in this discussion forum on how small and volunteer-run museums can use digital media to compensate for their lack of resources.

One idea is to upload your collections onto CAN’s online collection database. That way when a search is carried out, your objects will come up alongside those from larger institutions – giving them equal presence. Digitising collections and loading them into our online database is a dynamic marketing tool from which opportunities can be leveraged at a later date. For instructions on how to upload to the CAN Collections Database, click here.

Monika Lechner asks the question: Are museum-web 2.0 applications too time consuming? This question is particularly relevant for small museums and galleries who often do not have the resources to maintain these sites. It would be interesting to further this discussion on this site to work out ways to social network effectively.

Angela Ruggles has posted a forum about community museums and developing countries in preparation for her trip to Cairo, Egypt.

Sarah Rhodes