Museums, Libraries, Archives and the Digital Humanities – get involved!

The short version: if you’ve got ideas on how museums, libraries and archives (i.e. GLAM) and the digital humanities can inspire and learn from each other, it’s your lucky day! Go add your ideas about concrete actions the Association for Computers and the Humanities can take to bring the two communities together or suggestions for a top ten ‘get started in museums and the digital humanities’ list (whether conference papers, journal articles, blogs or blog posts, videos, etc) to: ‘GLAM and Digital Humanities together FTW‘.

Update, August 23, 2012: the document is shaping up to be largely about ‘what can be done’ – which issues are shared by GLAMs and DH, how can we reach people in each field, what kinds of activities and conversations would be beneficial, how do we explain the core concepts and benefits of each field to the other? This suggests there’d be a useful second stage in focusing on filling in the detail around each of the issues and ideas raised in this initial creative phase. In the meantime, keep adding suggestions and sharing issues at the intersection of digital humanities and memory institutions.

A note on nomenclature: the genesis of this particular conversation was among museumy people so the original title of the document reflects that; it also reflects the desire to be practical and start with a field we knew well. The acronym GLAM (galleries, libraries, archives and museums) neatly covers the field of cultural heritage and the arts, but I’m never quite sure how effective it is as a recognisable call-to-action.  There’s also a lot we could learn from the field of public history, so if that’s you, consider yourself invited to the party!

The longer version: in an earlier post from July’s Digital Humanities conference in Hamburg I mentioned that a conversation over twitter about museums and digital humanities lead to a lunch with @ericdmj, @clairey_ross, @briancroxall, @amyeetx where we discussed simple ways to help digital humanists get a sense of what can be learnt from museums on topics like digital projects, audience outreach, education and public participation. It turns out the Digital Humanities community is also interested in working more closely with museums, as demonstrated by the votes for point 3 of the Association for Computers and the Humanities (ACH)’s ‘Next Steps’ document, “to explore relationships w/ DH-sympathetic orgs operating beyond the academy (Museum Computer Network, Nat’l Council on Public History, etc)”. At the request of ACH’s Bethany Nowviskie (@nowviskie) and Stéfan Sinclair (@sgsinclair), Eric D. M. Johnson and I had been tossing around some ideas for concrete next steps and working up to asking people working at the intersection of GLAM and DH for their input.

However, last night a conversation on twitter about DH and museums (prompted by Miriam Posner‘s tweet asking for input on a post ‘What are some challenges to doing DH in the library?‘) suddenly took off so I seized the moment by throwing the outline of the document Eric and I had been tinkering with onto Google docs. It was getting late in the UK so I tweeted the link and left it so anyone could edit it. I came back the next morning to find lots of useful and interesting comments and additions and a whole list of people who are interested in continuing the conversation.  Even better, people have continued to add to it today and it’s already a good resource.  If you weren’t online at that particular time it’s easy to miss it, so this post is partly to act as a more findable marker for the conversation about museums, libraries, archives and the digital humanities.

Explaining the digital humanities to GLAMs

This definition was added to the document overnight.  If you’re a GLAM person, does it resonate with you or does it need tweaking?

“The broadest definition would be 1) using digital technologies to answer humanities research questions, 2) studying born digital objects as a humanist would have studied physical objects, and or 3) using digital tools to transform what scholarship is by making it more accessible on the open web.”

How can you get involved?

Off the top of my head…

  • Add your name to the list of people interested in keeping up with the conversation
  • Read through the suggestions already posted; if you love an idea that’s already there, say so!
  • Read and share the links already added to the document
  • Suggest specific events where GLAM and DH people can mingle and share ideas/presentations
  • Suggest specific events where a small travel bursary might help get conversations started
  • Offer to present on GLAMs and DH at an event
  • Add examples of digital projects that bridge the various worlds
  • Add examples of issues that bridge the various worlds
  • Write case studies that address some of the issues shared by GLAMs and DH
  • Spread the word via specialist mailing lists or personal contacts
  • Share links to conference papers, journal articles, videos, podcasts, books, blog posts, etc, that summarise some of the best ideas in ways that will resonate with other fields
  • Consider attending or starting something like Decoding Digital Humanities to discuss issues in DH. (If you’re in or near Oxford and want to help me get one started, let me know!)
  • Something else I haven’t thought of…

I’m super-excited about this because everyone wins when we have better links between museums and digital humanities. Personally, I’ve spent a decade working in various museums (and their associated libraries and archives) and my PhD is in Digital Humanities (or more realistically, Digital History), and my inner geek itches to find an efficient solution when I see each field asking some of the same questions, or asking questions the other field has been working to answer for a while.  This conversation has already started to help me discover useful synergies between GLAMs and DH, so I hope it helps you too.

Update, November 2012: as a result of discussions around this document/topic, the Museums Computer Group (MCG) and the Association for Computers and the Humanities (ACH) worked together to create 5 bursaries from the ACH for tickets to the MCG’s UK Museums on the Web conference.

Sharing hard-won wisdom about museum games – introducing ‘Lift your (museum) game’

One outcome from MW2011 was the creation of ‘Lift your (museum) game‘, a site for people who make museum games to share their hard-earned wisdom – project evaluation, research, references, methods, rants, lessons learnt from real projects – about making museum games.  Inspired by a question from Martha Henson about whether any sites already existed to gather resources like those discussed during the panel discussion after the Games session at Museums and the Web 2011 (with Dave Schaller, Elizabeth Goins and Coline Aunis), I created the wiki during the closing plenary and watched in awe as Kate Haley Goldman immediately started populating it with links.
Museum games have to compete in a highly competitive market, especially for casual and social games, and I suspect ‘worthy’ will only take us so far these days.  I’m hoping the dialogue around this site will help people avoid the pitfalls of ‘death by museum committee’ when designing games and push for excellent gameplay in museum games.  There are some great museum game projects and research going on, and pooling resources could help multiply the benefits of that work and provide a resource for people just starting out.  Also, if you’re a games agency or designer, this could be a great place to pass on any tips or links (or warnings) you’d like potential museum clients to know about.  I’ve got a few papers on crowdsourcing games for museums coming up, so I’ll be adding links and resources as I go – it’s easy to add your resources or questions, just sign up at http://museumgames.pbworks.com.
One of the key themes of MW2011 for me was ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’ – there’s so much good work going on in the museum digital sector, and so many amazing people are willing to share what they’ve learnt along the way, and hopefully this museum games wiki is a contribution to helping us all see further and do better.

‘Museums meet the 21st century’ – OpenTech 2010 talk

These are my notes for the talk I gave at OpenTech 2010 on the subject of ‘Museums meet the 21st Century’. Some of it was based on the paper I wrote for Museums and the Web 2010 about the ‘Cosmic Collections’ mashup competition, but it also gave me a chance to reflect on bigger questions: so we’ve got some APIs and we’re working on structured, open data – now what? Writing the talk helped me crystallise two thoughts that had been floating around my mind. One, that while “the coolest thing to do with your data will be thought of by someone else”, that doesn’t mean they’ll know how to build it – developers are a vital link between museum APIs, linked data, etc and the general public; two, that we really need either aggregated datasets or data using shared standards to get the network effect that will enable the benefits of machine-readable museum data. The network effect would also make it easier to bridge gaps in collections, reuniting objects held in different institutions. I’ve copied my text below, slides are embedded at the bottom if you’d rather just look at the pictures. I had some brilliant questions from the audience and afterwards, I hope I was able to do them justice. OpenTech itself was a brilliant day full of friendly, inspiring people – if you can possibly go next year then do!

Museums meet the 21st century.
Open Tech, London, September 11, 2010

Hi, I’m Mia, I work for the Science Museum, but I’m mostly here in a personal capacity…

Alternative titles for this talk included: ’18th century institution WLTM 21st century for mutual benefit, good times’; ‘the Age of Enlightenment meets the Age of Participation’. The common theme behind them is that museums are old, slow-moving institutions with their roots in a different era.

Why am I here?

The proposal I submitted for this was ‘Museums collaborating with the public – new opportunities for engagement?’, which was something of a straw man, because I really want the answer to be ‘yes, new opportunities for engagement’. But I didn’t just mean any ‘public’, I meant specifically a public made up of people like you. I want to help museums open up data so more people can access it in more forms, but most people can’t just have a bit of a tinker and create a mashup. “The coolest thing to do with your data will be thought of by someone else” – but that doesn’t mean they’ll know how to build it. Audiences out there need people like you to make websites and mobile apps and other ways for them to access museum content – developers are a vital link in the connection between museum data and the general public.

So there’s that kind of help – helping the general public get into our data; and there’s another kind of help – helping museums get their data out. For the first, I think I mostly just want you to know that there’s data out there, and that we’d love you to do stuff with it.

The second is a request for help working on things that matter. Linkable, open data seems like a no-brainer, but museums need some help getting there.

Museums struggle with the why, with the how, and increasingly with the “we are reducing our opening hours, you have to be kidding me”.

Chicken and the egg

Which comes first – museums get together and release interesting data in a usable form under a useful licence and developers use it to make cool things, or developers knock on the doors of museums saying ‘we want to make cool things with your data’ and museums get it sorted?

At the moment it’s a bit of both, but the efforts of people in museums aren’t always aligned with the requests from developers, and developers’ requests don’t always get sent to someone who’ll know what to do with it.

So I’m here to talk about some stuff that’s going on already and ask for a reality check – is this an idea worth pursuing? And if it is, then what next?
If there’s no demand for it, it won’t happen. Nick Poole, Chief Executive, Collections Trust, said on the Museums Computer Group email discussion list: “most museum people I speak to tend not to prioritise aggregation and open interoperability because there is not yet a clear use case for it, nor are there enough aggregators with enough critical mass to justify it.”

But first, an example…

An experiment – Cosmic Collections, the first museum mashup competition

The Cosmic Collections project was based on a simple idea – what if a museum gave people the ability to make their own collection website for the general public? Way back in December 2008 I discovered that the Science Museum was planning an exhibition on astronomy and culture, to be called ‘Cosmos & Culture’. They had limited time and resources to produce a site to support the exhibition and risked creating ‘just another exhibition microsite’. I went to the curator, Alison Boyle, with a proposal – what if we provided access to the machine-readable exhibition content that was already being gathered internally, and threw it open to the public to make websites with it? And what if we motivated them to enter by offering competition prizes? Competition participants could win a prize and kudos, and museum audiences might get a much more interesting, innovative site. Astronomy is one of the few areas where the amateur can still make valued scientific contributions, so the idea was a good match for museum mission, exhibition content, technical context, and hopefully developers – but was that enough?

The project gave me a chance to investigate some specific questions. At the time, there were lots of calls from some quarters for museums to produce APIs for each project, but there was also doubt about whether anyone would actually use a museum API, whether we could justify an investment in APIs and machine-readable data. And can you really crowdsource the creation of collections interfaces? The Cosmic Collections competition was a way of finding out.

Lessons? An API isn’t a magic bullet, you still need to support the dev community, and encourage non-technical people to find ways to play with it. But the project was definitely worth doing, even if just for the fact that it was done and the world didn’t end. Plus, the results were good, and it reinforced the value of working with geeks. [It also got positive coverage in the technical press. Who wouldn’t be happy to hear ‘the museum itself has become an example of technological innovation’ or that it was ‘bringing museums out into the open as places of innovation’?]

Back to the chicken and the egg – linking museums

So, back to the chicken and the egg… Progress is being made, but it gets bogged down in discussions about how exactly to get data online. Museums have enough trouble getting the suppliers they work with to produce code that meets accessibility standards, let alone beautifully structured, re-usable open data.

One of the reasons open, structured data is so attractive to museum technologists is that we know we can never build interfaces to meet the needs of every type of audience. Machine-readable data should allow people with particular needs to create something that supports their own requirements or combines their data with ours to make lovely new things.

Explore with us – tell museums what you need

So if you’re someone who wants to build something, I want to hear from you about what standards you’re already working with, which formats work best for you…

To an extent that’s just moving the problem further down the line, because I’ve discovered that when you ask people what data standards they want to use, and they tell you it turns out they’re all different… but at least progress is being made.

Dragons we have faced

I think museums are getting to the point where they can live with the 80% in the interest of actually getting stuff done.

Museums need to get over the idea that linkable data must be perfect – perfectly clean data, perfectly mapped to perfect vocabularies and perfectly delivered through perfect standards. Museums are used to mapping data from their collections management systems for a known end-use, they’ve struggled with open-ended requirements for unknown future uses.

The idea that aggregated data must be able to do everything that data provided at source can do has held us back. Aggregated data doesn’t need to be able to do everything – sometimes discoverability is enough, as long as you can get back to the source if you need the rest of the data. Sometimes it’s enough to be able to link to someone else’s record that you’ve discovered.

Museum data and the network effect

One reason I’m here (despite the fact that public speaking is terrifying) is a vision of the network effect that could apply when we have open museum data.

We could re-unite objects across time and place and people, connecting visitors and objects, regardless of owing institution or what type of object or information it is. We could create highlight collections by mining data across museums, using the links people are making between our collections. We can help people tell their local stories as well as the stories about big subject and world histories. Shared data standards should reduce learning curve for people using our data which would hopefully increase re-use.

Mismatches between museums and tech – reasons to be patient

So that’s all very exciting, but since I’ve also learnt that talking about something creates expectations, here are some reasons to be patient with museums, and tolerant when we fail to get it right the first time…

IT is not a priority for most museums, keeping our objects secure and in one piece is, as is getting some of them on display in ways that make sense to our audiences.

Museums are slow. We’ll be talking about stuff for a long time before it happens, because we have limited resources and risk-averse institutions. Museum project management is designed for large infrastructure projects, moving hundreds of delicate objects around while major architectural builds go on. It’s difficult to find space for agility and experimentation within that.

Nancy Proctor from the Smithsonian said this week: “[Museum] work is more constrained than a general developer” – it must be of the highest quality; for everybody – public good requires relevance and service for all, and because museums are in the ‘forever business’ it must be sustainable.

How you can make a difference

Museums are slowly adapting to the participation models of social media. You can help museums create (backend) architectures of participation. Here are some places where you can join in conversations with museum technologists:

Museums Computer Group – events, mailing list http://museumscomputergroup.org.uk/ #ukmcg @ukmcg

Linking Museums – meetups, practical examples, experimenting with machine-readable data http://museum-api.pbworks.com/

Space Time Camp – Nov 4/5, #spacetimecamp

‘Museums and the Web’ conference papers online provide a good overview of current work in the sector http://www.archimuse.com/conferences/mw.html

So that‘s all fun, but to conclude – this is all about getting museums to the point where the technology just works, data flows like water and our energy is focussed on the compelling stories museums can tell with the public. If you want to work on things that matter – museums matter, and they belong to all of us – we should all be able to tell stories with and through museums.

Thank you for listening

Keep in touch at @mia_out or http://openobjects.org.uk/

Join in the conversation about Wikimedia @ MW2010

Wikimedia@MW2010 is a workshop to be held in Denver in April, just before the Museums and the Web 2010 conference.  The goal is to develop ‘policies that will enable museums to better contribute to and use Wikipedia or Wikimedia Commons, and for the Wikimedia community to benefit from the expertise in museums’.

If you’ve got stuff you want to say, you can dive right into the conversation – there’s a whole bunch of conversations at http://conference.archimuse.com/forums/wikimediamw2010, including ‘Legal and Business Model Barriers to Collaboration, ‘Notability Criteria‘ and ‘Metrics for Museums on Wikipedia‘.

I’m going to be at the workshop and will do my best to represent any issues raised at the meeting.  I think it’s particularly important that we avoid ‘Feeling glum after GLAM-WIKI‘ if we possibly can, so I’d like to go there with a really good understanding of the possible points of resistance, clashes in organisational culture or world view, incompatible requirements or wishlists so that they can be raised and hopefully dealt with during the in-person workshop.  I’d love to hear from you if there are messages you want to pass on.

I’m also thinking about an informal meetup in London to help cultural heritage people articulate some of the issues that might help or hinder collaboration so they can be represented at the workshop – if you’re a museum, gallery, archive, library or general cultural heritage bod, would that be useful for you?