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Web person at the Imperial War Museum, just completed PhD about digital sustainability in museums (the original motivation for this blog was as my research diary). Posting occasionally, and usually museum tech stuff but prone to stray. I welcome comments if you want to take anything further. These are my opinions and should not be attributed to my employer or anyone else (unless they thought of them too). Twitter: @jottevanger

Sunday, May 04, 2008

The MCG thread: 21st Century digital curation

Bridget McKenzie has blogged and kicked off a great discussion on the MCG list following a seminar last week with Carole Souter of HLF and Roy Clare of MLA. I've written a reply but as usual I do go on a bit so I'm sending a brief version there and putting more depth here.

There are so many strands to this exchange that I want to jabber about so I’m going back to the start – Bridget’s post. Bridget, if I get your drift, yes, I agree: there is a balance to be struck between the effort put into basic “digitisation” (though I think there are various ideas circulating about what that term implies) and interpreting our digitised collections, and I’m not sure we’re being helped to strike the right balance at present. Raves and gripes about past projects aside, it’s how we spend the scant funds now available that bothers me. Going from a time of relative plenty to a time where most budgets are Spartan rather than Olympian, how do we plan clearly how we spend them?

I’m torn. On the one hand, I get the sentiment which says, we need to be making things that people will enjoy, with some sort of mediation and aimed at well-defined audiences, just like any exhibition or public event we host. I accept that HLF amongst others want their funds to be used on things that we don’t automatically do, things that aren’t our “core activities”. And I take Dylan’s point that, when resources are scarce (which is always), demonstrating (actually, having) impact is really important. But….

On the other, I would suggest that digitisation being referred to as a core activity betrays the fact that it is indeed now something we have to do. The trouble is, it may be a part of our core work, but it has never been core funded (at least not in terms of funds additional to the pre-digitisation days). So it’s a cop-out to say “it’s really important, and therefore we won’t pay for it”. Who will, then? Until our core funders, whoever they might be, come up with the cash to do this newly core activity on an ongoing rather than project basis, we’ll have to act as though it’s not “core” and go begging precisely because it’s so important. But apparently HLF think it’s important enough to not fund it too, so we’re stuffed. I’m glad to hear that in Birmingham at least there digitisation is seen as something to drive with internal funds, I guess HLF are hoping more places will go that way.

The important thing that NOF Digi did (along with other HLF and DCMS funded projects) was get a load of collections records in some sort of order and snap some nice shots of the objects (which seems to be commonly accepted as equating to the “digitisation” of a typical museum/gallery item – making a good record and a decent photo). All the other stuff isn’t flim-flam – for those many users that had a great experience of Port Cities and other such projects, that experience was in no small part due to the contextualisation and linking built on top of the vital digitisation effort. I’m sure that BMAG’s Pre-Raphaelite website will be great, but as Rachel says, the payoff is much more than whatever users it attracts. Like an exhibition, the mediated experience will be more transient than the collections (physical or surrogate) on which it is built. We can’t equate web-ready records and surrogates with physical collections, but nevertheless they are the bricks and mortar from which our public-facing offering is built, and they will last longer than the wallpaper, lighting, video games and Persian rugs with which we make it “engaging”. Besides, sometimes all that stuff ends up seeming really forced just so we could secure the funding. Kind of like the way I’m now listening to Paul’s Boutique and hoping to find a clever excuse to quote some lyrics in support of my argument!

Unsurprisingly, then, I come out on the side of those like Bridget, Mike (E, not D) who argue that investing in the fundamentals in such a way that they can be built upon in future is the way to go. To me this means, basically, getting those records and surrogates done irrespective of anticipated clicks: if the object is worth accessioning, it’s worth recording properly. Getting that content into some public-facing form is, frankly, less vital, and we need to be considering intelligent ways of doing it. Building stuff in such a way that others can do good things with it is a step in that direction, which is why I’ve been pinning my hopes on EDL doing the Right Thing with an API. If this works the right way, any size of museum could contribute content and use Europeana’s centralised brain-power to do all the hard work. Then the basics are done, the mediating content can be tied in to it. But “digitisation” is the essential part. Like Mike, I’ve told both EDL and NCO (via Bridget) that they could reasonably drop a user interface altogether if they provide for other people to programme against an aggregated collection, but conversely a public UI without and API is pointless. I say “Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair” [see side 2 for details]. And Nick, the way you describe the vision for IA is very encouraging for this precise reason. Wish we’d had the chance to talk about it t’other night!

Stephen Lowy also raised the term sustainability. What he described is better termed preservation to my mind (although successful preservation needs sustaining…), but sustainability is at the core of this, and for this we need to make a clear distinction both conceptually and architecturally between the layers of the “digitisation” – the records and surrogates ([collections] data layer), access to them (the layer of functionality), contextualisation (a mediating layer of more content), showing them (a UI layer), perhaps including engagement with the resource in Web 2-ish ways (an additional set of social layers?). We shouldn’t be required to provide all of these parts; it’s ridiculous, even with multi-institution projects. Of course we often want to anyway, but for major funders to say, “we are only interested in helping you with the basics if you’ll build all the other layers too” is dumb.

I should add that I do actually believe that interpreting and being creative with our collections (and in fact going beyond them) is also a core activity of museums, and this obviously carries into the digital realm. To take a current famous example, Launchball, which I had a riot playing with my 5 and 7 year old yesterday: this is exactly what museums are for, but it could have been (relatively) rubbish if it had been compromised in the way Mike describes, perhaps tacked onto a digitisation initiative for the sake of funds and shorn of its purity. It has all it needs: food, sickles and girls

Mike again: “cash for sustainability is either not considered or frowned upon by funders who simply don't recognise that this is an absolute requirement in any successful (web) project.”, and Tehmina also wonders what measures are in place to avoid a repeat of situations where there is no planning for maintenance and continued content development. They’re right. At the start of each project we must be stating (a) what’s important about it (b) how long we want the important aspects to last (c) what strategies will be built in to assist this (d) what other potential sources of value the resource offers. This way we can build it appropriately (funds permitting) to ensure that we can indeed continue to realise value from the thing for the proposed lifespan. And once that period is over, we should also be in a better position to re-examine the resource, decide what’s still got potential to advance the organisation’s purpose, and maybe squeeze more value from it. And if we take the right approach to architecture, with conceptual and technical divisions between the layers, then if we’ve decided that one part is for a couple of years and another is “forever” we’ll be able to put out efforts where it matters.

Bridget asked: “what such lead bodies [HLF and MLA] should be doing to invest in 21st century digital curation?” Basically, I’d say, they should put their funds in three areas and realise that they need to be seen as separate endeavours
  1. invest properly in strategic, sector-wide initiatives like the Information Architecture, that one would hope will do the plumbing job we need, and feed into EDL (and beyond?). Fingers crossed for this one.
  2. support simple digitisation to create the straight-ahead content to go into EDL and/or IA. It’s still got to be done. If it’s not support with funds then MLA must ensure that digitisation is recognised by those providing the core funding as a core activity, and is adequately provided for on an ongoing basis. Not too optimistic.
  3. yes, still fund us to build some imaginative and innovative, born-to-die experimental exciting digital stuff aimed directly at the public. Who knows? Maybe.
  4. and funds need to have the right strings attached. Maybe this is sometimes related to “impact”; it should also be about identifying the “sources of value” in a resource, budgeting realistically for supporting them for a specific period, and planning for the end of its life.

Can you tell it’s a holiday weekend and I’m the only one at home?

PS. About those sickles: sorry, the Mummies also made it onto the turntable.


Alastair Dunning said...

Just to follow on from this earlier debate: I've now put together a searchable list of all projects funded under the NOF-digi programme.

Jeremy said...

Wow, that's a heck of a feat and a really useful resource. Sustainable too, I hope!?! Personally I'll find it really valuable for my research but it'll provide food for the MCG barneys we get every now and then too. A cursory look seems to suggest that many of the projects have ongoing benefits, which The Taxpayer should be pleased about (well, the Lottery player I suppose). Though those that have been static since launch pose other questions about the value they offer if they don't evolve. Very interesting, thank you.