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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

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Building communities

<<<<<BIG WARNING>>>>>
Major pontification with no real conclusions follows. Look away now.

[UPDATE: I forgot to include the Big Idea I mention below, which I've now written about separately]

I got back late [last] Wednesday from a meeting/seminar/workshop/conference thing (papers now here) in at the e-Science Institute in Edinburgh which I'm still digesting [a week after I started writing this...] but which gave me plenty to think about and introduced me to many interesting people from the digital arts & humanities world (DAH*). Weird though it seems when written down, this world intersects all too rarely with that of museums, libraries and archives(MLAs). That said, one aim of the organisers seemed to be to develop ideas for filling the void left by the Arts and Humanities Data Service, which was wound up this year and did have some relationships with MLAs, not least my own via the LAARC.

Anyway to the point. The object of the exercise was to explore community-building in DAH. What conditions favour this, what sorts of communities may fare best, what structures within the sector can or would help? I must confess that I frequently felt confused about whether we were speaking about the AHDS-related problem or a wider question, and whether the communities in question were partnerships and networks, or audiences for some product/service that the former might provide. Nevertheless there were several interesting presentations on day 1 (Tuesday), and I think fruitful discussion on day 2, when we worked in breakout groups to brainstorm a few questions around the topic., with at least one really stimulating idea emerging, courtesy of an antipodean mind (now why isn't that surprising?) I'll pick out a few of the things that grabbed me.


  • demonstrating value. Value to funders, if you're going to get their support for your network/partnership/wha'evah. Value to those you want as partners. Value to the people you want to use whatever it is you're promoting. It wasn't the idea that was interesting but the increasing recognition of the need not just to have a good idea, but to sell it. There's an ever-widening discussion of what makes a good indicator of value in various contexts - I know this from the museum and cultural world, but of course the humanities/academic world is grappling with the same hydra. Perhaps for my circle it's a debate over the appropriate usage of web stats, whilst for many at the meeting it was about citations. Same problem.

  • marketing. Plenty of cross-over with the above, in fact. As well as the obvious sales pitch aspect, if you're trying to build a community, there's the flipside of marketing: learning your market's needs in order to create the product that it wants.

  • plumbing. There was a lot of talk about infrastructure, which means a great variety of things: in a way what is the facilitated at one level becomes the facilitator at another (i.e. infrastructure), much as data and metadata can seem to be the same thing seen from different angles. There was a kind of infrastructure that cropped up more than once, though I'm hard pushed to characterise it other than by negatives. It's not generally physical: no cabling, not necessarily servers. It's not the provision of some fundamental service. It's where an agent/network/partnership helps to hook up or facilitate services and, umm, servicees (sorry). A kind of metaservice, if you like. So we had Bamboo, CLARIN, DARIAH and tge-ADONIS, TextGrid all considering or planning to act as intermediaries of one sort or another between DAH services or data and consumers (machine or human). I was struck by the parallels with some of the work I already knew about in the cultural heritage area. Collections Trust has exciting plans about where it will position its Culture Online venture, and Lexara [read my disclaimer] have realigned their Magic Studio to make it the "plumbing" between content providers (including services like Flickr) and other services or end-users/creators. In the commercial world, Gnip is also putting itself in this space, between social apps and those built upon them.

  • Roles and responsibilities. Really I suppose I just mean that a need for new roles is becoming apparent without us yet knowing who in our communities (or outside, perhaps) should be responsible for fulfilling them. We look at the rapid changes in the red-in-tooth-and-claw commercial sector, where networks of networks and a swirling and intermixing of content and services constantly throws up new ways of doing things, and we start to see the opportunities for new services to accomplish our parochial aims, recognise that we can't provide them, or that they're better provided collectively, or that our peers would benefit from them too; but we can be held back from turning this collective need/benefit into collective action in part because we haven't got conventions for assigning/allocating/assuming the new roles implied by these possibilities.
  • Building on what we have. Starting a new community initiative from scratch, including the community, may be unwise for a number of reasons. Often it may be better to look at existing organisations and see how their role could be adapted or expanded, whether by the creation of a special interest group, a regional su-committee, a project or whatever. This way you start with a community and you have an established brand to build from, with both the name and the objectives/values pre-existing to an extent in the minds of (potential) stakeholders. I had in mind the likes of the MCG, MCN, CNI: organisations that could provide the foundations for specialist sub-groups or initiatives.

As you can tell, I guess, a week later I still haven't reached any conclusions. I was hoping that reading my notes and writing this would bring some revelations or clarity, but no. The Edinburgh meeting was more like the exercise stirred up a lot of mud that I'd always known was there and I still don't know how to deal with it, but I think at least I now have a slightly better idea of what it's made. I guess, with my scant experience of big collaborative projects, I am poorly equipped to interpret what I heard from the point of view of the question at hand: community building. All the same I did hear about lots of cool stuff and met fascinating people, and attending was well worthwhile for me - I hope I gave something back. So thank you, Seth Denbo (source of my invitation) and all of the organisers of the seminar. I hope it gave you some clues as to where to take DARIAH, and I hope we can find new ways to knit the digital heritage and digital arts and humanities closer together.

* Apologies. I tried to write this avoiding initials for this but it proved too much work. I doubt it will catch on.

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