12 March 2008

Digitisation, Web 2.0 and chamber orchestras

I subscribe to the concert series the Australian Chamber Orchestra (ACO) gives in Canberra (& many other cities) each year. I have done so for many years and each year one or two concerts inspire the most amazing creative thoughts in my tiny brain while I am sitting listening and watching them perform. Some of the concepts and design features that I used in our current Lawrence of Arabia & the Light Horse exhibition came to me at their concerts.
Last Friday I saw and heard "Sublime", a concert that featured music that was written very recently and that which was written as much as 500 years ago. Some of the vocal pieces by Holst, Nick Drake, Sting, Radiohead and Britten were performed and interpreted anew by Katie Noonan. Unlike the online review, I don't think the combination of music was at all awkward, but that is another issue.
So how is all this relevant? Well, currently a lot of IT-based and web-based museum staff are talking about Web 2.0 and museums. Some curators are also talking about it, but mostly the debate is led by the more geekish and web-aware people who are not that attached to or involved in more traditional museum or gallery practices, like curating exhibitions or developing collections. Perhaps I'm generalising unfairly, but in my experience, that is mostly the case. With regard to the digitisation of museum or library or archival collections, those endeavours are also being led by either technologists or imaging experts or others from conservation or preservation backgrounds. Again, the interpretation of such efforts seems removed from the more traditional curatorial processes. So that is where the musical performance comes in. Sorry for the long and uncertain root to this point.
What dawned on me is that for those of us in museums who are responsible (like I am) for large digitisation programs, just scanning the material and then shovelling huge amounts of it up on the web one way or another is a bit like writing music and leaving it somewhere without performing it. Last Friday, the ACO brought a lot of music to life giving it fantastic new interpretations, like that of Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah which Katie sang beautifully and completely unlike other recent interpretations by K.D. Lang or Jeff Buckley. So, what I think this means for us is that all of our efforts on the web re "Web 2.0" and digitisation need to be accompanied by some appropriate curatorial interpretation. It may not need to be that extensive as that certainly wouldn't be possible with mass programs, but we can't simply rely on links to hard-to-find catalogue entries, exposure Google search or public tagging.
As I said above, I have an exhibition running here at our museum for a few more months and we know that visitors don't read much of the carefully written wall text (or storyline) and object or image captions. They will, however, happily come along and listen to me drone on and on about both Lawrence and the Light Horse, perhaps in much the same way that I go along to live music performances in preference to or perhaps in advance of buying a CD or downloading some music from iTunes. (I'm sure some of my "performances" are better than others.)
Museum curators need to be out there interpreting our online content by playing "our own instruments". And that interpretation needs to be delivered in many different ways. Online means such as blogs, You Tube videos, podcasts or downloadable audio guides are just a few examples. Maybe there are more parallels between our institutions and orchestras and it might be instructive for some senior curators, for instance, to look at the role of orchestra principals and leaders?
More to follow as I think this through completely, but to me the way museums use Web 2.0, social networking applications and services and the provision of online access digitised collections goes well beyond the intersection of web strategy, IT strategy, marketing and a social media strategy. That only tells a very shallow layer of the story or the game, there is more to it than that: the museum or institution itself and its collection.
(A recent relevant newspaper article from the NYT touches on some of the points above. You can read it here.)

04 March 2008

Wikipedia and "produsers"

A while back at work I suggested we look at moving our entire Encyclopedia to Wikipedia.org. My position has not changed. I still think we should do just that.

Putting the content up on Wikipedia.org gives it MUCH wider exposure than our website ever can and it therefore has the potential to bring new users to our website that may not even know we exist (via links in to our own web content). With a wikipedia.org user account, we can maintain an appropriate amount of control over the content (more than we have at present over wikipedia content that started as ours, already put up there by others).

Another point is that putting it up on Wikipedia allows us to engage the assistance of various volunteers who’d like to help us, but don’t live locally. I've been approached by a few keen volunteers who don't live locally only recently and I think they’d do a good job for us in both maintaining content and generating new content (which we could edit when needed).

It isn’t urgent, but I think we could make some progress on at least a trial.

Adam our web developer has suggested a few things that we need to do before we start using wikipedia.org:

Some colleagues here said they liked the idea of hosting our own wiki like The (UK) National Archives Your Archives wiki, but they are also supportive of moving our encyclopedia to Wikipedia. One person has started working through existing entries and tidying them up to make sure links are up to date and the sources and references are included for the entries. The motivation to do was that Wikipedians can challenge and/or remove unsourced material.
In a lot of cases we don’t currently list the sources for entries so we are going back to the background material we have for the entry and if that doesn’t exist we may recreate the research. This has made the process slower than we had expected.

As we look further into this and begin to examine some of the issues of "ownership", reliability and "endorsed" wikipedia entries, a read of a very recent post about such matters via the ABC Digital Futures blog would seem advisable. At first glance one might think that this is a bit of a long bow to draw, because it is focused on the digital future of the national broadcaster and it discusses a model of participation regarding travel advisory websites, but when you think about it, many of the principles apply in a much broader sense and to us us as we look at moving our encyclopedia to a more open and participatory environment.

The whole Lonely Planet model is very similar to our situation. Indeed, our existing top-down model of the publication (in various forms) of Australian military history guides, magazines and books could well be undermined in much the same way as the environment in our own small world shifts from military history for the people to one of military history by the people.
The author/presenter is Alex Bruns and you can read his full text online here.

  1. In recognising that everybody has a valuable contribution to make, and as he encourages us not to be afraid of it, Alex says there are four preconditions that are needed:
    the replacement of a hierarchy with a more open participatory structure;

  2. recognising the power of the COMMUNITY to distinguish between constructive and destructive contributions;

  3. allowing for random (granular, simple) acts of participation (like ratings); and

  4. the development of shared rather than owned content that is able to be re-used, re-mixed or mashed up.

So, throughout his article he uses the term "produser" to describe the participants in such a community. It is all about true collaboration, engagement, and the shared development of content.

Finally, he suggests these four principles for anyone seeking to successful and sustainable participatory environments (mind the big words):

  1. Open Participation, Communal Evaluation - inclusive, not exclusive

  2. Fluid Heterarchy, Ad Hoc Meritocracy - from a hierarchy to leadership based on accumulated merit that is recognised by the whole community

  3. Unfinished Artefacts, Continuing Process - evolutionary development of articles; nothing is ever truly "finished"

  4. Common Property, Individual Rewards - tangible outcomes for individual contributors.

The reasons we need to get involved in the broader wikipedia community are basically two: firstly it is inevitable that it will grow as a community and if we are to have any influence at all we need to be involved; and secondly, we do not have the resources to be involved in two communities by managing one on our own site as well. Wikipedia is the pick (at least in my mind) because it has much more potential reach and exposure than we ever will. I think it is overly pessimistic to look at the worst possible case scenario (of extensive and malicious damage to entries) in this instance. Moving our encyclopedia to wikipedia should not be looked at as a surrender.

Recently in D-Lib there was a good example of an institution (University of Washington Libraries) using wikipedia to promote digital collections by using deep links back into their site. See Using Wikipedia to Extend Digital Collections.