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.