Archive for July, 2009

Smithsonian Web Strategy, CultureLabel: The Impact of Network Effects

Friday, July 31st, 2009 by Günter

The Smithonian just announced the release of its Web and New Media Strategy v 1.0 [pdf], which has come together swiftly in a process of marvelous openness and inclusion. As a campus-like institution with 19 museums and galleries, 9 research centers, 18 archives, 1 library with 20 branches, and a zoo, the Smithsonian web-presence to date is as fragmented as its administrative parts (also see this presentation), and the chief goal of the web strategy is to offer the Smithsonian Commons as a unifying platform to SI units.

The initial Smithsonian Commons will be a Web site […] featuring collections of digital assets contributed voluntarily by the units and presented through a platform that provides best-of-class search and navigation; social tools such as commenting, recommending, tagging, collecting, and sharing; and intellectual property permissions that clearly give users the right to use, re-use, share, and innovate with our content without unnecessary restrictions.

Starting to skim through the report, this line in particular caught my attention:

We are like a retail chain that has desirable and unique merchandise but requires its customers to adapt to dramatically different or outdated idioms of signage, product availability, pricing, and check-out in every aisle of each store.

I think this is an apt metaphor for how the Smithsonian currently undermines its own potential, and should serve as a memorable rallying cry for the changes the web strategy advocates.

As coincidence would have it, this metaphor also handsomely dovetails with another intriguing piece of news, gleaned from the UK Museum Computer Group list (posted by Simon Cronshaw, Director of CultureLabel):

If you haven’t come across CultureLabel yet, our aim is to facilitate a united alliance of museum e-stores to forge a new mainstream consumer shopping category of ‘cultural shopping’ – in a similar way to how ethical shopping or alternative gifts have crystallised as buying categories in the public consciousness. We see this as a great new opportunity for both income generation and innovative audience development for all our culture partners.

While the Smithsonian aims to integrate its digital collection into a more cohesive webpresence, CultureLabel aims to integrate museum e-stores (for starters, those in the UK – more here) into one massive one-stop shop. What’s true for digital collections is equally true for products from the museum store: bringing together assets from a wide variety of players creates a webpresence with more gravity, which in turn will attract a wider audience. The Smithsonian Commons and CultureLabel both take advantage of a fundamental network effect: the more assets, the more users (customers / site visitors); the more users, the more participation (purchasing / tagging, commenting, etc.). The brand, a term featuring prominently both in the SI Web Strategy and on the CultureLabel website, ultimately is the biggest winner.

The Smithsonian web strategy acknowledges that the fragmented offering severely limits the impact pan-institutional assets currently have. Taking a step back, of course this logic also applies to the larger community: fragmenting our offerings into thousands of institutional websites severely limits the impact and potential of the collective museum collection.

With 60 participating museums and galleries, CultureLabel breaks down those institutional barriers, and stands as one of the most extensive data sharing exercise museums have engaged in to date. It’s a little sobering, if not surprising, that the gift shop is ahead of the collection in this instance. Can we do for museum collections what CultureLabel has done for museum commerce? Can we scale the model and the values of the Smithsonian Commons to a Commons for all museums? If it works for products, let’s make it work for digital collections.

Assessing collections

Tuesday, July 28th, 2009 by Merrilee

A while ago, I blogged about a then-new project on archival backlog surveys. Since then, we’ve established a working group, shifted our focus, and made much progress. I’ve been getting a few queries about the project, so it’s time for an update.

The project is looking at what we are calling “archival collections assessment.” Archival collections assessment is defined as:

The systematic gathering of quantitative and qualitative information about collections, including un- and underprocessed collections. An assessment or survey will provide needed context for some sort of decision making in regards to collections.

The group is examining a range of archival surveys or collection assessment activities, and has developed an instrument to compare the different methodologies with one another. Why the shift from “backlogs” to “collections assessment”? While many of the projects we are looking at were focused on backlogs, others included processed collections as well.

I’ve posted a list of the projects and methodologies we are currently looking at. If you have others to suggest, drop me a line, or leave a comment below. Many thanks to the working group: Martha Conway (University of Michigan), David DeLorenzo (University of California, Berkeley), Christine Di Bella (Institute for Advanced Study), and Sarah Stauderman (Smithsonian Institution).

A revised description of the project is available on our website.

John R. Stokes, Imaging Innovator

Monday, July 27th, 2009 by Ricky

John R. Stokes passed away this weekend. This caused me to reflect on both his career and mine.

When I started at the Library of Congress in 1985, I was an early entrant into the library imaging scene, but John Stokes was already there. He captured some of LC’s huge photo collections, at that time putting them on videodisk, as part of the Library’s Optical Disk Pilot Project. Anticipating that LC would ultimately want digital images, he saved the digital intermediates. As CD-ROMs became the preferred medium, he was able to deliver those digital images to LC for a tiny fraction of the cost of recapturing them. He didn’t shy away from any original formats, whether slides, large glass plate negatives, or ungainly panoramic photos (for which he built an amazing transport system that captured and stitched together 8 foot long panoramas).

When I came to RLG in 1986 1995, John was already at work there, too, on the Digital Image Access project [19.1 MB PDF file] — where he was helping RLG members with the human side of imaging. He developed software to manage description of images and to provide access to them. He’s done work for NYPL, National Geographic, The Smithsonian, National Library of Medicine, and other museums, universities, historical societies, and cultural heritage organizations.

In the last couple of years, he and I talked many times about ways to increase the scale of digitization of special collections. I wondered if devices could be made to increase throughput for special formats in the way that the Internet Archive and Google had increased throughput for books. Once again, John was already most the way there. He had developed a capture station that could be used with a variety of robotic materials handling devices [PDF] for various formats: manuscripts, large reflective materials, transparent materials of all sizes (including film reels), post cards, and so forth.

His physics background and in-depth knowledge of color, lighting, and photographic processes allowed him to push the envelope in designing capture equipment. As happened with high-end digital cameras, if it didn’t exist and he couldn’t build or adapt it, he’d go to the manufacturer and get them to improve their equipment until it met his high standards. He devoted a lot of attention to the process, too. Software to keep track of the workflow, allow metadata input, perform image correction, facilitate quality control, and track technical data were a key part of any system he put together. He knew that while he could automate the capture, the workflow software would help to improve the human factor.

John’s concession to my plea for faster production of access images was to make the process quickly down-sample images to derive smaller images for web access, while making it possible to save an archival-quality image to storage. He learned long ago that while people may ask for a quick access-quality image, eventually they’ll want more.

John was open and honest with his customers, admitting when he was out of his depth (not often) and pointing out ever so gently when the customer was out of their depth (in my case, more often than I like to admit). His innovative approach and his commitment to quality put him squarely at the top of my list when I was asked for advice on imaging equipment or for a service provider. He was also a kind, genuine, and gentle man, always happy to talk, whether it was about “bidness” or his and his wife Bettye’s latest adventure.

I make it sound as if John ran a one-man show. He had the support of many others over the years, including several of his family members. His good work will be continued by them and other good people at JJT, Inc. under the expert eye of his son, John T. Stokes. Already they reassure us that, within a couple of months, the Stokes Imaging System for special formats will be in place for pilots at two RLG partner institutions.

Fostering Innovation

Thursday, July 23rd, 2009 by Roy

Yesterday we announced that David Walker of the California State University won the Third OCLC Research Software Contest with his entry, Bridge. His entry was an imaginative use of OCLC Web Services, primarily the WorldCat Search API, to serve the needs of libraries to have more local control of the full record display of catalog items.

The screen cast that accompanied his entry is well worth watching, as it identifies the features as well as the reasons behind them. David has a lot of experience in developing systems and it shows in both the functionality of his entry and in his actual code.

The decision of the judges, a mixture of OCLC staff and well-regarded coders from the library community, was unanimous. David will receive a $2,500 cash payment and an all-expenses-paid trip to Dublin, OH to meet with OCLC Research staff and others.

The purpose of this award is to foster innovation with OCLC data and services. It began before we were offering many of our services through machine interfaces, so prior contests would often include a chunk of WorldCat records that contestants could use. This time, however, contestants were to use one or more of our many Web Services in their entry. Although we reserve the right to build from these ideas, as far as I know we have never commercialized any entry. The winner of the Second contest, the Umlaut project by Ross Singer (formerly of Georgia Tech, now at Talis), remains in independent development by Jonathan Rochkind of Johns Hopkins University and others.

The point is to encourage new ideas and demonstrate innovative ways to use these services and the data that our member libraries have contributed. We hope that doing so will both reward those with good ideas as well as inspire others with the possibilities.

When poets walked on earth

Tuesday, July 21st, 2009 by Jim

This morning’s New York Times arrived on my walk loudly announcing that MEN WALK ON THE MOON. The regular edition for July 21, 2009 had come wrapped in a reproduction of The Times produced this day 40 years ago with its famous headline and fuzzy black and white photos of Armstrong and Aldrin.

It was a special treat to actually read the coverage. What struck me most, however, was the presence in the lower left corner of the front page of Archibald MacLeish’s poem “Voyage to the Moon“. It ends with the lines

O, a meaning!

over us on these silent beaches the bright
earth,
presence among us

Amidst all the anniversary commentary bemoaning the loss of heroic challenge, national mobilization, shared vision, and a common national experience I haven’t seen much that acknowledges the loss of ‘high’ public culture. That loss was made powerfully real by seeing that poem on the front page. And our diminishment felt greater when I noticed in the lower right corner these guiding comments about the day’s issue of The Times:

“This morning’s issue of The New York Times is divided into four parts. The first is devoted to the news of Apollo 11 and includes Editorials and letters to the Editor (page 16). Poems on the landing on the moon appear on Page 17.”

Note: The facsimile was provided by Louis Vuitton with this tagline: Some journeys change mankind forever. You can see the reproduction online at this NYT Science section along with terrific context including videos.

Tearing down LAM silos at ALA

Wednesday, July 1st, 2009 by Jennifer

I’m exhilarated by the planning calls for our ALA session in Chicago called Libraries, Archives and Museums – Converging for Real (Sunday 12 July, 1:30-3:00 pm, McCormick Place West W-190b). Meg Bellinger (Yale), Cathryn Goodwin (Princeton) and John Scally (Edinburgh) are sanguine about real convergence from their unique positions in their diverse situations. Each of their institutions strives to present a holistic view of all collections regardless of where they are housed or how they are managed. Come learn about what has worked and what has not.

Obviously many things have changed since the LAM workshops, which inspired the series of panels – at ALA, SAA and AAM – of which this is the second.  John speaks of the Silos of the LAMs [pdf] report as a chance to reflect on priorities at Edinburgh, where “University Collections” have meant LAM collections for over 6 years. Meg is pondering influences of prototypes as part of a larger developing context at Yale. Cathryn is evaluating changes and projects that were unanticipated, but that accomplish the aims of Princeton’s wish list.

We’re not talking about levels of metadata, folks. This conversation is much better than that.

Presenters include:
Meg Bellinger, Director of the Office of Digital Assets and Infrastructure, Yale University
John Scally, Director of University Collections, University of Edinburgh
Cathryn Goodwin, Manager, Collection Information and Access, Princeton University Art Museum

There are links to the entire suite of LAM panels here, and to all the RLG/OCLC Research sessions at ALA here. The Committee on Archives, Libraries and Museums (CALM) has endorsed this series at AAM, ALA and SAA.