Noted: that at work we process a pretty large number of request per year under the Municipal Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (MFIPPA for short, or for even shorter, FOI.) There’s a lot, but most are pretty routine, so it’s not overwhelming.
Also noted: some of these requests are for information that should be publicly release-able without going through the FOI process.
Strictly speaking, I shouldn’t be processing those. I should be returning applications and fees back to the requesters, and telling them who in the various city departments to contact instead. But often I simply do the requests like any other.
The reason is the same reason why these requesters are going through the FOI process rather than just asking: many people feel much more comfortable dealing with a neutral third party.
Say you’re an average citizen, living a quiet life. And then something happens that you care very much about, to the point where you need to speak up. So now you’re writing the newspaper, you’re organizing protest groups, you’re making deputations to Council, talking to City administration about your issue. In order to do a decent job of it, you need information — you need the same information that your political opponents have access to. And the people you need to get the information from are the ones you believe to be against you.
I am not saying that City staff are hostile, or have been refusing to release information that should be public. But when tensions are high, you need someone who can take a neutral stance. Requesters like that I’m someone they’ve never met before, working in a different physical location, and sticking to provincial law by meeting deadlines and keeping them anonymous. It makes for, I think, a much safer-feeling environment when going up against bureaucracy. And I’ve been told that quite directly, a number of times: “I’d rather just pay the application fee and deal with you guys instead.”
The third way, of course, is releasing much more information proactively.
The “background” section for the presentation I will be giving Friday at the Northwestern Ontario Archivists’ Association symposium “History in a Digital World.”
Some of this is lifted directly from a short paper I wrote on the same general subject last year. Really, it’s stuff I’ve been paying attention to and thinking about for ages.
Other contents: “Who are your online users?”, “Case studies” where I get to talk with and about some really interesting people, and “Presentation and authenticity in online exhibits” which gets into the “what should archives actually be doing” realm.
This is all a work in progress, so comments, criticisms, and the like are very, very welcome.
When you combine the exponential increase in internet use with the general rise of interest in history and heritage over the past few decades, it makes sense that people are more and more heavily using the internet to access historical material.
This has put cultural heritage institutions in a rush to get all the good, solid information online as quickly as possible. There is a stark awareness that the public’s understanding of history is dependent on the segments of the documentary record that are available: if it can’t be read, it can’t be known about. In recent years, this has roughly translated to “if it isn’t online, it doesn’t exist.”
So we digitize collections and we build web exhibits. This sort of public work has definite benefits – not only does our public have better access to heritage materials online, but we are able to increase general awareness of our holdings and our role in the community. The archives or the museum is no longer just a building.
The purpose of putting cultural heritage material online need not be to create a formal educational experience. Most people, when visiting a museum, tend to explore the exhibits casually, and socially, rather than looking at every single artifact and reading every single piece of text in the order it was intended by the exhibit designer.
This sort of social browsing behaviour isn’t seen in archives, because they aren’t set up to allow it. We are used to people visiting with particular research questions in mind, and we find for them records that will be relevant to those questions.
But both of these behaviours can be supported simultaneously on the web.
If it were as easy to visit museums, archives, and libraries around the world in person, at any time, then we’d be used to the sort of user context we are now facing. As it stands, there have been major opportunities in how we reach and connect with the public since the rise of, and now ubiquity of, the web from the 1990s on.
This means connecting with new user groups, allowing people to browse and interact with archival material in casual or fun ways, and encouraging them to share their own interpretations and presentations of cultural heritage material.
Let’s take care of some definitions and language.
Definition: “cultural heritage material”
This is a phrase I really like, and will be using throughout this presentation, to refer to things like archival records, museum objects, books, recordings … basically anything that might make up content in an exhibit. I think it’s useful not to cling too much to the differences between different types of institutions when we’re talking about user experience, and particularly when we’re talking about user experience on the web.
Social networking versus social media:
Social networking sites are about individual people, creating a personal online identity: things like Facebook, Twitter, MySpace. Social media is about sharing activities, photographs and other media. “Social” because they are used to make connections with people who share those interests. But it’s about the media rather than individual identity. Examples: flickr, YouTube.
Presence for marketing versus presence for contribution:
There’s a big definition between using social media or social networking sites for marketing, and using them to share content.
There are loads of great examples of archives, museums, and libraries using sites like Facebook or Twitter to raise awareness of their own activities. You can share information about the institution, solicit feedback, let people know about events or activities.
But keep in mind when we’re talking about institutional presence on social media that there’s a big difference between this sort of thing and institutions participating on sites like flickr or YouTube, where they would be sharing their content using exactly the same platform open to anyone else, and opening up that content to reuse and reinterpretation.
I won’t be talking at all today really about the marketing uses. There’s loads of literature available on that subject if you’re interested.
Definition: “online curation”
I will be using the term “online curation” to refer to the act of setting up a web exhibit or web collection of cultural heritage material. In the most general term this involves collecting (bringing things together for a particular effect), presenting things in a particular order or grouping, and providing some degree of background or contextual material.
Today being a stat holiday (and me being home enjoying the sunshine and fresh air) — means that we’re finished with all the big outreach events that have been going on this week.
Yesterday, nothing was planned except for tours, and we did indeed run those. Considerably more people turned up than had in the previous days. The main “what I learned” from yesterday thus was that scale is important, and that presenting the mini-exhibits to a group of 12 people is a lot harder than only 4 or 5 at once.
Haven’t got the official numbers yet, but it looks like there were close to 40 drop-ins yesterday, which is actually close to what I was expecting for the whole week. A few of those people also had their own particular research interests, that I was able to address. I know of at least 3 that are coming back next week to work. Another couple, based on what they read in the paper, brought in a family photograph and a story which augments one of the files we were discussing.
Part of me is thinking “this is what Archives is supposed to be” — at least, based on all available literature about outreach and engaging the public. This institution hasn’t had much opportunity to make that first step, in the past. There’s always a lot to do, of course, but for years and years it seems that getting control over the collections was the only priority.
I think that might be changing a bit. I’m glad to be involved in that.
And drop-ins, which was neat, too. The press we had yesterday seems to have an impact — despite not starting the official tours until 1 today there were still more visitors than yesterday.
I’m a bit tired, though. There was a lot more running around — mostly in that I had to set up and take down one of the exhibits twice in order to make room for the meetings, and spent the extra time I had writing a press release for something unrelated.
The kids were great. They were pretty interested in all the old stuff, and were utterly thrilled by some things I wasn’t expecting: riding the freight elevator, wearing the white gloves, and using the microfilm machine. Though I suppose from the perspective of someone that young, microfilm is a weird, mysterious, antique technology. Same way I’d feel playing around with anything using punch cards.
Anyway, there’s one day left of all this madness, and it should be just regular tours with no extras.
As tired as I was by the end of today (also stayed 45 min late) I’m very, very pleased that we did this. It’s been great for the Archives, great for the public (I hope!) and a fantastic learning experience.
Looks as though all the media contact yesterday paid off: last night the Archives tours were covered on the local news, and this morning we were also featured in the newspaper.
Of course, just for fun, it was the very same day that Thunder Bay made international news, and an excellent photograph of one of our staff was displayed on the front page right next to the “Runaway Pilot” headline. It was an interesting juxtaposition, I’d have to say.
The media coverage did us well: even though today’s tours were originally billed “for City staff” we had a number of members of the general public drop by — including one fellow who heard about this all on the classic rock station.
Aside from the increased numbers, today was pretty much the same. Tomorrow there will be children. I’ve also had to take down one of the exhibits to make room for a meeting tomorrow; I’ll then put it up again, then take it down again, then put it up again. (And I suppose take it down one final time once the week is finished.) There is something to be said for the simplicity of “lay it all out on a table.”
Got the mini-exhibits set up last week in a hurry, and began running the public tours today. So far those tours have included television, radio, and print media, a couple of “regular” researchers, a city councillor, and a single new member of the general public. A decent start, though. Later this week we have city staff, heritage committees, a Grade 5 class, and another day of “public.” By the end of it I’ll probably have some things memorized that I never expected to.
So what’s this table about, then? Turns out that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, stopped in Fort William one afternoon in 1914 and bought a piece of land on a whim. (It was an investment property — he was just that taken by the city’s potential. As far as I can tell he wasn’t in the habit of buying land in Canadian cities he’d never been to before.) The exhibit uses this property, and the famous name attached to it, to demonstrate the variety of resources that the Archives has for researching the history of land and buildings. People use these to find out who used to live in their houses. (Hint: not Sir Arthur.)
Incidentally, the place is now a bakery (and a pretty good one.)
We also have set up a display of maquettes of public art, a display of assorted visual materials (photos, maps, blueprints) and a couple of “strange but true” files (including one documenting the controversial move to accept Daylight Savings Time in painstaking detail.)
When I started working on the time capsule project, what I didn’t anticipate was what would be the most challenging part: putting up a sign above the exhibit.
Just something simple, reading “Time Capsule” rather than the existing, inaccurate signage. Not something I can do by hand, but it shouldn’t be that much trouble, right?
When you’re dealing with government, though, there are certain channels that one must go through. I needed to contact one person to design the sign, two to approve it, and another department entirely to put it up. It should have been finished today, more than 2 weeks since the process was started. I’ll go by the exhibit to check it out tomorrow.
Continuing the saga of the exhibit I’ve had to put together in under a week:
The primary challenge today was setting up the display stands. We don’t exactly have budget or time to buy proper stands for materials, so I got to construct them myself out of used folders. Arts & crafts time!
As silly as that all sounds, it went pretty well. Three of us worked on it and got all 20-some finished in only a couple of hours. The stands are sturdy, and somehow manage to not look like they were made out of used folders in an afternoon. I’m actually quite proud of how it turned out.
If the printers pull through, we might be able to get it up “on time” tomorrow afternoon. The accompanying website still has at least a day’s work left.
I’ll certainly post more once the whole thing is finished.
Big Project of the week is a small exhibit I’m putting together ASAP of the items from the time capsule recently unearthed at City Hall. I’m almost afraid to admit it publicly, but this is my first time doing a physical exhibit. And it keeps getting more and more complicated.
The problem I’ve just encountered is the difficulty of creating useful reproductions that are good enough to be used in the exhibit. We’re worried about light damage, and that the exhibit location isn’t particularly secure, so I’ve been asked to use reproductions wherever possible.
However, an exhibit of crap pictures of cool things is still a crap exhibit.
The photographs are going to turn out pretty decently, I think. But a scan of a printed page, shot out of a colour printer, still looks like a scan of a printed page shot out of a colour printer. And no matter what that’s costing us it looks cheap to me.
Speaking of cheap, I am also building my own display stands out of old file folders, so I guess there you have it.