Linking lived experiences of WWI through battalions?

Another update from my CENDARI Fellowship at Trinity College Dublin, looking at ‘In their own words: linking lived experiences of the First World War’, which is a small-scale, short-term pilot based on WWI collections. My first post is Defining the scope: week one as a CENDARI Fellow. Over the past two weeks I’ve done a lot of reading – more WWI diaries and letters; WWI histories and historiography; specialist information like military structures (orders of battle, etc). I’ve also sketched out lots of snippets of possible functions, data, relationships and other outcomes.

I’ve narrowed the key goal (or minimum viable product, if you prefer) of my project to linking personal accounts of the war – letters, diaries, memoirs, photographs, etc – to battalions, by creating links from the individual who wrote them to their military unit. Once these personal accounts are linked to particular military units, they can be linked to higher units – from the battalion, ship or regiment to brigade, corps, etc – and to particular places, activities, events and campaigns. The idea behind this is to provide context for an individual’s experience of WWI by linking to narratives written by people in the same situation. I’m still working out how to organise the research process of matching the right soldier to the right battalion/regiment/ship so that relevant personal stories are discoverable. I’m also still working out which attributes of a battalion are relevant, how granular the data will be, and how to design for the inevitable variation in data quality (for example, the availability of records for different armies varies hugely). Finally, I’m still working out which bits need computer science tools and which need the help of other historians.

Given the number of centenary projects, I was hoping to find more structured data about WWI entities. Trenches to Triples would be useful source of permanent URLs, and terms to train named entity recognition, but am I missing other sources?

There’s a lot of content, and so much activity around WWI records, but it’s spread out across the internet. Individual people and small organisations are digitising and transcribing diaries and letters. Big collecting projects like Europeana have lots of personal accounts, but they’re often not transcribed and they don’t seem to be linked to structured data about the item itself. Some people have painstakingly transcribed unit diaries, but they’re not linked from the official site, so others wouldn’t know there’s a more easily read version of the diary available. I’ve been wondering if you could crowdsource the process of transcribing records held elsewhere, and offer the transcripts back to sites. Using dedicated transcription software would let others suggest corrections, and might also make it possible to link sections of the text to external ‘entities’ like names, places, events and concepts.

Albert Henry Bailey. Image:
Sir George Grey Special Collections,
Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19150909-39-5

To help figure out the issues researchers face and the variations in available resources, I’m researching randomly selected soldiers from different Allied forces. I’ve posted my notes on Private Albert Henry Bailey, service number 13/970a. You’ll see that they’re in prose form, and don’t contain any structured data. Most of my research used digitised-but-not-transcribed images of documents, with some transcribed accounts. It would definitely benefit from deeper knowledge of military history – for a start, which battalions were in the same place as his unit at the same time?

This account of the arrival and first weeks of the Auckland Mount Rifles at Gallipoli from the official unit history gives a sense of the density and specificity of local place names, as does the official unit diary, and I assume many personal accounts. I’m not sure how named entity recognition tools will cope, and ideally I’d like to find lists of places to ‘train’ the tools (including possibly some from the ‘Trenches to Triples’ project).

If there aren’t already any structured data sources for military hierarchies in WWI, do I have to make one? And if so, how? The idea would be to turn prose descriptions like this Australian War Memorial history of the 27th AIF Battalion, this order of battle of the 2nd Australian Division and any other suitable sources into structured data. I can see some ways it might be possible to crowdsource the task, but it’s a big task. But it’s worth it – providing a service that lets people look up which higher military units, places. activities and campaigns a particular battalion/regiment/ship was linked to at a given time would be a good legacy for my research.

I’m sure I’m forgetting lots of things, and my list of questions is longer than my list of answers, but I should end here. To close, I want to share a quote from the official history of the Auckland Mounted Rifles. The author said he ‘would like to speak of the splendid men of the rank and file who died during this three months’ struggle. Many names rush to the memory, but it is not possible to mention some without doing an injustice to the memory of others’. I guess my project is driven by a vision of doing justice to the memory of every soldier, particularly those ordinary men who aren’t as easily found in the records. I’m hoping that drawing on the work of other historians and re-linking disparate sources will help provide as much context as possible for their experiences of the First World War.


Update, 15 October 2014: if you’ve made it this far, you might also be interested in chipping in at ‘Linking lived experiences of the First World War’: possible goals and a bunch of technical questions.

Defining the scope: week one as a CENDARI Fellow

I’m coming to the end of my first week as a Transnational Access Fellow with the CENDARI project at the Trinity College Dublin Long Room Hub. CENDARI ‘aims to leverage innovative technologies to provide historians with the tools by which to contextualise, customise and share their research’, which dovetails with my PhD research incredibly well. This Fellowship gives me an opportunity to extend my ideas about ‘Enriching cultural heritage collections through a Participatory Commons‘ without trying to squish them into a history thesis, and is probably perfectly timed in giving me a break from writing up.

View over Trinity College Dublin

There are two parts to my CENDARI project ‘Bridging collections with a participatory Commons: a pilot with World War One archives’. The first involves working on the technical, data and cultural context/requirements for the ‘participatory history commons’ as an infrastructure; the second is a demonstrator based on that infrastructure. I’ll be working out how official records and ‘shoebox archives’ can be mined and indexed to help provide what I’m calling ‘computationally-generated context’ for people researching lives touched by World War One.

This week I’ve read metadata schema (MODS extended with TEI and a local schema, if you’re interested) and ontology guidelines, attended some lively seminars on Irish history, gotten my head around CENDARI’s work packages and the structure of the British army during WWI. I’ve started a list of nearby local history societies with active research projects to see if I can find some working on WWI history – I’d love to work with people who have sources they want to digitise and generally do more with, and people who are actively doing research on First World War lives. I’ve started to read sample primary materials and collect machine-readable sources so I can test out approaches by manually marking-up and linking different repositories of records. I’m going to spend the rest of the day tidying up my list of outcomes and deliverables and sketching out how all the different aspects of my project fit together. And tonight I’m going to check out some of the events at Discover Research Dublin. Nerd joy!

‘The cooperative archive’?

Finally, I’ve dealt with something I’d put off for ages. ‘Commons’ is one of those tricky words that’s less resonant than it could be, so I looked for a better name than the ‘participatory history commons’. because ‘commons’ is one of those tricky words that’s less resonant than it could be. I doodled around words like collation, congeries, cluster, demos, assemblage, sources, commons, active, engaged, participatory, opus, archive, digital, posse, mob, cahoots and phrases like collaborative collections, collaborative history, history cooperative, but eventually settled on ‘cooperative archive’. This appeals because ‘cooperative’ encompasses attitudes or values around working together for a common purpose, and it includes those who share records and those who actively work to enhance and contextualise them. ‘Archive’ suggests primary sources, and can be applied to informal collections of ‘shoebox archives’ and the official holdings of museums, libraries and archives.

What do you think – does ‘cooperative archive’ work for you? Does your first reaction to the name evoke anything like my thoughts above?

Update, October 11: following some market testing on Facebook, it seems ‘collaborative collections’ best describes my vision.

Sharing is caring keynote ‘Enriching cultural heritage collections through a Participatory Commons’

Enriching cultural heritage collections through a Participatory Commons platform: a provocation about collaborating with users

Mia Ridge, Open University Contact me: @mia_out or http://miaridge.com/

[I was invited to Copenhagen to talk about my research on crowdsourcing in cultural heritage at the 3rd international Sharing is Caring seminar on April 1. I’m sharing my notes in advance to make life easier for those awesome people following along in a second or third language, particularly since I’m delivering my talk via video.]

Today I’d like to present both a proposal for something called the ‘Participatory Commons’, and a provocation (or conversation starter): there’s a paradox in our hopes for deeper audience engagement through crowdsourcing: projects that don’t grow with their participants will lose them as they develop new skills and interests and move on. This talk presents some options for dealing with this paradox and suggests a Participatory Commons provides a way to take a sector-wide view of active engagement with heritage content and redefine our sense of what it means when everybody wins.

I’d love to hear your thoughts about this – I’ll be following the hashtag during the session and my contact details are above.

Before diving in, I wanted to reflect on some lessons from my work in museums on public engagement and participation.

My philosophy for crowdsourcing in cultural heritage (aka what I’ve learnt from making crowdsourcing games)

One thing I learnt over the past years: museums can be intimidating places. When we ask for help with things like tagging or describing our collections, people want to help but they worry about getting it wrong and looking stupid or about harming the museum.

The best technology in the world won’t solve a single problem unless it’s empathically designed and accompanied by social solutions. This isn’t a talk about technology, it’s a talk about people – what they want, what they’re afraid of, how we can overcome all that to collaborate and work together.

Dora’s Lost Data

So a few years ago I explored the potential of crowdsourcing games to make helping a museum less scary and more fun. In this game, ‘Dora’s Lost Data‘, players meet a junior curator who asks them to tag objects so they’ll be findable in Google. Games aren’t the answer to everything, but identifying barriers to participation is always important. You have to understand your audiences – their motivations for starting and continuing to participate; the fears, anxieties, uncertainties that prevent them participating. [My games were hacked together outside of work hours, more information is available at My MSc dissertation: crowdsourcing games for museums; if you’d like to see properly polished metadata games check out Tiltfactor’s http://www.metadatagames.org/#games]

Mutual wins – everybody’s happy

My definition of crowdsourcing: cultural heritage crowdsourcing projects ask the public to undertake tasks that cannot be done automatically, in an environment where the activities, goals (or both) provide inherent rewards for participation, and where their participation contributes to a shared, significant goal or research area.

It helps to think of crowdsourcing in cultural heritage as a form of volunteering. Participation has to be rewarding for everyone involved. That sounds simple, but focusing on the audiences’ needs can be difficult when there are so many organisational needs competing for priority and limited resources for polishing the user experience. Further, as many projects discover, participant needs change over time…

What is a Participatory Commons and why would we want one?

First, I have to introduce you to some people. These are composite stories (personas) based on my research…

Two archival historians, Simone and Andre. Simone travels to archives in her semester breaks to stock up on research material, taking photos of most documents ‘in case they’re useful later’, transcribing key text from others. Andre is often at the next table, also looking for material for his research. The documents he collected for his last research project would be useful for Simone’s current book but they’ve never met and he has no way of sharing that part of his ‘personal research collection’ with her. Currently, each of these highly skilled researchers take their cumulative knowledge away with them at the end of the day, leaving no trace of their work in the archive itself. Next…

Two people from a nearby village, Martha and Bob. They joined their local history society when they retired and moved to the village. They’re helping find out what happened to children from the village school’s class of 1898 in the lead-up to and during World War I. They are using census returns and other online documents to add records to a database the society’s secretary set up in Excel. Meanwhile…

A family historian, Daniel. He has a classic ‘shoebox archive’ – a box containing his grandmother Sarah’s letters and diary, describing her travels and everyday life at the turn of the century. He’s transcribing them and wants to put them online to share with his extended family. One day he wants to make a map for his kids that shows all the places their great-grandmother lived and visited. Finally, there’s…

Crowdsourcer Nisha.She has two young kids and works for a local authority. She enjoys playing games like Candy Crush on her mobile, and after the kids have gone to bed she transcribes ship logs on the Old Weather website while watching TV with her husband. She finds it relaxing, feels good about contributing to science and enjoys the glimpses of life at sea. Sites like Old Weather use ‘microtasks’ – tiny, easily accomplished tasks – and crowdsourcing to digitise large amounts of text.

Helping each other?

None of our friends above know it, but they’re all looking at material from roughly the same time and place. Andre and Simone could help each other by sharing the documents they’ve collected over the years. Sarah’s diaries include the names of many children from her village that would help Martha and Bob’s project, and Nisha could help everyone if she transcribed sections of Sarah’s diary.

Connecting everyone’s efforts for the greater good: Participatory Commons

This image shows the two main aspects of the Participatory Commons: the different sources for content, and the activities that people can do with that content.

The Participatory Commons (image: Mia Ridge)

The Participatory Commons is a platform where content from different sources can be aggregated. Access to shared resources underlies the idea of the ‘Commons’, particularly material that is not currently suitable for sites like Europeana, like ‘shoebox archives’ and historians’ personal record collections. So if the ‘Commons’ part refers to shared resources, how is it participatory?

The Participatory Commons interface supports a range of activities, from the types of tasks historians typically do, like assessing and contextualising documents, activities that specialists or the public can do like identifying particular people, places, events or things in sources, or typical crowdsourcing tasks like fulltext transcription or structured tagging.

By combining the energy of crowdsourcing with the knowledge historians create on a platform that can store or link to primary sources from museums, libraries and archives with ‘shoebox archives’, the Commons could help make our shared heritage more accessible to all. As a platform that makes material about ordinary people available alongside official archives and as an interface for enjoyable, meaningful participation in heritage work, the Commons could be a basis for ‘open source history’, redressing some of the absences in official archives while improving the quality of all records.

As a work in progress, this idea of the Participatory Heritage Commons has two roles: an academic thought experiment to frame my research, and as a provocation for GLAMs (galleries, museums, libraries, archives) to think outside their individual walls. As a vision for ‘open source history’, it’s inspired by community archives, public history, participant digitisation and history from below… This combination of a large underlying repository and more intimate interfaces could be quite powerful. Capturing some of the knowledge generated when scholars access collections would benefit both archives and other researchers.

‘Niche projects’ can be built on a Participatory Commons

As a platform for crowdsourcing, the Participatory Commons provides efficiencies of scale in the backend work for verifying and validating contributions, managing user accounts, forums, etc. But that doesn’t mean that each user would experience the same front-end interface.

Niche projects build on the Participatory Commons
(quick and dirty image: Mia Ridge)

My research so far suggests that tightly-focused projects are better able to motivate participants and create a sense of community. These ‘niche’ projects may be related to a particular location, period or topic, or to a particular type of material. The success of the New York Public Library’s What’s on the Menu project, designed around a collection of historic menus, and the British Library’s GeoReferencer project, designed around their historic map collection, both demonstrate the value of defining projects around niche topics.

The best crowdsourcing projects use carefully designed interactions tailored to the specific content, audience and data requirements of a given project. These interactions are usually For example, the Zooniverse body of projects use much of the same underlying software but projects are designed around specific tasks on specific types of material, whether classifying simple galaxy types, plankton or animals on the Serengeti, or transcribing ship logs or military diaries.

The Participatory Commons is not only a collection of content, it also allows ‘niche’ projects to be layered on top, presenting more focused sets of content, and specialist interfaces designed around the content, audience and purpose.

Barriers

But there are still many barriers to consider, including copyright and technical issues and important cultural issues around authority, reliability, trust, academic credit and authorship. [There’s more background on this at my earlier post on historians and the Participatory Commons and Early PhD findings: Exploring historians’ resistance to crowdsourced resources.]

Now I want to set the idea of the Participatory Commons aside for a moment, and return to crowdsourcing in cultural heritage. I’ve been looking for factors in the success or otherwise of crowdsourcing projects, from grassroots, community-lead projects to big glamorous institutionally-lead sites.

I mentioned that Nisha found transcribing text relaxing. Like many people who start transcribing text, she found herself getting interested in the events, people and places mentioned in the text. Forums or other methods for participants to discuss their questions seem to help keep participants motivated, and they also provide somewhere for a spark of curiosity to grow (as in this forum post). We know that some people on crowdsourcing projects like Old Weather get interested in history, and even start their own research projects.

Crowdsourcing as gateway to further activity

You can see that happening on other crowdsourcing projects too. For example, Herbaria@Homeaims to document historical herbarium collections within museums based on photographs of specimen cards. So far participants have documented over 130,000 historic specimens. In the process, some participants also found themselves being interested in the people whose specimens they were documenting.

As a result, the project has expanded to include biographies of the original specimen collectors. It was able to accommodate this new interest through a project wiki, which has a combination of free text and structured data linking records between the transcribed specimen cards and individual biographies.

‘Levels of Engagement’ in citizen science

There’s a consistent enough pattern in science crowdsourcing projects that there’s a model from ‘citizen science’ that outlines different stages participants can move through, from undertaking simple tasks, joining in community discussion, through to ‘working independently on self-identified research projects’.[1]

Is this ‘mission accomplished’?

This is Nick Poole’s word cloud based on 40 museum missionstatements. With words like ‘enjoyment’, ‘access’, ‘learning’ appearing in museum missions, doesn’t this mean that turning transcribers into citizen historians while digitising and enhancing collections is a success? Well, yes, but…

Paths diverge; paradox ahead?

There’s a tension between GLAM’s desire to invite people to ‘go deeper’, to find their own research interests, to begin to become citizen historians; and the desire to ask people to help us with tasks set by GLAMs to help their work. Heritage organisations can try to channel that impulse to start research into questions about their own collections, but sometimes it feels like we’re asking people to do our homework for us. The scaffolds put in place to help make tasks easier may start to feel like a constraint.

Who has agency?

If people move beyond simple tasks into more complex tasks that require a greater investment of time and learning, then issues of agency – participants’ ability to make choices about what they’re working on and why – start to become more important. Would Wikipedia have succeeded if it dictated what contributors had to write about? We shouldn’t mistake volunteers for a workforce just because they can be impressively dedicated contributors.

Participatory project models

Turning again to citizen science – this time public participation in science research, we have a model for participatory projects according to the amount of control participants have over the design of the project itself – or to look at it another way, how much authority the organisation has ceded to the crowd. This model contains three categories: ‘contributory’, where the public contributes data to a project designed by the organisation; ‘collaborative’, where the public can help refine project design and analyse data in a project lead by the organisation; and ‘co-creative’, where the public can take part in all or nearly all processes, and all parties design the project together.[2]

As you can imagine, truly co-creative projects are rare. It seems cultural organisations find it hard to truly collaborate with members of the public; for many understandable reasons. The level of transparency required, and the investment of time for negotiating mutual interests, goals and capabilities increase as collaboration deepens. Institutional constraints and lack of time to engage in deep dialogue with participants make it difficult to find shared goals that work for all parties. It seems GLAMs sometimes try to take shortcuts and end up making decisions for the group, which means their ‘co-creative’ project is actually more just ‘collaborative’.

New challenges

When participants start to out-grow the tasks that originally got them hooked, projects face a choice. Some projects are experimenting with setting challenges for participants. Here you see ‘mysteries’ set by the UK’s Museum of Design in Plastics, and by San FranciscoPublic Library on History Pin. Finding the right match between the challenge set and the object can be difficult without some existing knowledge of the collection, and it can require a lot of on-going time to encourage participants. Putting the mystery under the nose of the person who has the knowledge or skills to solve it is another challenge that projects like this will have to tackle.

Working with existing communities of interest is a good start, but it also takes work to figure out where they hang out online (or in-person) and understand how they prefer to work. GLAMs sometimes fall into the trap of choosing the technology first, or trying something because it’s trendy; it’s better to start with the intersection between your content and the preferences of potential audiences.

But is it wishful thinking to hope that others will be interested in answering the questions GLAMs are asking?

A tension?

Should projects accept that some people will move on as they develop new interests, and concentrate on recruiting new participants to replace them? Do they try to find more interesting tasks or new responsibilities for participants, such as helping moderate discussions, or checking and validating other people’s work? Or should they find ways for the project grow as participants’ skill and knowledge increase? It’s important to make these decisions mindfully as the default is otherwise to accept a level of turnover as participants move on.

To return to lessons from citizen science, possible areas for deeper involvement include choosing or defining questions for study, analysing or interpreting data and drawing conclusions, discussing results and asking new questions.[3]However, heritage organisations might have to accept that the questions people want to ask might not involve their collections, and that these citizen historians’ new interests might not leave time for their previous crowdsourcing tasks.

Why is a critical mass of content in a Participatory Commons useful?

And now we return to the Participatory Commons and the question of why a critical mass of content would be useful.

Increasingly, the old divisions between museum, library and archive collections don’t make sense. For most people, content is content, and they don’t understand why a pamphlet about a village fete in 1898 would be described and accessed differently depending on whether it had ended up in a museum, library or archive catalogue.

Basing niche projects on a wider range of content creates opportunities for different types of tasks and levels of responsibility. Projects that provide a variety of tasks and roles can support a range of different levels and types of participant skills, availability, knowledge and experience.

A critical mass of material is also important for the discoverability of heritage content. Even the most sophisticated researcher turns to Google sometimes, and if your content doesn’t come up in the first few results, many researchers will never know it exists. It’s easy to say but less easy to make a reality: the easier it is to find your collections, the more likely it is that researchers will use them.

Commons as party?

More importantly, a critical mass of content in a Commons allows us to re-define ‘winning’. If participation is narrowly defined as belonging to individual GLAMs, when a citizen historian moves onto a project that doesn’t involve your collection then it can seem like you’ve lost a collaborator. But the people who developed a new research interest through a project at one museum might find they end up using records from the archive down the road, and transcribing or enhancing their records during their investigation. If all the institutions in the region shared their records on the Commons or let researchers take and share photos while using their collections, the researcher has a critical mass of content for their research and hopefully as a side-effect, their activities will improve links between collections. If the Commons allows GLAMs to take a sector-wide view then someone moving on to a different collection becomes a moment to celebrate, a form of graduation. In our wildest imagination, the Commons could be like a fabulous party where you never know what fabulous interesting people and things you’ll discover…

To conclude – by designing platforms that allow people to collect and improve records as they work, we’re helping everybody win.

Thank you! I’m looking forward to hearing your thoughts.


[1]M. Jordan Raddick et al., ‘Citizen Science: Status and Research Directions for the Coming Decade’, in astro2010: The Astronomy and Astrophysics Decadal Survey, vol. 2010, 2009, http://www8.nationalacademies.org/astro2010/DetailFileDisplay.aspx?id=454.

[2]Rick Bonney et al., Public Participation in Scientific Research: Defining the Field and Assessing Its Potential for Informal Science Education. A CAISE Inquiry Group Report (Washington D.C.: Center for Advancement of Informal Science Education (CAISE), July 2009), http://caise.insci.org/uploads/docs/PPSR%20report%20FINAL.pdf.

[3]Bonney et al., Public Participation in Scientific Research: Defining the Field and Assessing Its Potential for Informal Science Education. A CAISE Inquiry Group Report.


Image credits in order of appearance: Glider, Library of Congress, Great hall, Library of CongressCurzona Allport from Tasmanian Archive and Heritage Office, Hålanda Church, Västergötland, Sweden, Swedish National Heritage Board, Smithsonian Institution, Postmaster, General James A. Farley During National Air Mail Week, 1938Powerhouse Museum, Canterbury Bankstown Rugby League Football Club’s third annual Ball.

Setting off small fireworks: leaving space for curiosity

Remember when blog posts didn’t need titles, didn’t need to be long or take ages to write, and had nothing to do with your ‘personal brand’? I’ve realised that while I’m writing up the PhD I’ll barely blog at all if I don’t blog like it’s 2007 and just share interesting stuff when I’ve got a moment. Here goes…

I’ve been interested in the role of curiosity in engaging people with museum collections since I evaluated museum ‘tagging’ crowdsourcing games for my MSc project and learnt that the randomness of the objects presented made players really curious about what would appear next, and in turn that curiosity was one reason they kept playing. It turns out other metadata game designers have noticed the same effect. Flanagan and Carini (2012) wrote: ‘Curiosity and doubt are key design opportunities. … In a number of instances, players became so curious about the images they were tagging that they would tag images with inquiry phrases, such as “want to know more about this culture.”‘

I returned to ‘curiosity’ for a talk I gave at the iSay conference in Leicester, where I related it to Raddick et al’s (2009) ‘Levels of Engagement’ in citizen science, where Level 2 participation in community discussion (e.g. forums on crowdsourcing sites) and Level 3 is ‘working independently on self-identified research projects’. To me, this suggested you should leave room for curiosity and wonder to develop – it might turn into a new personal journey for the participant or visitor, or even a new research question for a crowdsourcing project.

The reason I’m posting now is that I just came across Langer’s definition of ‘mindfulness’: ‘the “state of mind that results from drawing novel distinctions, examining information from new perspectives, and being sensitive to context. It is an open, creative, probabilistic state of mind in which the individual might be led to finding differences among things thought similar and similarities among things thought different” (Langer 1993, p.44).’ in Csikszentmihalyi and Hermanson (1995). Further:

‘Exhibits that facilitate mindfulness display information in context and present various viewpoints. For example, Langer (1993, p.47) contrasts the statement “The three main reasons for the Civil War were…” with the statement “From the perspective of the white male living in the twentieth century, the main reasons for the Civil War were…” (p.47). The latter approach calls for thoughtful comparisons. For example, How did women feel during the Civil War? the old? the old from the North? the black male today? and so on.’

I don’t know about you, but my curiosity was piqued and my mind started going in lots of different directions. The second question carefully creates a gap just big enough to let a hundred new questions through and is a brilliant example of why both museum interpretation and participatory projects should leave room for curiosity…

Works cited:

  • Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly, and Kim Hermanson. 1995. “Intrinsic Motivation in Museums: Why Does One Want to Learn?” In Public Institutions for Personal Learning: Establishing a Research Agenda, edited by John Falk and Lynn D. Dierking, 66 – 77. Washington D.C.: American Association of Museums. [This is seriously ace, track down a copy if you can]
  • Flanagan, Mary, and Peter. 2012. “How Games Can Help Us Access and Understand Archival Images.” American Archivist 75 (2): 514–537.
  • Raddick, M. Jordan, Georgia Bracey, K. Carney, G. Gyuk, K. Borne, J. Wallin, and S Jacoby. 2009. “Citizen Science: Status and Research Directions for the Coming Decade.” In Astro2010: The Astronomy and Astrophysics Decadal Survey. Vol. 2010. http://www8.nationalacademies.org/astro2010/DetailFileDisplay.aspx?id=454.

(Ok, so a post with references is not exactly blogging like it’s 2006, but you’ve got to start somewhere…)
(Someone is literally setting off fireworks somewhere nearby. I have no idea why.)
(And yeah, I am working on a Saturday night. Friends don’t let friends do PhDs, innit.)

Notes from ‘The Shape of Things: New and emerging technology-enabled models of participation through VGC’

I’ve just spent two days in Leicester for the ‘The Shape of Things: New and emerging technology-enabled models of participation through VGC’ conference at the school of Museum Studies, part of the AHRC-funded iSay project focusing on Visitor-Generated Content (VGC) in heritage institutions. There will be lots of posts on the conference blog, so these are just some things that struck me or I’ve found useful concepts for thinking about my own museum practice.

I tweeted about the event as I headed to Leicester, and that started a conversation about the suitability of the term ‘visitor-generated content’ that continued through the event itself. I think it was Giasemi who said that one problem with ‘visitor-generated content’ is that the term puts the emphasis on content and that’s not what it’s about. Jeremy Ottevanger suggested ‘inbound communications’ as a possible replacement for VGC.

The first keynote was Angelina Russo, who reminded us of the importance of curiosity and of finding ways to make museum collections central to visitor engagement work. She questioned the value of some comments left on museum collections other than the engagement in the process of leaving the comment. Having spent too much time reviewing visitor comments, I have to agree that not all comments (particularly repetitive ones) have inherently valuable content or help enhance another visitor’s experience – a subject that was debated during the conference. A conversation over twitter during the conference with Claire Ross helped me realise that designing interfaces that respect and value the experience of both the commenter and reading is one of the interesting challenges in digital participation.

She then used Bourdieu’s ideas around ‘restricted cultural production’ to characterise the work of curators as producers who create cultural goods for other producers, governed by specific norms and sanctions, within relatively self-contained communities where their self-esteem depends on peers. However, this creates a tension between what curators think their role is and what museums need it to be in an age when museums are sites of large-scale cultural production for ‘the public at large’, driven by a quest for market share and profits. Visitor-generated content and the related issues of trust, authority, or digitisation highlight the tensions between these models of restricted or large-scale cultural production – we need to find ‘a pathway through the sand’. Angelina suggested that a version of Bourdieu’s ‘gift economies’, where products are created and given away in return for recognition might provide a solution, then asked what’s required to make that shift within the museum. How can we link the drive for participation with the core work of museums and curatorial scholarship? She presented a model (which I haven’t gone into here) for thinking about ‘cultural communication’, or communication which is collection-led; curiosity-driven; is scholarly; experiential; and offers multi-platform opportunities for active cultural participation, engagement and co-creation.

Carl Hogsden from the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and University of Cambridge talked about the Reciprocal Research Network and moving beyond digital feedback to digital reciprocation. This project has been doing innovative work for a long time, so it was good to see it presented again.

Jenny Kidd from Cardiff University posed some useful questions in ‘VGC and ethics – what we might learn from the media and journalism’ – it’s questionable how much VGC (or user-generated content, UGC) has actually changed journalism, despite the promise of increased civic engagement, diversity, more relevant news and a re-framing of the audience as active citizens rather than consumers. One interesting point was the impact of the ‘Arab Spring’ on UGC – content that couldn’t be verified couldn’t be shown by traditional media so protesters started including establishing shots and improving the quality of their recordings. This was also the first of several papers that referenced ‘Whose cake is it anyway‘, a key text for conversations about visitor participation and museums and Jenny suggested that sometimes being seen to engage in participatory activity is currently possibly end goal in itself for a museum. She presented questions for further research and debate including: is the museum interested in quality of process or product of VGC and do creators feel the same? How does VGC fit in workflow models of museums?

Giasemi Vavoula‘s paper on ‘The role of VGC in digital transformations in Museum Learning’ (slides) was fascinating, particularly as it presented frameworks for audience engagement taken from learning theory that closely matched those I’d found from studies of citizen science and engagement in heritage and sport (e.g. cognitive engagement model – highest is theorising, then applying, relating, explaining, describing, note-taking, memorising… Good visitor experiences get most visitors to use the higher engagement level processes that the more focused visitors use spontaneously). I love learning from Learning people – in museum learning/visitor studies, social interaction facilitates learning; visitors negotiate the meanings of exhibits through conversation with their companions. Giasemi called for museums to weave VGC into the fabric of visitors social contexts; to scaffold and embed it into visiting experience; and to align with visitors and organisations’ social agendas.

In ‘A Tale of Two WorkhousesPeter Rogers and Juliet Sprake spoke of ‘filling in the gaps rather than being recipients of one-way information flow’, which tied in nicely with discussion around the role of curiosity in audience participation.

In the afternoon there was a Q&A session with Nina Simon (via skype). A number of the questions were about sustainability, designing for mixed contexts, and the final question was ‘where next from here?’. Nina advised designing participatory experiences so that people can observe the activity and decide to take part when they’re comfortable with it – this also works for designing things that work as spectator experiences for people who don’t want to join in. Nina’s response to a question about ‘designing better questions’ – ‘find questions where you have genuine interest in what the visitor has to say about it’ – resonated with wider discussion about meaningful visitor participation. Nina talked about the cumulative effect of participatory work on the museum itself, changing not only how the museum sees itself but how others see it – I wonder how many museums in the UK are engaging with visitor participation to the extent that it changes the museum itself? Nina also made the point that you tend to have either highly participatory process to make conventional product, or conventional process to make highly participatory product, and that not everything has to be wholly participatory from start to finish, which is useful for thinking how co-creative projects.

On Friday morning I gave a keynote on ‘crowdsourcing as productive engagement with cultural heritage’. My slides for ‘Crowdsourcing as productive engagement with cultural heritage‘ are now online. I partly wanted to problematise the power relationships in participatory projects – whose voice can affect change? – and to tease out different ways of thinking about crowdsourcing in cultural heritage as productive both in terms of the process (engaging in cultural heritage) and the product (the sheer number of items transcribed, corrected, etc). I’ve been going back to research on motivations for volunteering in cultural heritage, working on open source projects and reviewing discussions with participants in crowdsourcing projects, and I hope it’ll help people design projects that meet those altruistic, extrinsic and intrinsic motivations. Thinking about my paper in the context of the other presentations also got me thinking about the role of curiosity in audience engagement and encouraging people to start researching a subject (whether a ship’s history, an individual or a general topic) more deeply. On a personal note, this paper was a good chance to reflect on the different types of audience engagement with museum collections or historic sources and on the inherent value of participation in cultural heritage projects that underpin my MSc and PhD research and my work in museums generally.

Areti Galani presented research she’d done with Rachel Clarke (Newcastle University), and asked ‘how can accessible technology lead to inaccessible participation paradigms?’. I was really interested in the difference between quality of the visitor contributions in-gallery vs online (though of course ‘quality’ is a highly subjective term), a question that surfaced through the day. Areti’s research might suggest that building in some delay in the process of contributing in-gallery could lead to better quality (i.e. more considered) contributions. The novelty of the technology used might also have an effect – ‘pen-happy visitors’ who used the technology for the sake of interacting with it but didn’t know what to do after picked up the pen.

The paper from Jeremy Ottevanger (Imperial War Museums) on “Social Interpretation” as a catalyst for organisational change generated more discussion on possible reasons why online comments on museum sites tend to be more thoughtful than in-gallery comments, with one possible reason being that online commenters have deliberately sought out the content, so already have a deeper engagement with those specific items, rather than just coming across them while moving through the physical gallery. Jeremy talked about the need for the museum to find an internal workflow that was appropriately responsive to online comments – in my experience, this is one of the most difficult issues in planning for digital projects. Jeremy presented a useful categorisation of online contributions as personal (emotional, opinion, personal information, anecdotes, family history), requests and queries (object info, valuation, family history, digitisation and licencing, offering material, access, history, general/website), and informational (new information, corrections) and looked at which types of contribution were responded to by different departments. He finished with a vision of the IWM harnessing the enthusiasm and knowledge of their audiences to help serve the need of other audiences, of connecting people with expertise with people who have questions.

Jack Ashby talked about finding the right questions for the QRator project at the Grant Museum of Zoology – a turtle is a turtle, and there’s not a lot of value in finding out what visitors might want to call it, but asking wider questions could be more useful. Like the wider Social Interpretation project, QRator always raises questions for me about whether museums should actively ‘garden’ visitor interactives, pruning out less relevant questions to create a better experience for other visitors.

Rolf Steier and Palmyre Pierroux discussed their findings on the role of the affordances of social media and visitor contributions in museums. Rosie Cardiff talked about the Tate’s motivations for participatory projects with audiences, and audience motivations for participating in Tate’s projects. She presented some considerations for organisations considering participatory projects: who is the audience? What motivations for visitor and for organisation? What platform will you use? How will the content be moderated? (Who will do it?) Where will it sit in relation to organisational space online or in-gallery? How long will it run for? What plans for archiving and maintaining content beyond lifetime of project? How will you measure success? How will you manage audience expectations about what’s going to happen to their work? This last point was also picked up in discussions about audience expectations about how long museums will keep their contributions.

The final presentation was Ross Parry‘s keynote on ‘The end of the beginning: Normativity in the postdigital museum. Based on new research into how six UK national (i.e. centrally funded, big, prestigious museums) have started to naturalise ‘digital’ into their overall museum vision, this paper gave me hope for the future. There’s still a long way to go, but Ross articulated a vision of how some museums are integrating digital in the immediate future, and how it will integrated once the necessary stage of highlighting ‘digital’ in strategies, organisational structures and projects has given way to a more cohesive incorporation of ‘digital’ into the fabric of museums. It also makes sense in the context of discussions about digital strategies in museums over the past year (e.g. at the Museums Assocation and UK Museums on the Web (themes, my report) conferences).

I had to leave before the final session, so my report ends here, but I expect there’ll be more reports on the project blog and I’ve saved an archive of isayevent_tweets_2013_02_01 (CSV).

I think the organisers, Giasemi Vavoula and Jenny Kidd, did a great job on the conference programme. The papers and audience were a well-balanced combination of academics and practioners – the academic papers gave me interesting frameworks to think with, and the case studies provided material to think about.

‘The strikethrough is the canonical symbol of the Web’

Below is a quote from Wired’s Chris Anderson on museum, curatorial authority and the long tail, from a Washington Post report, ‘Smithsonian Click-n-Drags Itself Forward‘ on Smithsonian 2.0 (‘A Gathering to Re-Imagine the Smithsonian in the Digital Age’).

The quote really covers two issues – making failures and mistakes in public and leaving them there, and training external volunteers and experts to curate parts of collections, because no one curator can be authoritative on everything in their remit: “in exchange for a slight diminution of the credentialed voice for a small number of things, you would get far more for a lot of things”.

I suspect this is a false dichotomy – there’s a place for both internal and external expertise. The Science Museum object wiki doesn’t mean the rest of the collection catalogue and interpretation has no value or relevance. The challenge lies in presenting organisation and user-contributed content in the same interface – can those boundaries be removed? Is it wise to try? And what about taking external content back into the catalogue?

This isn’t a new conversation for museum technologists, but it’s a conversation I’d love to have with curators. I’ve never been sure how the technologists who get really excited by the possibilities of sharing content online in various ways can go about working with curators to find the best way of managing it so that the public, the collections and the curators benefit.

Anyway, onto Chris Anderson:

The discovery of the “long tail” principle has implications for museums because it means there is vast room at the bottom for everything. Which means, Anderson said, that curators need to get over themselves. Their influence will never be the same.

“The Web is messy, and in that messiness comes something new and interesting and really rich,” he said. “The strikethrough is the canonical symbol of the Web. It says, ‘We blew it, but we are leaving that mistake out there. We’re not perfect, but we get better over time.’ “

If you think that notion gives indigestion to an organization like the Smithsonian — full of people who have devoted much of their lifetimes to bringing near-perfect luster to some tiny pearl of truth — you would be correct.

The problem is, “the best curators of any given artifact do not work here, and you do not know them,” Anderson told the Smithsonian thought leaders. “Not only that, but you can’t find them. They can find you, but you can’t find them. The only way to find them is to put stuff out there and let them reveal themselves as being an expert.”

Take something like, oh, everything the Smithsonian’s got on 1950s Cold War aircraft. Put it out there, Anderson suggested, and say, “If you know something about this, tell us.” Focus on the those who sound like they have phenomenal expertise, and invest your time and effort into training these volunteers how to curate. “I’ll bet that they would be thrilled, and that they would pay their own money to be given the privilege of seeing this stuff up close. It would be their responsibility to do a good job” in authenticating it and explaining it. “It would be the best free labor that you can imagine.”

It didn’t go down easily among the thought leaders, who have staked their lives’ work on authoritativeness, on avoiding strikethroughs. What about the quality and strength of the knowledge we offer? asked one Smithsonian attendee.

You don’t get it, Anderson suggested. “There aren’t enough of you. Your skills cannot be invested in enough areas to give that quality.”

It’s like Wikipedia and the Encyclopedia Britannica, Anderson said. Some Wikipedia entries certainly are not as perfectly polished as the Britannica. But “most of the things I’m interested in are not in the Britannica. In exchange for a slight diminution of the credentialed voice for a small number of things, you would get far more for a lot of things. Something is better than nothing.” And right now at the Smithsonian, what you get, he said, is “great” or “nothing.”

“Is it our job to be smart and be the best? Or is it our job to share knowledge?” Anderson asked.

Social Media Statistics

One of those totally brilliant and obvious-in-hindsight ideas. I’d like to see stronger guidelines on citing sources as it grows and clear differentiation by region/nation, because it’s easy for vague figures and rumour to become universal ‘fact’, but it’s a great idea and will hopefully grow: Social Media Statistics is:

A big home for all facts and figures around social media – because I’m fed up of trawling around for them and I’m also sure that I’m not the only one who gets asked ‘how many users does Facebook have?’ every hour of every day. … I’m hoping that this wiki will not only include usage stats, but also behaviour and attitude stats. It’s a bit of a skeleton at the moment, with v few of my stats having stated sources, but be patient – and help where you can!

Please add in any juicy stats as you come across them, and do cite your references and link to them where possible.

I’ll put my money where my mouth is and add information I find. I find wikis a really useful tool for lightweight documentation – it’s really easy to add some information while it’s in your brain, and the software doesn’t get in the way of your flow.

For a while now I’ve wanted a repository of museum and cultural heritage audience evaluation – this could be a good model. Speaking of which, I really must write up my notes from the MCG Autumn meeting.

[Edit to add: Social Media Statistics also links to Measurementcamp, which might be of interest to cultural heritage organisations wondering how they can ‘measure their social media communications online and offline’ (and how they can work with project sponsors and funders to define suitable metrics for an APId, social media world).]

A sort of private joy? User-generated content and museums

I came across this lovely perspective on the content visitors create with museums:

We didn’t start out asking people to leave their work, but it always happened. Now, we build it into the consideration of the activities that will be offered in the space. It isn’t really like the formal artist-displaying-work model that is in evidence throughout the museum…the work is typically anonymous and individual pieces aren’t highlighted.

When you walk into the space during the last month or so of an exhibition you experience the visitor-created artwork as a single, room-sized installation first, and only later do you focus on individual pieces. I think it is closer in some ways to the urge behind street art…the sort of private joy to be had from making something great and then leaving it behind for others to discover. I sometimes see visitors coming back to find something that they left behind a month or two before, not to reclaim it, just to see where it is now.

From the post ‘Show your work‘ at the Indianapolis Museum of Art Blog.

It’s talking about work created during physical visits to a museum rather than virtual visits but I think I noticed it because there’s been a spurt of discussion about user-generated content and visitor participation on museum websites on the MCG mailing list following a workshop at the London Museums Hub on ‘Understanding collections use and online access across the London Hub’.

A study presented at the event found an apparent lack of interest from museum website visitors in user-generated content, but in discussion at the event it appeared that the findings might have been different if the questions had been asked differently (with examples of some possible outcomes from UGC, perhaps ‘would you like museum collections to be more discoverable because other visitors had tagged them with everyday words you’d use’ rather than ‘would you like opportunities to comment or upload content’), or if the focus groups hadn’t been recruited from people who were physically visiting a museum and who were therefore fairly traditional museum-goers.

This lead to some interesting discussion about the differing reactions to the idea of opinions from other visitors versus real-life stories from other visitors; and of the idea that sometimes the value in user-created content lives with the person who contributes rather than those who read their contributions lately. This last idea was also raised at the User-generated content session at Museums and the Web in Montreal, my notes are here. I think the role of authority and trust and the influence of the context (type of museum or collection, user goal) need to be teased out into a more sophisticated model for analysing user-generated content in the cultural heritage sector.

There’s a lot of research into user-generated content, participation and social software going on in the UK at the moment, it’d be great if there was somewhere that results, and ideally the raw data too, could be shared. Perhaps the MCG site?

Notes from ‘User-Generated Content’ session at MW2008

These are my notes from the User-generated content session at Museums and the Web, Montreal, 2008. All mistakes are mine, any corrections are welcome, my comments are in [square brackets] below.

The papers presented were The Art of Storytelling: Enriching Art Museum Exhibits and Education through visitor narratives by Matthew Fisher, Alexandra Sastre, Beth Twiss-Garrity; The Living Museum: Supporting the Creation of Quality User-Generated Content by Allison Farber, Paul Radensky and Getting ‘In Your Face’: Strategies for Encouraging Creativity, Engagement and Investment When the Museum is Offline by Martin Lajoie, Gillian McIntyre, Ian Rubenzahl, Colin Wiginton.

The “Art of Storytelling” project at the Delaware Art Museum.
The paper covered visitor-contributed content (VCC), the key factors to success, and the motivations behind allowing visitors to contribute. The paper goes into more of the theoretical foundations.

The key findings of the Art of Storytelling project evaluation:

What’s the value to the visitor who contributes? It engages visitors in thinking critically and creatively about and in response to art.
What’s the value to the museum? They get feedback and to engage new audiences
What’s the value to the other visitors? There is some confusion, but also it can be inspiring, enriching, and encourage others to participate.

It’s not appropriate or appealing for all collections, but it’s hard to predict which in advance.

[When looking at models of participation:] Allow the motivated to contribute, allow the rest to benefit; don’t penalise for non-participation.

Simplicity – remove barriers to entry (engage first, login last if at all).

Promote in traditional and non traditional venues; have a clear invitation to participate.

Motivating factors included curatorial encouragement (have curators there encouraging people), juried selections, stipends for selected storytellers.

What’s in it for the audience? They get 15 minutes next to an Andy Warhol. Establish an audience for your visitor-contributors – affiliation with an institution is valued, even if comes with caveats. [Theirs is an art museum – does that work for all audiences, or for all types of content?]

Don’t try and create communities beyond the your collections (because others with bigger budgets are after the same eyeballs).

They gave lots of examples from a summary of evaluation of other projects (but the slides were hard to see):
Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston – thinking through art. Active looking skills.
The Wolfsonian Institute in Miami – Artful Citizenship Project.
Guggenheim – Learning Through Art.
Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum – Round by Halsey Burgund.
Denver Art museum – Frederic Remington exhibit, Hamilton building programming.
Philadelphia area art museums; art, literacy, museums.

They then provided some background information about the Art of Storytelling at the Delaware Art Museum – story telling kiosks in the museum.

Their ‘a-ha’ moment was realising that the experience was more transformational for the original story tellers (i.e. the adults) than the audience. Transcend traditional ideas re lack of authority.

In conclusion, visitor-contributed content programs are valuable to the original contributors and museums get valuable insight into audiences, but it’s an open question as to whether they’re valuable for other visitors.

The Museum of Jewish Heritage, supporting the creation of quality user-generated content in the “Living Museum”.
The project started as outreach project for Jewish communities without local museum.

The process: students visit a local museum, learn a bit about how museums are structured in terms of display of objects and organisation. The students choose an artefact to represent Jewish heritage at home, then write labels at school. They then organise artefacts into galleries, create gallery title and text panels, then create in-school and online exhibitions. Students research artefacts and tell their own stories. They include measurements because you can’t get a sense of scale on the internet. One piece of text tells story of artefact and the other tells significance of artefact to family.

[They aren’t promoting it until they feel the site is ready – a familiar story!]

They run seminars with teachers to help them submit quality content, but they still get objects unrelated to Jewish heritage, text with spelling and grammar errors, incomplete labels, unclear photos, factual errors.

The goals included: educational – a connection to Jewish heritage, parental involvements, museology, improve writing and research skills; institutional – high quality images so people can see what they’re looking at; privacy of students; motivation of students.

Teachers say students are motivated to get stuff right because it’s going online.

Unlike other user-generated content sites, the content is pre-reviewed, as the project has very specific educational goals. They control who creates content on the website (anyone can use but only teachers from Jewish schools can post content) and check that kids can’t be identified. They are trying not to expose the kids and their personal stories to comment or modification by other users.

They are going to implement a spell checker.

How can they help users to contribute quality content? Convey expectations, consider needs of both kinds of users, offer support, concentrate on process and product of exhibition creation, review submitted content and offer recommendations.

“In Your Face”, Art Gallery of Ontario
In Your Face: The People’s Portrait Project.
While the Art Gallery of Ontario building was under construction, they were interested in rethinking the way the organisation worked, and how to keep people connected to the institution.

They got the idea from UK’s National Portrait Gallery BP prize, but they didn’t want a contest.

They advertised on back of the national paper for a few weeks as they had free space. They wrote a copyright statement that people had to sign, specified a size, and said they would hang every piece that came in. They received 17,000 portraits.

First they got lots of entries from rural areas, then the rest of Canada and the world. There was an extraordinary variety in portraits, and also in the parcels. They also arrived with stories.

It was a one way thing – people knew they weren’t going to get the portraits back. It mattered to them to get them exhibited in the AGO.

There was more diversity in portraits and in the people who came to see them than usually seen in the gallery. People paid money to see the portraits as they were ‘after the gate’. It was lots of work for staff on top of their normal job cos it turned out to be huge, but gave them (the staff) energy. It also made their audiences real for the staff and helped make the institution inclusive.

Contemporary artists from their collection also sent in portraits, but their names weren’t shown so it was all egalitarian.

They also created a Flickr group (but weren’t able to get that projected in the gallery). It now has 10,000 portraits in it.

They had a parallel project – Collection X. It was an online project where visitors could make their own exhibition. Collect, connect and create. ‘Open source museum’ [- the online paper goes into more detail, including the use of RSS.]

Partly [?] as a result of the project, guiding principles developed for institution include relevance, responsiveness, creativity, transparency, diversity and forum.

Questions asked:
How do you balance museum’s agenda with visitor expectations? Is it possible to assert control and foster programming that is open-ended? How do we think about expertise, quality and standards? How do we integrate and manage creativity in ways that are dynamic and long-term? Is curatorial expertise or audience experience paramount? Some things curators are uneasy about. Dynamism also means some volatility – how does that work?

Lessons learned:
Take risks, experiment and be willing to make mistakes
Museums can function as catalysts for creativity [my emphasis, this was the meme that ran through the whole session, for me]
A critical mass of creativity asserts its own kind of aesthetic
There is value in integrating user-generated content that is actual as well as virtual
Museum and the public can function as producers and consumers of culture to create a shared sense of ownership
The public will be invested if programming is authentic and they feel respected.