On My Mind
First Monday

On My Mind: Commentary on Web-Wise



It is a great privilege to address this audience. Since you are all experts in your field and engaged in significant digital outreach projects of your own, it would be presumptuous of me to attempt to tell you what to make of these sessions. So, what I’m going to do instead is discuss my impression of Web–Wise 2004 from the perspective of your average typical large, midwestern natural history museum.

I do want to start by putting this conference in the context of my own personal history with digital library and electronic outreach projects. Ten years ago, I was invited to attend the annual Coalition for Networked Information (http://www.cni.org) meetings. This group is a community representing research libraries and universities to support the use of networked information technologies for the advancement of scholarly communications.

I came to the CNI meetings from the museum world with a rather hazy vision that there must be some great opportunities for museums to partner with these organizations. Museums offer great content and are a physical manifestation of public learning, cultural advancement, and social connectedness. The people that I met there, too, had a vague vision that there must be some great ways in which museums could partner with them. They were willing potential partners. At that time, however, it was just a hazy vision without real form.

I fast forward now to this conference, particularly this year’s Web–Wise. I’ve realized over the past two days that this is the type of conference I was looking for ten years ago. The discussions are about institutional partnerships, audiences, project issues, and other topics of immediate concern to those of us who want to reach out to the public electronically. It is a tribute to the foresight and hard work of the Institute of Museum and Library Services that these projects and discussions are taking place.

I am particularly happy that Clifford Lynch, who has always been a leader in this area, has helped bring the CNI along as an active partner and has committed a great deal of time and energy to this process. John McCarter mentioned in his opening keynote that we work with miniscule resources compared with other content providers. It is important that we are as efficient and effective with those resources as possible.

That being said, I want to put the rest of my comments in the unfortunate context of the current economic state in which our organization, and I know many of yours, finds itself — of decreasing budgets and hard choices. This more sober assessment is in some ways a good discipline, for it forces us to prioritize our efforts and insist on real, measurable success. The question we ask ourselves frequently at the Field Museum is: "Are we doing things that make a difference or those that make us feel good about ourselves?" In other words, we need to think more about our projects as business investments that have a return rather than a vague, but noble, notion that we are fulfilling our traditional missions.

There are three topics I wanted to touch on specifically — monetizing our investments, our audiences, and our infrastructure. By monetizing our investments, I’m referring to this term as discussed by David Liroff yesterday in the ‘Audiences and Partners’ session, and I’m particularly mentioning his emphasis on monetizing for public value, as that is to a large degree the business we are all in. In the Web rush of the past few years, our organizations have been focusing on putting collections or other content up on the Internet — a ‘build it and they will come’ or even a ‘if you don’t build it they will leave’ mentality. But these projects have not become integral parts of the business we are in.

Without the sense that these projects can be ‘monetized’ as part of our business, they will never be embraced as part of our operations and will never become sustainable. Our institutions are not accustomed to online business and it will take time to develop online resources and outreach as part of our institutional operation. This is not a matter of technology or even of having a critical mass of content available. It’s a matter of the entire institution changing their approach and focus to online outreach as part of their business.

I have, during the course of this conference, been thinking of how I would sell the ideas that come from these sessions back to the executive team at the Field Museum. We are all necessarily as concerned with revenues as we are with preserving the mission of the museum. I know, for example, that I will get a very different reaction from our Chief Financial Officer if I propose a project that will simply get more of our collections ‘out on the Web’ than I will if I can deliver, as Jean–Marc Blais did in marketing his institutions through the web, a ten to one return on investments.

If we want institutional change, we need to consider these economic arguments and help the entire institution be successful. Institution–wide success is the only way to ensure that these efforts have the potential to become integrated into our operations and therefore sustainable. In that regard, I am particularly encouraged that Liz Bischoff of OCLC is organizing a session on ‘Business Models for Sustaining Digital Collections’ at upcoming American Library Association, Society for American Archivists, and American Association of Museums meetings.

It is obvious that part of a successful online business operation is a consideration of audiences. They are the purchasers of our products and our customers. Jean–Marc Blais, in his presentation in the same session, stressed that we need to move from providing access to engaging in conversations with our audiences. Several themes came out in consideration of our audiences. Firstly, our audiences are changing, and what they want from us is also changing — frequently in ways we do not know. Ken Hamma of the Getty Museum has also made the point that the public does not particularly care where it gets its information so we, as museums, may not be safe in assuming they will come to us because of our reputation. They will go follow the path of least resistance to get what they are looking for. In that regard, it is also notable that presentations by Ken and by Jim Ockuly of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts on the audience research they have done has led to some insights about how we present information to our visitor groups, either onsite or online.

Audiences are also far ahead of us in some cases, in others far behind, in their adoption of technologies. In particular, early teens are experimenting in new ways with technologies such as instant messaging, SMS (short messaging service), and Google as new modes of interactivity. In many ways this threatens some traditional assumptions we have had about our audiences searching us out using tools we expect them to use. I think this threatens the portal models we have been experimenting with, both in terms of Web places at which people will congregate to find their information as well as the structures of information they will access to find the specific information they are looking for. As museums, we know well how the visiting public access information and engage in social behavior in our physical spaces, but how they do this via the Web, cell phones, or other devices is as yet an undiscovered country for us.

Another aspect of audience is that of scale. At the Field Museum, we would consider successful a public lecture heard by 200, a temporary exhibit visited by 200,000, an annual attendance of two million, and four million annual Web visitors. These are good numbers, but they are several orders of magnitude below what we all aspire to reach through these new and expanding digital channels. Media corporations such as CNN and Disney reach millions per day. As museums and libraries, we have to understand that if we want to try to move to a next scale of public visibility and what it would take to do that. As John McCarter mentioned in the opening plenary, our resources are miniscule compared to these other content providers. I am not sure there is a way for us to aspire to reach these greater numbers in a sustainable fashion and so I think it critical for us to manage our own expectations about the societal impact we can hope to have and to focus on achievable goals.

An important consideration to accomplishing not even inspired aspirations, but just keeping our head above water in the rising seas of digital content is one of infrastructure. Speakers such as Tom DeFanti, Tim Cole, MacKenzie Smith, Tim DiLauro, Clifford Lynch, and Tony Gill spoke on aspects of the infrastructures of building, managing, and delivering content. In my 13 years in the museum field, I have been constantly involved in the creation, management, and improvement of infrastructure. It is a growing challenge for museums like ours and an even a greater challenge for smaller institutions.

In terms of infrastructure commitments, it is even more important these days that we decide what we do and do not have the capacity to do; to focus on our core competencies and find partners to match. As a museum, we see ourselves as an organization with rich content that is of great value for lifelong learning, a great public venue for learning, entertainment, and social interaction, and a scientific authority in our areas of specialty. We need partners to fulfill other aspects of actualizing our digital plans, specifically in terms of information distribution.

Web–Wise fulfills an important role in our community of bringing together partners that play different roles so that they can build on each other strengths. Joey Roger discussed her study "Partnerships for Free–choice Learning: Libraries, Museums, and Broadcasters Working Together." This is an important direction that we as museums must go in order to fulfill our mission. The days of ‘not invented here’ or ‘we have to build our own’ thinking are not sustainable in our industry.

We have recently undertaken a small digital library project funded by IMLS through the Illinois State Library to put content from the 1983 World’s Columbian Exposition, which gave birth to the Field Museum, online. Notable in this project were the very large image files that provided detailed inspection of photographs as well as interaction with complex documents. The software application to enable this as well as the server to deliver the content were not really within our means.

By partnering with the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), where software to deliver the Comer Photographic Archives is already installed, we will be able to deliver the content in a matter that is sustainable to us. It is also desirable from UIC’s perspective as it provides their faculty and students access to this rich content resource. We are also partnering with Northern Illinois University (NIU), which has a strong history program and intends to author historical explanatory frameworks around the content and with the University of Chicago’s Webdocent program which will build K–12 curriculum based on the content for Chicago Public Schools. In this way, we were able to focus on our core competencies and work with willing partners who each got something from their participation in the project. I would very much like to see promising technologies such as DSpace, discussed by MacKenzie Smith, adopted in a similar fashion. Enterprise knowledge systems have great potential, but Museums do not have the wherewithal to invest in sustaining the infrastructure pieces to support these as independent infrastructures.

There are some areas each institution does need to invest in its own infrastructure, such as access, particularly networking and Internet access. This is a basic building block without which you cannot hope to develop sustainable projects, even if shared, because your staff and visitors need to be equal partners in the project. All our institutions now depend on technologies for our business and to not have the basic communications infrastructure for that is to invite failure.

Standards, and their development and application, are another area where an institution must make notable investments. I agree with the sentiment of many in this room that we should find a few standards and stick to them. We, as museums, will not be inventing these standards. They will be invented by the Microsofts, CNNs, Googles, and AT&Ts of this world. The best we can hope for is to understand this world, learn which our publics are adopting and how they are using it. In some areas we are destined to be followers and we should do that, understanding that we may have to sacrifice some of our preferences in order to serve those of our audiences.

Thank you for taking the time to listen to me. End of article


About the Author

Bill Barnett is Vice President and Chief Information Officer at The Field Museum in Chicago.
E–mail: wbarnett@fieldmuseum.org

Editorial history

Paper received 17 March 2004; accepted 24 April 2004.

Contents Index

Copyright ©2004, First Monday

Copyright ©2004, Bill Barnett

On My Mind: Commentary on Web–Wise by Bill Barnett
First Monday, volume 9, number 5 (May 2004),
URL: http://firstmonday.org/issues/issue9_5/barnett/index.html

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