Sunday, March 11, 2007

Apples to Apples? Users in Libraries and Museums


On Musematic, Holly Witchey has rigorously recorded her recent experience at WebWise, a "IMLS/RLG/OCLC/Getty sponsored conference" on Libraries and Museums in the Digital World that was held March 1-2.

While sub-zero degree collection storage may thrill some of you, I was most interested by Witchey's recap of Elizabeth Broun's (from SAAM) keynote address on "American Art 2.0." Broun talked about SAAM's initiatives both in the museum and on the web to open up their content base for visitors to use in their own ways. Physically, they've added to the viewable collection with their beautiful open storage area, and online, they are publishing and trying to make searchable as much as possible.

These initiatives are a start, and they are driven by a powerful concept. As Broun put it:
2/3 of our visitors don’t come for something we have shaped, they are coming to our core assets—a user-driven kind of traffic. They aren’t coming to hear what we want to tell them, they are coming to find what they want to know.

I wonder what the library people in the room thought when they heard this. To museum ears, this is fairly blasphemous--the idea that people want to use our content, not our exhibits. But to librarians, this is old hat. Libraries are the ultimate 2.0 content providers. Everything is available. Professionals aggregate content for maximum findability. Interiors are designed to facilitate diverse use of the content.

This technique isn't exclusive to libraries. Book, video, and music stores are 2.0 meccas. You can search in multiple ways, both directly (computers), and by wandering the aggregated shelves. Put on some headphones. Check out the staff picks. These retailers have found that it is good business to offer these multiple access points to their content. It doesn't confuse or turn people off; it keeps them engaged, exploring the content and hopefully getting hooked into buying something.

So how far should museums go down this path? Should we look forward to a time when we walk into the art museum, search for a painting in the computers at the front, find the painting, and sit down with it for awhile? Here are some elements--at the least--I think we should steal from the card catalog...
  1. Users Have Clear Goals. When you go to the library or the music store, you probably have some clear intentions in mind. You have work to do. You want to find a particular book/vid/cd. You need to return something. All of these motivations are extensions of the fact that you are a USER of these institutions, not a visitor. When you go to a museum, what are your motivations? Do you have specific goals in mind? Recently, when I was stressed about how to look at art, a woman from the National Museum for Women in the Arts suggested that I enter art museums with the goal of seeing a single exhibit. I like this. I walk in, I'm confident about where I'm going, I get into the content, and I feel a sense of accomplishment when I leave. I don't feel like I missed stuff or didn't do it right. Of course, this leads to...
  2. Users Come Back Again. I wouldn't feel comfortable visiting just one exhibit at an art museum if I didn't think it would be easy for me to go back to that museum again. When you walk into the library, you don't feel like you have to absorb all the best books they have there on that one visit. But...
  3. Users Aren't Tourists. How often do you put a library on the list of "must sees" in a new city? (Ironically, because of cool exhibitions and fancy architecture--more standard museum fare--, I've been doing this more and more.) The fact that museums have specialized content contributes to their design as "destination" venues rather than user venues. Every town has a library; not every town has a science museum. (Though that's changing, as science and children's museums continue to multiply like rabbits.) Can you become a user of a non-local venue? Of course. I feel that way about every national park in the country. Non-locality isn't an excuse not to dip into 2.0 and try to attract users, because one of the best things about 2.0 is it allows you to...
  4. Design Local, Access Global. Every image or sound file that SAAM publishes on the web in a searchable fashion is accessible to users all over the world. Heck, I go on the local libary's online catalog frequently before going to the library (usually because all the computers there are broken). The library offers me a resource to "plan my visit" so that I get what I want when I arrive. The content is extended from the local site to my location anywhere. SAAM is doing this with their searchable collection online. It's great--except they don't tell me where to find the piece in the actual museum. They don't even tell me if it's on display. They anticipate that I am only a web user. Which leads to one last thing...
  5. In User Venues, Improvement Means Making Content Easier to Access. Record store managers aren't tearing out their hair trying to figure out what descriptive labels they should put above the classical section. They are concerned when they can't serve their customers' needs--when items are out of stock, misplaced, or unavailable. This doesn't mean pandering to fads or mass culture (necessarily), it means being oriented towards the user instead of towards themselves. Many library websites feature "Ask a Librarian." SAAM has "Ask Joan of Art."
This is not to say there aren't problems with the library/content vendor model. I've been led astray by the Dewey Decimal System on more than one occasion. But if, as Elizabeth Broun suggests, "they aren’t coming to hear what we want to tell them," then we better start preparing so they can "find what they want to know."

2 comments, add yours!:

G√ľnter said...

Nina, I think another interesting facet to the discussion of attitudes towards users in libraries and museums is their stance towards exposing data to where users are. In the library community, there is an increasing emphasis on exposing library information where users already are, rather than to expect them to find an individual library website & catalog. I've blogged about this in relation to Elizabeth's IMLS talk here http://hangingtogether.org/?p=186, and in relation to a talk by Ken Hamma at MCN 2006 here http://hangingtogether.org/?p=161.

Sheila said...

Just wanted to say that I love the image for this post. Did you create this still life? It's fantastic!