We’ve held our first two workshops on library, archive and museum collaboration at the Smithsonian and Yale a couple of weeks ago. While we walked into these daylong sessions with a carefully crafted agenda, a nifty scene-setting presentation and a fabulous facilitator (Diane Zorich), we still didn’t quite know what to expect – a train wreck at this odd three-way intersection of allied communities, or a genuine recognition that pulling together around a joint vision would benefit all parties involved. I’m relieved to report that the remarkable groups assembled at each location clearly sensed that they had everything to gain by creating deep and systemic relationships between their respective collecting institutions.
At the Smithsonian, Cristián Samper, Acting Secretary, beautifully set the tone for our first meeting with these welcome remarks: bring me a couple of really good ideas and help me frame them, he said, and I’ll help you find the funding. We spent the rest of our day with 25 Smithsonian LAM professionals working our way towards formulating these good ideas – along the way, we got an update on an impressive range of collaborations that the Smithsonian already has under way.
Our LAM workshop almost to the day marked the one-year anniversary of the Smithsonian Digitization Fair, which had brought together a large number of staff from the SI to grapple with an institution-wide vision for all things digital. As one of the outcomes of this event, SI decided that it could achieve efficiencies in a system of 19 different collecting units by providing centralized support for some of the key activities surrounding digitization. The new Digitization Office (within the Office of the CIO) was established a couple of months before our LAM workshop. This new capacity, as well as the genuine willingness to collaborate on the part of everybody gathered around the table, allowed the group to make some bold plans which we thought would qualify as the really good ideas Cristián had asked us to deliver.
I’ll only mention one particularly intriguing idea which emerged during the meeting and gained considerable traction: the creation of an intranet-only prototype for searching all collection information systems of the 19 Smithsonian collecting units. This system could help to focus internal policy discussions around a vision for one-stop access to collections by providing a tangible instantiation of what such a service could look like; it would also allow the Smithsonian to find out how the data from different units plays together, and advocate for enhancements and additional cataloging as needed for a prospective public interface.
At Yale, re-grants as part of the Mellon funded Collections Collaborative have established a significant number of projects aiming to improve access to library, archive and museum collections for the campus community and beyond. These projects include building shared tools, digitizing complimentary collections as well as cross-collections searching – you can see a complete list here and here. In an interesting reversal of starting positions, the Smithsonian had an established organizational structure and was looking for consensus around projects, while Yale had the projects and was looking for an organizational structure to make them sustainable beyond the duration of funding.
During the Yale discussions, collaboration in physical space emerged with a similar urgency as collaboration in virtual space. The acquisition of the 137-acre West Campus, formerly the Bayer HealthCare Campus, inspired meeting participants to brainstorm about ways to coordinate space planning for needs as diverse as venues for cross-collection exhibits, a shared studio for digitizing large 3-dimensional objects as well as joint preservation/conservation labs.
In virtual space, the overarching need to articulate a technological infrastructure for services such as digital preservation and integrated access to collections emerged. An infrastructure point-of-view would allow the campus community to take advantage of shared services, as well as serve as a road map for plugging in locally developed services. For example, participants argued that even if a department decides that they need to run their own local digital asset management system, a clearly articulated infrastructure would allow it to connect up with the larger campus infrastructure again to leverage other shared services such as one-stop discovery and retrieval.
After this intriguing first round of workshops, we’re looking forward to our upcoming visits to Princeton, the Victoria & Albert Museum and the University of Edinburgh!
Photo 1: LAM Workshop participants at the Smithsonian
Photo 2: A Coffee Break during the Yale LAM Workshop at the Beinecke