An open Smithsonian, all around

As part of the process for arriving at the Smithsonian’s Web and New Media strategic plan, Michael Edson created a Wiki on which Smithsonian staff discuss their points of view in plain site of anybody who is interested in listening in. This experiment in radical transparency is in and of itself noteworthy, and so is the content which surfaces on the Wiki. Encouraged by @mpedson’s tweet, I particularly took note of two short talks arguing in favor of open access to museum content. The first paper (titled “Publish Everything!”) is by Betsy Broun (Director, Smithsonian American Art Museum); the second paper (titled “Make Content Freely Available”) is by Lauryn Guttenplan (Associate General Counsel at the Smithsonian). Both papers were presented as part of the Smithsonian 2.0 Forum on April 21, 2009. One reason why I found these notes remarkable is because those who are speaking represent the class of professional who oftentimes is perceived to be scuttling plans for making data more openly available – not in this instance!

Here are the outtakes I would have marked yellow if I had actually printed the pieces instead of saving a tree and reading online.

Publish Everything! – Betsy Broun (Director, Smithsonian American Art Museum)

I’m here today to advocate for publishing everything online. To the extent allowable by law, the Smithsonian should digitize and post online all our images and data, as well as the ideas and speculations that have accumulated in our files. We should let users help us sort and correct the information, and comment as they wish, from their own perspective.

What every expert knows […] is that knowledge is always advancing but never wholly correct. What we publish is the latest current knowledge, but tomorrow will dawn, with incriminating evidence that some of what we posted yesterday already is wrong.

[D]espite [our] good work, each year we actually lose ground, as many times more data and information is constantly coming in to our files, to remain buried there.

Why not push everything in our files online, including old outdated information and new information that hasn’t yet been validated? We’ll never have the perfect expert in every subject, but somewhere out there, that expert exists.

Bran Ferren argues that raw data is alive in all its imperfections, inviting testing and response. Authenticated data, by contrast, is more or less inert and monolithic. It commands respect but invites little interaction or questioning.

Make Content Freely Available – Lauryn Guttenplan (Associate General Counsel at the Smithsonian)

Position: We are a public entity and non-profit and we should make our content freely available to the extent we can.

It’s ironic, I think, that a lawyer – the one person most likely to tell you all the reasons you can’t give away content freely – is here to advocate this position, but my views on this issue have changed over the past 18 months […].

[The] Digital Media Use Working Group conducted a survey of SI staff. Over 600 of you responded and 91% agreed that digital assets should be available, and 84% said there should be unrestricted access for educational and non-commercial use.

[W]hat about the vast amounts of content that we can make available but choose to restrict because we want to use it exclusively or because a third party wants to use it for commercial purposes? In the survey, over 70% of you opposed making our content available for commercial purposes.

The Powerhouse Museum in Australia recently experimented with an open source initiative and, not only did they not lose licensing revenue, early statistics have shown that open access actually drove sales upward through awareness of the collection which, in turn, generated knowledge about other museum resources.

I have come to believe that control represents the world of Smithsonian 1.0 and if we want to keep up, remain relevant, fulfill our mission and even achieve greatness, we need to let go. So let’s control our destiny, as Secretary Clough said earlier, not our content.

I encourage you to explore the discussions on this Wiki, and follow the Smithsonian as they negotiate pressing issues facing not just museums, but cultural heritage institutions across the LAM spectrum.

Tweet about this on TwitterShare on TumblrShare on LinkedInShare on FacebookBuffer this pageShare on Google+Email this to someone

3 Comments

  1. I’m encouraged by your post Günter! This is a scary thing we’re doing outside the warm comfort of the firewall!!!

    I invite you and your readers to get on that wiki and give us your thoughts, feedback, encouragement, and scorn (!) directly. There is a real window of opportunity here to tell a compelling story about the future of the Smithsonian. We want to get it right and we need all the help we can get ;)

  2. What your doing is courageous and (I sincerely hope) trend-setting. I’ll be watching closely, and I hope that this post indeed gets people onto the Wiki and into the discussion. Kudos all around!

  3. Pingback: “An Open Smithsonian, all around” « The Affiliate

Comments are closed.