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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

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Another catch-up post

Time for a catch-up. It's been quite a while, after all (umm, not counting the Ithaka post I wrote whilst failing to finish this one), and though I've got a bunch of drafts waiting they'll never come to anything so here goes with a bunch of things that have happend or caught my eye recently-ish.
  • Didn't get a job. Went for one, lucky enough to be interviewed, didn't clear that hurdle but did learn a bit along the way. Firstly, I really need to get more structured project management experience. Secondly, gotta calibrate my confidence gauge correctly. Am I accurately putting across what I'm capable of? Do I really know what I'm capable of? I don't want a job I'm unable to perform well but I do want to be stretched; it's a fine line and I think the employer is vital in assessing this question but they need the most accurate information to decide this (rather than bullshit), but equally I need to be able to assess myself objectively. For when the next job comes up.

  • Did get some help. Back in June we finally got me some help from Julia Fernee, a contractor (at present) with a museum/art background and whizzo tech skills who's just a god-send (hope that doesn't compromise my agnostic credentials). Julia's been working on the LAARC access system, which is one of those systems that's been broken since our Mimsy upgrade in late '07. She's worked methodically through the system fixing all the routines and various bugs, enabling downloads of digital archives (yay!), auditing, documenting, unf***ing stuff. We're going to look at the whole data access layer next and rebuild it in a proper service-orientated way, so that we can finally start re-using that amazing resource in other places and ultimately offer a public API. All assuming we can keep JF for long enough.

  • Got a boss. I posted before about Antony Robbins joining MOL. He started earlier this month and now we in the web team (i.e. Bilkis and I) need to start thinking of ourselves really as part of the Communication department. It's hard - we still sit with our old IT buds most of the time - but they're a good lot in Comms and there's an enthusiasm for e-marketing and social media. At the same time a number of other things are happening that hopefully bode well. These include MOL taking the first steps to a proper digital (or is it web?) strategy; the creation of a "digital museum manager" post to lead our team; and the initiation of a social media group with participants from many departments.

  • MOLA and Nomensa. We had a very useful review of the MOL Archaeology website from Nomensa. We were well aware of many of the problems but having some fresh eyes to help develop ideas on how to solve them is really helpful. They also picked up various points we'd not really noticed. Lots of the issues relate to our complicated new brand, which has made confusing messages almost inevitable; nevertheless we can do better.

  • Open Repository. I went over to Gray's Inn Road to talk to the folks at BioMed about Open Repository, which hosts a never-realised-but-still-paid-for repository that was intended to provide an OAI gateway for some PNDS data. They were wondering (rather honourably I thought) whether we fancied making anything of the investment. It seemed like a good chance to reduce my ignorance of exactly how repository software fits into the general scheme, its overlap with e.g. DAMS and so on. There's a nest of problems in our Collections Online Delivery System that such software might play a part in addressing, but equally it will be but one part of the architecture and does it fit better than alternatives, or a custom-made "black box" (see below)? I learnt a lot, but haven't reached a resolution yet.

  • CODS. So, speaking of CODS, we struggle on. Can I bear to go into it now? Not really. We're getting closer to defining the edges of the bit we can't define (the "Black Box") but whether anyone will want to build it for us, or think we're anything other than insane for proposing it, is another matter. The Black Box, by the way, is the part that takes data from multiple sources and aggregates it, but also enables its enrichment via the creation of new associated content and relationships between entities. It doesn't have to do the discover part or offer many services but it does have to offer a reasonable authoring/management interface. It's not a hole that seems to fit any off-the-shelf software, so as I say perhaps we're simply stupid to dig that hole in the first place.
    Anyway, deadlines loom and something must congeal before then. Should be a laugh seeing what it is. Oh god.
  • IT dead people. I'm helping to put together a proposal for a project I won't be able to give details of as yet, but it's an interesting opportunity to wed multiple strands of archaeological/historical research with popular interests, notably family history.

  • MCN2009. I'm honoured to have been invited to present a paper for which I submitted an abstract, it seems like an age ago. MCN2009 takes place in Portland, Oregon in November - again, seems like an age away but I'd better not leave it too long before I get scribbling in earnest. I'm very excited, both to be asked there and by the paper itself, which I think should be quite fun to write.
  • Went to Paris in the the spring. Well, June, when I tripped over to IRLIS (next to the Pompidou Centre) for a Europeana meeting to develop API requirements. It was an interesting exercise and I think we made progress with evolving ideas for end-uses and for figuring out priorities. One of the most important things to work out is how to intertwine the API build with that of the internal architecture, so that we can make best use of what's going to be built anyway.

I think that covers most of it for now. Still awake at the back?

Ithaka report ith a catastrophe (for me)

I am tho thcrewed.
Ithaka S+R has produced a report for JISC, the SCA, NEH and NSF entitled "Sustaining digital resources: an on-the-ground view of projects today". It's a great report, outlining a sensible approach to what sustainability actually means, strategies to achieve it, and how a number of current projects put these strategies into practice. It's a follow-up to "Sustainability and revenue models for online academic resources" (2008).
The problem, for me, is that much of the originality that I hoped my PhD work would offer has vanished overnight. Their definition of sustainability; their explicit linking of financial sustainability to the value offer; their arguments for leadership that offers clarity of purpose and evidence of success; their clear-eyed distinctions between the financial versus mission-based value on which non-profits must base their measures of success and arguments for their future: all of these could have been plucked from my private writings and debates with my supervisor over the last 3 years. Yet of course they haven't been; they're the result of parallel thinking, but these guys have gathered the evidence that I'm still at the early stages of assembling.
It's not that my thoughts were especially profound, but I've never previously found any authors linking sustainability and the value proposition so clearly to the digital work of cultural heritage institutions. Now that niche is no longer empty. I'm really pleased to see that there are others of like mind out there, and of course a report like this gives me a great reference in support of my work, but the problem for me is not just one of dented pride, because I have to demonstrate considerable originality in my work and without that, no PhD. It's a pickle.
On the upside, there are some differences. The Ithaka report emphasises how important it is to be clear on the sources of value (and cost) in order to make the case to funders for continued support. I will too, but I hope to investigate more deeply the influence of decision-making processes and the sources of "friction" that may cause a discrepancy between what a resource is "worth" and what people are prepared to invest in it (complicated, of course, by questions of opportunity cost and uncertainty). Ithaka mainly looked at digitisation projects, in the sense of those offering sets of digitised material such as images, maps, papers or databases. I'm just as interested in the value of learning objects, games, mobile phone tours, exhibition websites (though admittedly my core case studies are less diverse than this), and only in a cultural heritage context, not education. I'm interested in certain "modalities of constraint" (c.f. Lessig) that aren't addressed by Ithaka, and in questions of risk management. I am looking at three varied partnerships and the effects that collaboration has on decision-making, value and funding, and partnership is an area that the Ithaka report, by its own admission, examines only briefly. So perhaps all is not lost, but whilst I genuinely think that this report is excellent and provides a lot for people in the digital humanities to chew over, it's given me quite a tricky challenge. I'm not about to give up my PhD, but with everything else that's happened over the last year I have to confess it's taken me pretty bloody close.

P.S. Ah bollocks, now Nick's at it too (para 6). Shows how un-original I was in the first place.

*Nancy L Maron, K Kirby Smith and Matthew Loy, 2009. "Sustaining digital resources: an on-the-ground view of projects today. Ithaka case studies in sustainability" http://www.ithaka.org/ithaka-s-r/strategy/ithaka-case-studies-in-sustainability