March 9, 2009 4:57 PM   Subscribe

Web Tech Guy and Angry [Museum] Staff Person. A very funny animation for the museums workers and librarians subset of Mefites. From Michael Edson at Smithsonian 2.0.
posted by LarryC (47 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Angry Staff Person is right.
posted by Artw at 5:06 PM on March 9, 2009

Well they certainly believe in their cause, because they put their animation up in just about every motion-capable format in existence.
posted by localroger at 5:07 PM on March 9, 2009

Stone and Parker have a lot to answer for.
posted by tellurian at 5:10 PM on March 9, 2009

Sorry, but this just didn't ring true. Web Tech Guy didn't roll his eyes, once!
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 5:11 PM on March 9, 2009 [6 favorites]

I was just thinking: if all museums decided to go FlickTubeFaceSpace, imagine what some Kutiman kind of fella could do with all that art.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 5:14 PM on March 9, 2009

This was a lot better.
posted by localroger at 5:16 PM on March 9, 2009 [5 favorites]

Meh 2.0

Protip: Never preface something with a declarative statement of its intended or subjective emotional impact.
posted by turgid dahlia at 5:16 PM on March 9, 2009

You're going to hate me for saying this, turgid dahlia, but "jimson weed."
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 5:19 PM on March 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

And we're starting a blog,
And Matt figured out a way to let people put tags and comments on our pages. Isn't that cool? Way to go Matt!
posted by tellurian at 5:20 PM on March 9, 2009 [3 favorites]

We are not "people".
posted by Artw at 5:22 PM on March 9, 2009

Ha! Gudrun posted this in my Smithsonian thread a couple of weeks ago. I made a comment on the blog gudrun posted. This cartoon is totally recognizeable as real life....
posted by Miko at 5:22 PM on March 9, 2009

turgid dahlia: Protip: Never preface something with a declarative statement of its intended or subjective emotional impact.

Thanks for that. I've just been saying, "don't talk like cereal box copy."
posted by StickyCarpet at 5:32 PM on March 9, 2009 [3 favorites]

jimson weed

Stop threadjimsoning.
posted by turgid dahlia at 5:34 PM on March 9, 2009

Probably wouldn't hurt to give up the weed, either.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 5:38 PM on March 9, 2009

posted by sexyrobot at 5:39 PM on March 9, 2009

roger, I get the impression that that's been around since the Smithsonian exhibits were roaming the Earth and eating each other, but I'd never seen it. Thank you so much.
posted by kavasa at 5:42 PM on March 9, 2009

Sure, the video isn't as funny as the website is down - but it raises some important issues about how libraries and museums deal with digital resources. Over in the Cologne thread, we've been talking about digitization and archives, something which is moving rapidly, but still less rapidly than the uptake of digital resources in other academic fields.
posted by jb at 5:50 PM on March 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

And it all ties in, has to come back to, involving job creation and you know, all those newspapers that were put in front of me all those years, any of them, all of them and also, too! Drill, baby, drill!
posted by Lipstick Thespian at 6:18 PM on March 9, 2009

Was I the only one to feel that the Angry Staff Person had valid points? It also seemed like each point was met with a dismissive 'no it doesn't' presented in some weird set of aphorisms. "Future of knowledge creation"? "Who moved my cheese?"? What?

Further, it seems that these issues should be addressed long before anyone figures out how to let yahoos put comments on a blog.

Not that there's anything wrong with that...
posted by elwoodwiles at 6:36 PM on March 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

"Further, it seems that these issues should be addressed long before anyone figures out how to let yahoos put comments on a blog. "

Because you can never go back after a failed first try?
posted by Space Coyote at 6:49 PM on March 9, 2009

A failed first try can do a lot of damage to staff relationships and morale. If people feel left out of an important process, there's going to be trouble somewhere down the road.
posted by elwoodwiles at 6:53 PM on March 9, 2009

Was I the only one to feel that the Angry Staff Person had valid points?

What were the valid points?

I think it's important to understand that this little animation was not actually meant as a standalone statement. It was prepared as the introductory piece to a panel presentation on integrating social networking and user control into digital museum projects. After this little entertainment piece warmed up the audience, they spent a long time discussing the deeper matters.

That aside, I believe that the Angry Staff Person has valid concerns, but not valid conclusions. There is a rigid thought pattern surviving in museums because it has been a sheltering environment for people with an older skill set. Museums, like libraries, handle and provide access to information, but museums have been far behind in pursuing the new understandings of what 'information' and 'access' mean in a digitized world, for reasons that are a lot to go into but are very real and noticeable on a daily basis. That truism is what gave birth to the entire Smithsonian 2.0 conference - this is a problem in the field and needs to be addressed.
posted by Miko at 6:56 PM on March 9, 2009 [3 favorites]

A failed first try can do a lot of damage to staff relationships and morale

So why not frame a new digitization/social project as a pilot? Set up a team, treat it as a project, get buy-in, create, evaluate, share results, analyze, and improve or replicate.

This is a management issue about leading change in institutions, not a technology-specific or content-specific issue. The same approach would be necessary if the discussion was about putting the visitor's entry on the opposite side of the building and reversing the traffic flow.
posted by Miko at 7:00 PM on March 9, 2009

As outreach, this sucks. The voice work? "Dahr?" The guy huffing? Wow, it was even more insulting than the script itself.

Just look at some of the points:

Point: You don't have much control. Translation: suck it up.

Point: Who moved my cheese? Translation: you are a rat.

Point: The future of knowledge creation. Translation: Magical internet fairydust crowdsourcing will just make it work. Repeated for extra glittery power

Point: There have been a few problems. Translation: we're doing this anyway. You'll have to deal with the problems.

Point: Where is the greatest growth audience, bricks and mortar or digital? Translation: we don't have any way to answer the money question, so we'll answer by saying "more audience!"

Point: Some attention must be diverted. Translation: yeah, more of your budget will now be going to IT.

Point: Need transitional models. Translation: we don't know how this is going to work out, but you should do it anyway.

This kind of song and dance and "just trust in the power of the Intarwebs!" has not only not always worked out, it's more than a little bit demeaning to anyone who has a long enough memory to remember what their original concerns were, some of which, like traffic and donations, are entirely valid.

Due to the way the Internet bloomed in the 90's, with ad revenue footing the bill for practically everything that wasn't part of the venture capitalists' burn rate, people are used to thinking "free." They say "Information wants to be free," but they forget the other half of the famous quote. Hell, NetZero ran ads on the basis that internet access "should" be free.

It's all donations and tickets. If it is up on the web, nobody's buying tickets. And it's free! Click, click, click. And it's hard to get prestige (and therefore donations) if nobody can tell that the content came from you because it's been remixed as someone's mashup of content from a zillion other places. People are so used to equating "on the Net" with "free, I'm sure the funding is coming from somewhere" that they don't consider exactly where that might be.

The more you abstract the revenue stream from the content, the weirder the suggestions get when it comes to funding. That makes people uncomfortable, and perhaps rightly so. To draw a parallel, we're facing an interesting economic crisis because a way was devised to abstract away from a physical item (the house and the lot) a new kind of wealth. We're now busy abstracting the art and the collections away from the physical presence, and relying on a much more vague "I'm sure they money will get to us somehow" method of paying for it.

When it's all up on the Internet, how many people will even bother to find out where a given exhibition is, much less attend? Should the trend continue, we'll see works of art scanned in and online at resolutions about as good as you would get from standing behind the velvet rope, anyway. So what's the appeal of the museum? The gift shop? Oh, wait, that is online, too. And you can probably get that print cheaper somewhere else.

If they went through the effort to make this presentation, it could have at least addressed the concerns in a less handwavy fashion, without caricaturing the target audience as huffy, whiny dinosaurs.
posted by adipocere at 8:00 PM on March 9, 2009 [3 favorites]

If you're replicating the visiting experience with your web presence, you're doing something wrong. The visiting experience and the web experience need to be distinct and yield separate benefit. They need to be managed differently and evaluated differently. But to say simply that putting some aspect of a collection on the web means that you never have to visit is like saying that putting a picture of a delicious dinner on a website means you will never want to taste the food. If all your exhibits offer is a visual catalogue (and a poorly tagged one at that) -- true of way too many museums -- the problem is not with your web issues but with your exhibit philosophy.

Tickets are generally a trivial contributor to revenue, across the industry, and most blockbuster exhibits end up operating at a loss. You joke, but the gift shop (and other earned revenue, like the cafe) support exhibitry much more than tickets do. Aside from donations, its program fees earn the most cash per hours invested. How do you attract attention to programs? How do you register people for programs? How do you make people interested in programs? Oh, the web. How do you offer people something impossible to duplicate on the web - immersive, real-time, customizable, personal? Oh, you run programs. There is a real complementary approach here.

I especially liked the reminder to remember the mission, remember the ownership. These objects do belong to the public, not the museum, and they always have. The museum is responsible for care, stewardship, providing access, and providing education. Those purposes can serve as great guiding principles for web projects.

I understand that funding models are difficult. But, um, when haven't they been? My museum is broke now, and it ain't because we gave away pictures of ourselves on the web. Museums are not relying on those tickets for revenue, that we know. But we are relying more and more on our pool of private donors - people who care more about the place than the average Joe. They care because their lives have been impacted by the institution and its programs. We can take someone who has had a glancing interaction with the museum and create a relationship that becomes much more personal and meaningful and central to that person's identity by using the social networking aspect of the web. Museums doing this well are doing better, because they have more pull when Development reaches out to tap that bottom tier of the pyramid. Those are real dollars. It makes a difference.

Then, too, we've missed out on a generation of digitization/technology funding that other nonprofits have avidly pursued because of this resistance. We cry "there's no funding!" but we've contentedly watched millions after millions of both public and corporate dollars stream their way into libraries, right past museums, transforming libraries and their approach to information sharing. Public libraries don't even charge admission. If an admissions model were vital to support a preservation institution, libraries would have collapsed by now. A combination of donations, public grant funds, and private funds supports museums now and can continue to support them - what is needed is enhanced relationships. Relationships are where the money comes from.
The de facto absence of most museums from the internet has left us out of the cultural conversation. We would like to call people and ask for their money, but first we need people to call. Online presence is part and parcel of community engagement.

Yes, more of your budget is going to IT, but so is more of Marketing's budget, Education's budget, Visitor Services' budget, Museum Store's budget, on and on. There is a new cost of doing business, just as some of the old costs are falling away (We no longer send our newsletters to an offset printer. We order half the cases of paper we used to. We don't use an out-of-house designer. We don't have a secretary. We can find the locations of all our objects in seconds rather than hours). This is not an added cost, it is a shifted cost. We have new needs and spend money in new places to meet them, using money saved by retiring older systems.

The film, again, is supposed to be a caricature, meant to start dialogue about some of the objections amongst the people who need to solve the problems represented. Again, it was an introductory piece to a long panel discussion. The idea of rebelling against the message "We have the internet now, let's think of how we can use this to stay in command of our supposed mission and purpose instead of being set aside as an irrelevant institution" is utterly confusing to me; taking a stance against maximizing the impact of digital and online technologies seems to me to be terribly bad stewardship - like taking a stance against HVAC climate control for collections forty years ago (It's expensive! It doesn't earn any money! We've survived this long without it! It's more out of my budget), or against the expansion of the education function thirty years ago.
posted by Miko at 8:27 PM on March 9, 2009 [7 favorites]

This post is not a true statement about the Smithonian
posted by MrLint at 9:17 PM on March 9, 2009

This sure rang true to meetings I've been to. I don't say that it's valid, but there's a real fear among some people in libraries that we're giving away the farm, as it were.
posted by stinkycheese at 9:25 PM on March 9, 2009

Man I liked that video up until the time they made me listen to annoying guy's points AGAIN while they disproved them. I mean, I heard him the first time and I can read totally well so why make him say the stuff AGAIN just so you can shoot him down? I thought both sides could stand to have more realistic dialogue with each other, but for every Angry Staff Person who is a goober there's some snarky IT guy who wants to redo everything in Drupal and make everyone send email using Pine because [$GOOD_REASON] and you need someone who is the boss of both of those people to talk vision and strategy.

This sort of thing plagues libraries and maybe I'm too far on the IT side to see it as anything but a total "you aren't good for anything" indictment of Angry Staff Person [plus it's 30% to long but that's just my twitchy multitasker talking] I was surprised to read that it actually got dialogue started. If it were me they were caricaturing that way, I'd be a little pissed.
posted by jessamyn at 9:55 PM on March 9, 2009 [3 favorites]

so when do we get metafilter drupal edition?
posted by localhuman at 10:29 PM on March 9, 2009

Let me say, first of all, that I am not a digital native, but have been, as museum people go, an early adopter, including being one of the first to actually have and use an external email account in the museum jurassic era of the early 80's, and we have a strong web presence and museum catalogues up on the web. I'm not super skilled at stuff, certainly, but I see the value in both traditional web and web 2.0 initiatives. That said, even while I know this little film is *meant* to be provocative, yet I can't help but be somewhat resentful of the attitude that we museum people with some reservations about some of what the tech people at our institutions want to do are just luddites, and that it is an us vs. them kind of situation, with the enlightened tech people trying to drag the dusty old museum guard kicking and screaming away from their piles of papers and into the new digital wonderland.

I am also resentful because we really have been starved for resources for so long, and asked to do so much with so little for so long. We are then presented with the shiny ponies of new tech initiatives, and told to admire the glitter, but once again are given barely one iota of support at the grassroots level in order to get the things done we would need to do to make our web content really rock. Instead we are told - lets throw lots of images of your artifacts on the web, this should be one of your highest priorities - but not given anyone to take the pictures except interns and volunteers, and not given any help to enhance and update 19th century cataloguing terms to make them meaningful for searching by 21st century users. Plus, this just gets dumped on us as extra duties, in addition to the work we have been doing all along - so it's more work, but with very little if any extra help to accomplish it. Oh certainly, there is some extra money thrown at special projects, though that often gets sucked up by technical requirements for hardware and software (surprise!, if you tell us to develop lots of digital content, then you will need to add server space to host it all). It is certainly an option to throw museum catalogues open to tagging by users, but staff and curatorial expertise in indexing can be crucial to getting meaningful info. out there as well, yet the time to do that gets lost in the day to day grind.

I also would really love it if the upper admin people would redirect some staff positions so that there are maybe a few less extra special assistant deputy directors of external social relations, and a few more registrars, database managers, web masters, and the tech people able to actually help us get the content out there. Also, and just as important, we need these people to be on staff permanently, not just brought in for the initial digitization and web page building, in order to be able to keep it all up to date once it *is* out there. Otherwise, you are in the unenviable position of one place I know, who contracted the work for a really nice web page, that has garnered lots of attention for both its design and content, but yet no money was set aside for upkeep. They had to go begging for help to fix a minor but embarrassing spelling error on the page, that no one noticed till the contractors were already done and paid and had moved on.
posted by gudrun at 10:37 PM on March 9, 2009 [4 favorites]

I work for libraries, archives, and museums. I do their websites among other things. You would think I would be all about the points the guy lays out but he misses a few key issues

1. We have spent a ton of money on online resources like EBSCO databases while our walk-ins have gone way down. When we go to justify why we should be funded, they always ask for door count. Funding organizations for most LAMs want hard numbers not a bunch of intertubes flimflam, as they see it.

2. gudrun makes one hell of a point. Our state has one guy, ONE GUY, scanning images from our historical collections for our online database because our funding levels are so low. At the steady rate he is going, he may get 1/8 of the collection done before he retires. Most departments have better in-house scanning programs than the Archives because the Archives are essentially operating under an unfunded mandate.

3. Many LAMs are members of organizations that make rules the LAMs have to follow. It may be a school, a municipality, a state government, etc. Trying to work within their rules can be a nightmare. Trust me, I have been waiting for a new webserver to be configured for over two years now because I wanted something a little out of the ordinary.

All that said, I have found librarians, archivists, and museum specialists to be very open to using the web in new ways. I often find myself trying to slow them down a bit. Yeah team!
posted by Foam Pants at 11:06 PM on March 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

I often find that libraries (perhaps less so museums) are willing to adopt any and ALL Web 2.0 stuff (the flicktubefacespace.com phenomenon, only add Second Life in there....please, take Second Life!) in a slightly less than organized fashion, usually propelled by early adopters. I blame most of the disorganization on the lack of money, as this is often a labor of love for these early adopters (EAs for short, as I'm lazy at this hour).

Nonetheless, it would be awesome if libraries (like I said, perhaps not so much museums) slowed things down a bit, figured out which strategies are working, and brought in other stakeholders besides the EAs. That one staff member who can't type--at all--and is totally resistant to putting any of their material up on the internet? They need to buy in to this whole 2.0 thing as well, which is of course what Edson is addressing.

It's worth noting, however, that there needs to be a balance between "the internet is charging ahead and WE ARE FALLING BEHIND, WE MUST JOIN EVERYTHING SOCIAL NETWORK-Y NOW" and "this latest fad, it costs too much, and I refuse to participate, you can't make me, I've been here 20 years and this is MY library."

Edson addresses one end, which is arguably the more problematic one, but he shouldn't forget about the other end (which is also damaging the library a little bit, I think, by trying to seem 'hip' but venturing into locations, such as Facebook, where information seekers are less interested in information seeking and more interested in viewing their friends' party pictures from last weekend).
posted by librarylis at 11:47 PM on March 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

What this video points out to me is the failure of Tech Guy to get everyone on board before unveiling the project. No wonder Staff Guy has objections! He showed up to a meeting and was told that a chunk of his budget was shifting away and that the focus of the organization he's worked for for 25 years would be shifting.

I've learned from harsh experience that you cannot just start off a new initiative, particularly a tech-oriented one, with a flourish of jazz hands and a mantra about the Power of the Internet. You need to build consensus in your organization, get your coworkers to buy in to the idea, and then unveil it, possibly as a test case or trial.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 6:25 AM on March 10, 2009

you need someone who is the boss of both of those people to talk vision and strategy.

It absolutely comes down to that, and all the implementation issues that have been brought up since you said that come back to leadership and management. There need to be reference to the mission and vision, a strategic plan that includes web and digital initiatives (and ways to pay for them), analysis and reporting, and ongoing support and monitoring.

The problem really is not at the grainy level; it's at the management/leadership level, and the implementation problems museums and maybe libraries are experiencing mostly have to do, in my experience, with people at the leadership level who are very inexperienced at thinking about information and access in a new way. They're simply behind and relatively unaware; so they're either avoiding important areas, or leaping at solutions in a premature and uninformed way, and very vulnerable to suggestion from people looking to promote their technology vision or product, whether that's from within or without the institution. There's a leadership generation gap that makes it incredibly difficult for managers and CEOs of the Selectric generation to coordinate a vision for a museum profile and education strategy that is no longer confined to buildings and brochures. Yesterday the marketing person had to tell my museum's CEO what a USB drive is and give him a lesson in using it.

That inexperience is fine, but wilful ignorance of it, in my mind, is irresponsible. These leaders are people who attend CEO forums and read Harvard Business Review and give keynotes at conferences and pursue funding. It causes no end of problems that they are only vaguely aware that Technology is something they are supposed to "do" and tend to overvalue simple and perhaps ineffective projects because they seem pretty, often because someone took the time to explain the project to them and they 'get' that aspect of it. But the bigger picture is lost to them - they just haven't grappled with the ways in which digitization is fundamentally changing the human relationship to stored information (whether objects, text, or ideas) and connectivity is fundementally changing human relationships to one another and to institutions. It's not changing them unrecognizably, so I also hate to see people lose their horse sense in the face of tech initiatives, but it is changing enough to single out the institutions who are doing things poorly or not at all, and highlight those doing it well.

There is a resistance to piloting and experimentation, and that's not good. Someone needs to be experimenting in order to get the data about what's effective in the short and long term. Data is pretty amazing at creating buy-in. "Increased membership rolls by 15% and membership income by 27%" makes its own argument. Not supporting a few entrepreneurial ventures is bad leadership strategy. Equally, declaring the New Paradigm and forcing it on everyone untried is also bad leadership strategy. But, as always, it's not about the technology.

Finally, I am also a not-quite-digital native and find that as a result I have a unique perspective of being able to compare the experiences, successes/failures and potentials of analog vs. digital approaches, having worked with them both. I am often more skeptical of a new tech initiative than others, because I need to see proof that it has the potential to offer something valuable before I can support the time investment. At the same time, I see an enormous need to push laggard leadership into thinking creatively about museums' uses of connectivity and digitization, allowing staff to design and pilot promising projects and report back on them, both for the good of the institution and the enrichment of the field as a whole. Personally, I am very skeptical that the old 'putting the collection online' default is a good idea. It might be, and there are some good arguments for it, but is it worth the time investment? How many people will that be of use to? How long does any one individual spend exploring an online collection? What do they use online collections for? If they use them for professional reasons (such as an art history professor putting together a classroom slideshow) is this something that is a candidate for fee-based subscriber access? What are the other benefits to the museum - can it dovetail with collections databases? Does it help to allow user tagging? Should all collections be online all the time, or is there a case for a rotating-exhibit plan as we use in galleries -- because even though we don't have the same space premium online, we have a time premium and an attention premium?

All valuable questions. But we can't even ask those questions if we get stonewalled by outmoded curatorial philosophies (that, incidentally, were undergoing an overdue change even before web technology came along). Right now, it's up to individuals in institutions to educate one another about how to implement technology, and up to CEOs to integrate and manage efforts with some sense. One of these days, it will no longer be my job to teach co-workers about the thoughtful use of technology - we'll be hip deep in doing it and people who have have been bathing in digital ifnormation since birth will be thinking of uses we can't even imagine yet. But in order to attract the best minds to our institutions, we need to put the stake in the ground now that says we are willing to experiment and to engage in the conversation about what access to collections, and museum experiences, will look like in both online and offline formats as we continue to integrate web technologies into our daily lives.
posted by Miko at 6:56 AM on March 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'm surprised to see Mefi have a much crabbier reaction to this than the library and museum people at webwise where it was presented. Mike Edson is a brilliant guy trying to push a billion-dollar public behemoth to open up. It's not about the technology or geeks vs. archivists or IT funding, really; it's about Whose Collection Is It Anyway? Does it belong to the public, or to the staff? There are several us/them axes in play here, but the big problem is when Library or Museum staff label themselves as US and the public as THEM.

You see this a lot in Public Libraries, from the turning up of the professional nose at lowly popular materials that people actually want, to the moves in times of economic crisis to protect collections from use. In Museums, it leads to the elevating the importance of the curatorial interpretation above the value of the artifact itself, for what smelly mallwalker could possibly appreciate this priceless object without a carefully wordsmithed plaque that tells them why they should be in awe?

If you believe that it is the staff's job to maintain and enhance the value of the content, then keep it locked away behind glass cases and ticket lines forever. If you believe that it is the staff's job to maintain and enhance access to the content, then it makes sense to take the content into the places where the people are. At first that was magazines, then the web, and now that the web can talk back many professionals are feeling denigrated by the web's tendency to allow anyone to say anything about anything. But Mike's excellent point is that more value AND access accrue from opening up collections to the web than is lost when someone says something stupid or untrue about a vase.

Also on that panel was the Brooklyn Museum's Chief of Technology, Shelley Bernstein, who talked about how many amazing things have happened since they started putting their collections in the Flickr Commons. Check out this image of the Chicago World's Columbian Exhibition, with extensive notes by a member of the public and including discussion about the image with Museum staff.

The point is that putting museum and library content on the web elevates it instead of cheapening it, and that the things that angry staff people worry about are the exceptions and not the norms. This discussion about and enrichment of that old image could not have happened solely inside the Brooklyn Museum, as the person who is so passionate about these images and added so much value to them images lives in Seattle.

But, because Web Tech Guy made it happen despite Angry Staff Person's crabby objections, that interaction is out there for the world to enjoy. Of course these are provocative stereotypes, and not all at the expense of Angry Staff People; as a Web Tech Guy, I was just as stung by the dopey, simpleminded Web Tech Guy simply putting stuff up on the web without working through the politics first as robocop is bleeding pointed out; the common inability of geeks to put projects in a larger perspective and build buy-in is what leads to truly important things (like opening content to public feedback) being lumped in as fads with totally stupid diversions (Second Life).

You can't put the web back in its box. There are still people in Museums and Libraries who need to hear this message, and many of them are in positions of power which leads to the resource allocation challenges many have mentioned above. But what is often missed is that putting your content on the web doesn't have to be an expensive endeavor involving overpriced proprietary nightmarish digitial asset management software and elaborately regimented fleets of policies; it just takes a flickr account and the administrative and cultural willingness to let THEM help US give THEM THEIR STUFF.

Mike Edson kicks ass, and his cartoon does too.
posted by ulotrichous at 7:37 AM on March 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

Lots of good points ulotrichous, and no one here on metafilter is talking about putting the web back in its box, but someone still has to either digitize the images of the archival stuff, digitize the papers and the books in the libraries, or shoot the images of the 3D artifacts, *before* they can go up on that flickr account. Now, that may sound easy on the surface, but if you are talking about photographing a 60 foot boat, or shooting some barkcloth that is so fragile that it is crumbling when you try to touch it, then you need some time, staff, and resources (and maybe Conservation treatment as well) to do it. Creating web initiatives by decree from the higher ups always kind of makes me think of Jean-Luc Picard on Star Trek saying "Make it so." Well, yeah, great idea upper admin folks, now give me the resources to implement it, why don't you.
posted by gudrun at 8:15 AM on March 10, 2009

What I was really really hoping for, actually, was a version of this video played twice. One with Angry Staff Person bringing up all the empty arguments and then again with the IT guy bringing up all the empty arguments from his side and then with some resolution that addressed both sides of the equation.

I saw a "what ALA is up to" presentation by the president of the American Library Association at some coference or another and before he did his little talk he showed the audience one of those fairly simple "hey people are really using the web and it's changing the world and the way we interact with information" videos with all the infographics and etc (not The Machine is Us/ing Us, but something similar) and I was so stupidly grateful that someone in that notoriously-non-web-getting organization even knew what YouTube was (much less understood the larger lesons about opening up content and allowing people to interact without an informaiton professional as the bottleneck) and that people in the audience who were mostly old school librarian types were saying "ohhh!" in a slightly I-get-it way I could have wept.

I've been reading and re-reading Google and the Future of Books this week which drives the point home that because these "IT guys" of Google just decided to go ahead (with their big bucks) and start the digitization thing and not be timid and worry about copyright and "what if" and whatever, they're going to have a lock on digitzed information moving forward. That works decently well for me, but it's always going to be a big of a semi-private shame that there wasn't a way that libraries, museums, etc couldn't have put something together that was more open, less capitalistic and more geared towards sharing and not stock shares. To me that's the genie we can't put back in the bottle.
posted by jessamyn at 9:09 AM on March 10, 2009 [3 favorites]

It's true that it takes resources, but what about just reframing the problem as a question: If your institution decides they'd like to put a collection online, then what resources will be required for the project? Then those resources need to be pursued and directed to the project. There are a lot of potential resources for digitization money, if that's where the institution decides to go - and most of them focus on access.

I actually don't know of any museums where someone decreed "put the whole collection online!" or some similary ambitious project, and provided no resources. I do know of several who created projects to put a specific collection online, as with Flickr Commons, and resourced that project properly. And I'm sure there have been poorly thought out attempts at digitization, but I doubt at this point that it's the norm.

At my previous museum, I was involved in a big ol' resource-gobbling project to create an...interactive CD-ROM. This format was incredibly attractive to planners in the late 1990s. It was sold to the museum by a charismatic developer who was in love with the platform. The result was nice, but fell seriously short of the goals for utility and demand that the champions had hoped. I think this case study offers a much more common type of difficulty encountered when approaching web projects. The project was adequately resourced, and well executed from an architecture and organization standpoint. It was well written and visually rich, and contained a significant number of scanned archival documents employed in telling the content story (the curatorial and library teams welcomed this opportunity to get some documents scanned, incidentally. This wasn't a turf issue).

However, the overall project failed to take into account market demand; it undersold, and costs overran profits. The team worked with approximately 0 end users to determine in advance what use they would make of the content, what would cause them to buy it, or what features they would like to see. There was no prototyping. In addition, it employed a format that really works best for specific applications in educational settings as part of a planned curriculum, and as such does not have broad popular appeal. There was no attempt to spread the work across platforms and make it do double or triple duty; no strong connection with programs, no niche for the integration of this piece with an overall interpretive plan. It was the museum "doing technology" in many minds, and people patted themselves on the back for doing something in a digital format, but they failed to apply the same critical approach and project management strategies they might have if they were, say, considering publishing a new book or creating a new exhibit. The fundamental questions - why do this? what does this do for the audience, the objects, the institution? how will we know if it's working? - were not asked.

Unfortunately, too often the result of this sort of experience is that the people involved run scared from future technology iniatives. Rather than seeing the failures of this project as "the important and instructive results of an experiment which will help us plan better future projects," some see it as "a waste of time and energy and yet another example of why new technologies are not worth pursuing." But the difference is in the framing and expectations. I certainly wish the museum had openly documented its failures and shared them at conferences (that ability to be honest is sorely lacking in this field - there was no representing this thing as anything but a paragon of with-it-ness), because the lessons learned are still of immense value when considering the implementation of projects using new abilities. Hell, even stories about the implementation of, like, the bar code scanner are instructive. We have to be honest, we have to use public resources wisely, and we have to study our projects as closely as we do all other efforts to bring the collections to the public. Digital projects shouldn't be exempted from the same approvals and evaluations that all other projects, capital, program, marketing, or otherwise are subjected to. The important thing is not to take the whole thing, baby/bathwater style, and develop a knee-jerk response of one kind or another to proposals about technology. The conversation can no longer be 'should we/shouldn't we make the museum more accessible on the web' but 'how? for who, when, which objects, what format?'

It can certainly help people from all backgrounds accept change if digital initiatives are framed as projects, entreprenuer-style experiments, that don't go forward until they prove themselves. They should also be appropriately resourced - keeping in mind that good work with digital technologies doesn't only cost funds, it draws funds. But it's real folly to step out of the conversation and say "digital initiatives are always made of suck," because at some point, it will mean falling short of fulfilling your mission.
posted by Miko at 9:32 AM on March 10, 2009 [2 favorites]

it's always going to be a big of a semi-private shame that there wasn't a way that libraries, museums, etc couldn't have put something together that was more open, less capitalistic and more geared towards sharing and not stock shares. To me that's the genie we can't put back in the bottle.

That's really well put. And I think people outside the Lib/mus world may not realize how tragic it is. I don't want to miss any more boats. I wish we could take the leap from worrying about leading the field to leading the culture - since we are keeping the repositories of the culture for use by the people.
posted by Miko at 9:35 AM on March 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

Web guy should say it can all be done with Rails, ride a skateboard while at work, and get beaten to death by the rest of the staff at the end.

(I really hate those skateboard riding, ear-ring wearing, emo-haired Rails types)
posted by Artw at 9:48 AM on March 10, 2009

Thanks for the useful comments--especially from Jess and Miko.

I work for the Washington State Digital Archives. We have something like 80 million documents, mostly from Washington State counties, online and add millions more per month. After years of resistance the counties are really hopping aboard and have become great fans of our service.

But still we get these complaints and worries. It is even worse with archives than museums because so many county and local archives count on revenues for access to fund their offices. We are about to put up thousands of cases from county courts, some dating back to the late 1800s. But the county insists that we display only the top half of the first page of each record--and charge 25 cents a page for users to even view the records beyond that first half page! It is anti-democratic and eliminates many of the potential advantages of digital history, but there you have it.
posted by LarryC at 11:10 AM on March 10, 2009

not all spagetti they thrown against the wall is going to stick. You can blame management but get some thicker skin. It's not about you (the Wiki maker that is).
posted by celerystick at 11:37 AM on March 10, 2009

We've had a lot of web 2.0 projects that were abandoned because they weren't well thought out. The RSS feed was a great idea. After setting it up, we realized that there was no one to generate any content. Live chat with a librarian was also a crackerjack idea until we realized that most of our patrons were blocked from using IMs by their systems managers. Oh, man. If I could bury all of our 2.0 failures, it would be a very big graveyard. That said, some have been successes. Strangely enough, the Facebook page for the Museum has been a huge hit, mostly because we put a buttload of photos on it.
posted by Foam Pants at 11:46 AM on March 10, 2009

The bit about Youtube and moderation in this weeks podcast makes interesting parallel listening to this.
posted by Artw at 12:40 PM on March 10, 2009

I just spoke up at a mini-conference about this issue, and what I want to point out is that it's not necessarily a generational gap--sometimes the person who doesn't know how to use the USB is 25 and fresh out of library school, not 55 and on the path to retirement.

The use of tech is often a personality issue far more than an age issue.

When you're recruiting into library schools the people who 'love books' and not the people who 'love tech' then yeah, problems will arise in both museums and libraries as these people get into the workforce and find that times have changed and they are expected to work with tech, not books.

Admittedly, younger librarians and curators have the mental flexibility to adjust to technology, but that doesn't mean that they're not just as mentally resistant to it as the old guard who've been there 30 years or more (many, many, many years more, in some cases).

As I look at the students coming out of library school now and heading into the library, archive, and museum jobs, I see people who are not as comfortable with technology as they should be--but their hiring institution can't afford for them to be the Angry Staff Member because *they* are supposed to the Tech Messiahs, those who couldn't be more comfortable with tech of all kinds.
posted by librarylis at 3:22 PM on March 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

Excellent point, librarylis, and I see it too, especially in my corner of the museum world, which is history museums. People who got into the field because their attractions to things like 1914 Sparta hit-and-miss combustion engines and 1870 Washington Handpress printing presses are not always the most up to date on the technologies of their own generation.

I count myself in this category - I'm one of the most tech-friendly people in my institution, which I tell my friends when they want a laugh, because compared to many of them I am a caveperson. This default tech-person phenomenon does put a burden where it doesn't belong.

I wish that we could have not only the resources we need to get specific projects done, but the resources to dream smartly - to hire in the most sophisticated thinkers about information technology, and get them involved in our field, because the rest of us are already playing catch-up. People like that can command a lot more value for their time in the private sector.
posted by Miko at 4:58 PM on March 10, 2009

Seems appropriate to post this here: The Museum of Modern Art Enhances Its Web Site.
posted by gudrun at 6:44 PM on March 10, 2009

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