This photograph of Nina Simon over at Museum 2.0 pretty much sums up my experience with museum and library websites over the weekend. This was also the conclusion of Simon’s paper describing museums and libraries in the 21st Century.
This all got started this past weekend as I was reviewing websites for a graduate course I’m taking. I was not only looking at museums and libraries, but historical societies, as well. My intent was to see what actual resources were offered on their various websites and to see how they have bought into social networking. What I found was a bit discouraging.
In a 2006 blog post, Nick Poole of of the 24 Hour Museum described two types of markets:
The first market for museum websites is the direct user community. These are the people who regularly visit both museums and museum websites, and who make use of their online databases to carry out detailed research into the objects in their collections.
The second, much larger group, is the indirect community of millions upon millions of people for whom the Internet is both an information resource and a kind of hyper-connected valet, able to cater to their whims, needs and wishes 24 hours a day.
Nick Poole – “Are Museums Doing It Right?”, 24 Hour Museum, May 12, 2006
Consistent with Poole’s further remarks in this article, I found that most of the websites I reviewed cater to the first market. Museum and library sites tend to be “brick and mortar” oriented, providing information for those that actually visit the physical location. If there are online databases, these are usually limited to metadata – catalogs of library contents or of items that might actually be in the institution, but not extensive information articles or excerpts from books.
To target this second market, institutions must put aside some traditional fears, and must be willing to invest some time in making even more resources available online. The Exploratorium, which was one of the very first websites I can ever remember visiting, is a great example of an institution that goes beyond the brick and mortar, providing lesson plans and extensive resources that can be used even if you never visit the museum.
Compare that with our new Upstate History Museum’s website. Any photos are of the institution itself. There are descriptions of current exhibits, but not many photos. There is a link to an Oral Histories project, but those histories themselves are not made available online. Unfortunately, one doesn’t learn much about the history of the Upstate by visiting the Upstate History Museum’s website. It’s almost as if the institution has a fear that if they provide too much online, people won’t bother to visit, and revenue will be lost.
Libraries’ Use of Flickr
Some organizations are beginning to get their toes wet with Web 2.0 endeavors, but even with this they still target their faithful patrons. A prime example is how libraries in South Carolina use Flickr. Most of them have an account set up, but the photos are limited to pictures of activities in the library – recent book club meetings, guest speakers, etc. Take a look at this sample photo from the Charleston County Library Flickr account…
While this might be important to the people involved with the library, it has no meaning for me as a patron, much less someone who is cruising through the library’s Flickr stream. This type of photo is typical of what I found on the Flickr accounts from libraries across South Carolina.
In previous posts I’ve already sung the praises of the Pickens County Library, Library of Congress, and Smithsonian Institute for their use of images on Flickr. In contrast to the Charleston photo, take a look at this image from the Pickens Flickr account…
Even if I had no interest in the library itself, I would find this image compelling. Why is some character shooting a gun in their photo stream? This is picture of “Paco”, who was one of the characters at the old Echo Valley Amusement Park, a Western-themed park located in Cleveland, South Carolina. The image immediately brings back memories of stopping there as a seven year old with my family – the ride my brother Stephen got on and which my father made the operator stop because Steve was getting sick, coming back to our car to find a bumper sticker for the park already applied to our car, the chairlift that wound around the little hills, and seeing the remains of said chairlift’s foundations every time I drive up Highway 276.
Even though I’ve never been to the Pickens Library, that photo of Paco has a strong connection for me, and as a result I’m more interested in what the library itself is doing. That is a much stronger pull than just seeing a photo of a book club or of someone I don’t know receiving an award. Don’t get me wrong. I think there is a place and a need for sharing the social aspects of library life, but I think the resource could also be used much more effectively by including some of these historic images.
A Tale of Two Historical Societies
Probably my biggest disappointment over the weekend was with the Greenville Historical Society. There’s the typical brick and mortar information about address, hours, becoming a member, supporting the organization, etc. There are links to collections housed at the sociecty, but those links only open up a PDF file of the collection list. It’s not cataloged, indexed, or really searchable by any stretch of the imagination.
Even more disappointing, the Society controls one of the finest collections of historical photographs of Greenville – the Coxe Collection, which “contains over 100,000 historical prints and negatives of Greenville, South Carolina, from the late 1800s through the 1900s, including photographs from the textile industry and expositions, school sports events, corporate and government organizations, families, businessmen and celebrities,” according to the South Carolina State Archives website. Unfortunately, only a few samples are available on the Society’s website, those are only available as thumbnails. The Society website does say that it sells prints. I know that there are copyright issues involved, but I think there would be much more interest in purchasing a print if one has a better preview of it first. It doesn’t have to be a high resolution image, and it could even be watermarked to prevent unauthorized use. The State Archives also state that the collection is actually housed at Bob Jones University. However a search of their website turned up no reference to the Coxe Collection.
One historical society that has been doing a great job is the Tucapau-Startext Historical Society. Tucapau is a tiny mill village community on the Middle Tyger River in Spartanburg County which was renamed Startex when the local textile mill changed hands. The Society’s page is a traditional flat HTML site with no Web 2.0 components. However, what it does have is content. This includes photos, oral histories, and maps of the area. Unfortunately, it does look like this was the work of one “webmaster” and that it’s no longer being kept up to date. Incorporating more interactive features into the site would certainly help keep this great resource alive.
Institutions have some traditional objections and problems with making information available online. There are copyright and licensing issues involved which create some restrictions, but two of the biggest complaints can be outweighed by the benefits of using social networking.
Problem: Providing resources online takes time and effort.
Solution: True – it takes time to scan images and index them. However, using Web 2.0 resources eases some of that burden by allowing users to create their own metadata and contribute to the overall body of knowledge about that item.
Problem: Making resources available online will drive down revenue because patrons will no longer need to visit the brick and mortar location.
Solution: Use the online resources to generate even more interest in the institute increasing member support for outreach initiatives and to make an even wider audience aware of what’s available at the institute.
Institutes such as libraries, museums, and historical societies are delving into Web 2.0 applications, but so far it appears to be more of a “bandwagon” effort. One organization creates a Flickr account because they saw another one with one, but there is no real strategic planning as to how to incorporate social networking into the overall mission of the organization. That, I think, is the crux of the matter.
[tags]museums, libraries, historical society, Web 2.0, social networking, Flickr, instructional technology, online resources[/tags]