I often talk about the idea of taking social technology out of the Web and putting it into physical museums as part of our exhibitions and programs. Recently, I learned about an innovative, super-low tech tagging project in a library that does this beautifully. This post explains that project and suggests a process by which you could approach this kind of “virtual-to-real” design. As you read the story in the next few paragraphs, consider the four-step approach in the image above. I’ll come back to it at the end to demonstrate how it maps to the example.
First, some background on tagging. Tagging is a term that refers to people assigning keywords (“tags”) to things. These things could be websites (as in the case of delicious), videos, objects—whatever. In the world of museums, tagging is of great interest to people in the collections world. If visitors can assign their own tags to artifacts, then we can create visitor-generated folksonomies alongside traditional taxonomies—and people who are searching for content can find artifacts of interest via either path. Why are folksonomies useful? Traditional taxonomies may only cover a certain set of metadata about an object. You may want to see “fossils” but the museum may separate those by species or time periods without a general category for fossils. Tags can allow people to search for artifacts via the real words they’d use to describe those things.
As a tangible example, consider the Powerhouse Museum’s collections database. When you go to the database, you can search for objects by tags, and when you get to an individual artifact, you can add new tags or delete previously assigned ones that you don’t think are appropriate.
But there’s a problem (for me) with this kind of tagging: it only affects the Web. Tagging could be very useful for people who visit museums if there was a way to access the tags when you arrive and use them to discover artifacts you’d like to see on your visit. Ideally, there would be a complete feedback loop where you would then be able to assign tags to objects as you view them in the galleries, thus creating more data for new visitors walking in the door.
Sounds complicated? The library at Haarlem Oost in the Netherlands wanted to do this same thing—to allow patrons to tag the books they’d finished so they could be displayed on shelves and in the database for others to find books they might enjoy. And so they did something very, very clever. They installed more book drops.
The library created a book drop for every tag. To see pictures of their setup, go here. But for simplicity's sake, imagine a library that does this for just one tag, say, amazing books. When you return books to the library, you’d have a choice: drop it in the regular book drop or the book drop for amazing books. Then, the library staff would take the books in the “amazing” book drop and put them on the shelf called “Books other patrons recommend.” The librarians could also scan those books and add the “amazing” tag to them so that it is captured in the collection database.
This is brilliant on so many levels. Most importantly, the library found a way to embed tagging into the normal use of the library. Patrons don’t have to opt in to some complicated system, log on to the Web after returning books, or add anything to their standard library use. They just have to sort their books when returning them. And the new patrons walking in the door can access the books based on the different tags, which could range from "highly recommended" to "great family books" to "just returned"--a finger on the pulse of what people in the community are reading right now.
No patron would call the activity of putting their books in book drops “tagging,” and that’s a good thing. There’s no concern here about barriers to use, educating the visitor on how to participate, or even significant infrastructure or support costs. The feedback loop is there, and it works because it’s a clever, simple distillation of the core idea of tagging.
And so I would challenge you to take the same approach as that library in trying to make exhibits, programs, and services that emulate social technology. Let’s look at how the four-step approach maps to the library book drop story:
- Define the core usefulness of the concept. In this example, the core usefulness of tagging is to help people search through the collection and find stuff of interest more easily.
- Define the input and output points of the concept—where do people engage with the concept? In this case, the input point happens when you are looking for a book on the shelves or online. The output (tagging) happens once you’ve finished reading a book.
- For both the input and the output, determine if the concept requires a change in behavior. In this example, the input stays the same (except perhaps for familiarizing people with the new shelves and search terms) but the output requires assigning a tag to a book.
- Anytime a behavioral change is required, find the simplest, most familiar way possible to enact it. In this case, book drops were the key.
Of course, it’s in number 4 where the real ingenuity comes in. You have to be tremendously clever to distill something to its simplest possible manifestation. But we know what assets we have, and we know what our visitors do. All we have to do is find the right match for the goal at hand.
Is this a useful process for you? What’s missing? How could you imagine applying it?
NOTE: This post was later developed into a peer-reviewed paper and workshop for Museums and the Web 2009.