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Monday, January 26, 2009

The Long Tail, Museums, the Smithsonian, oh my...

There is simply too much awesomeness in this article in today's Washington Post about this past weekend's Smithsonian 2.0 event. Please, read it, and I imagine that for curators working in today's environment, the quote from Anderson in the eleventh paragraph from the end, well, that might prove to be the fodder for watercooler talk, eh? I don't think I agree with Anderson, though. There will always be a place for the expert, especially in museums.

Here's one paragraph though, referring to Wired magazine's Chris Anderson:
"That would be Wired's Anderson. His "long tail" hypothesis has revolutionized how Web entrepreneurs think about their businesses. The basic idea, he explained at the event, was that in the Industrial Age, sales of anything were limited by shelf space. The result was the elevation of a priesthood of curators, editors and gatekeepers whose job it was to try to winnow through everything and offer up what they thought might be the best of the best -- or at least the most likely to sell to the most people. The Web has changed all that..."
I am a huge fan of The Long Tail. Like Good to Great by Jim Collins, it's the sort of book that offers a seachange in how you could consider approaching your work on a daily basis. I think about the long tail all the time in my work in communications. Both books, and their authors, are worth checking out if you've not had a chance to follow these movements (that's what they are, if you think about it) yet.

Now, go read. And let us know if you are reading something interesting!

7 comments:

Mike Rhode said...

Tim beat me to linking to this article, but the issues here for the Smithsonian are completely the same issues for us, except multiplied. We've scanned 500,000 photographs, but are blocked from Flickr so we can't upload even the 1300 the Smithsonian's put up.

We have about 1% or less of our collection on display too, and are certainly not experts in everything we have. The archives, with about 6,000 feet of records, has 2 archivists. Historical collections with about 12,000 pieces, has one staffer now.

One think that will help researchers soon is that Kathleen Stocker has just about finished updating our Guide to Collections which will be on the offical website. The archives along has 100 more collections than the last time we did it, in 1998.

Rachel Lee said...

Thanks for posting about this event. Dan Cohen writes about it as well:
http://www.dancohen.org/2009/01/27/smithsonian-11-and-29/

I'm a project assistant on the William Blake Archive:

http://www.blakearchive.org/blake/

I'm really interested in the role of the expert (or curator) in the digital humanities, brick-and-mortar museums, and digital archives. I agree that there will be places for experts (and as a PhD student, I am heavily invested in that notion!) - but do you foresee that role changing?

Mike Rhode said...

Rachel, thanks for your questions and the additional links. DC's had an ice storm so I'm at home and can actually see our blog - that's problem #1 - we can't do this, or Flicr or Facebook at work as they're all blocked.

Cohen's got some interesting points - I'll excerpt part and put my comments in [brackets]:

But these are relatively scattered, uncoordinated attempts, frequently done by younger, tech-savvy SI staffers in their spare time. The Smithsonian should be doing much, much more of this.

[Whatever Cohen says about the Smithsonian is true of us as well, although we're a much smaller institution with a collections staff of ... 9 (with one off on duty in Iraq) and a contract scanning staff of 7 archivists and techs, but all they do is process for scanning).]

For instance, given their expertise and excitement about SI’s holdings, it seemed clear to the digerati that every curator should have a blog, even if infrequently used, to recount tales of objects. While visiting the Museum of American History’s vaults, it was clear that a huge audience would subscribe to a weekly or daily video podcast that covered incredible treasures that rarely see the light of day,

[I agree completely, although honestly it would be hard to add that into our day. The PR dept might be better suited to doing the podcast thing, although curators should blog. You can see from this blog how well that's going at our museum. I nag people regularly in our collections committee meeting].

Undoubtedly there will be resistance among some curators to doing Web 2.0-y things like podcasts or crowdsourced tagging of their items. These curators believe that such efforts belittle (or “anti-intellectualize,” as one put it) the holdings of the Smithsonian. (As Chris Anderson tweeted: “Response from curators to my Smithonian 2.0 talk suggesting radical things like adding comments to stamp website: we’ll be out of a job!”)

[I haven't encountered this from anyone as we all appear to realize that there's more collections and information than anyone can ever go through as it is, and material is constantly flowing in].

Moreover, it’s still harder than it should be for SI staffers to engage in common, modern digital activities. This institutional friction was embodied in the tale of Sarah Taylor, a National Zoo public affairs staffer, who couldn’t get the equipment or accounts she needed to upload video of the zoo’s famous pandas to sharing sites that reach millions.

[As I started this post -- completely true. And endlessly annoying.].

Mike Rhode said...

Now to part 2 of Rachel's question --

"I agree that there will be places for experts (and as a PhD student, I am heavily invested in that notion!) - but do you foresee that role changing?"

as an Archivist, who helps provide information for people, rather than a Curator or a Historian, I'm far less invested in being an expert. On a given week, we will have people asking about WW1 influenza death rates, medical photography during the Civil War considered as fine art, racism in the Army in WW1 as seen through educational training aids, while we're also editing a book of photographs on Walter Reed hospital, proofing data on EMU, our new catalogue system, and discussing a donation of a surgeon's WW1 family letters. This is a pretty accurate rendition of bits of January so far.

So yes, I see the role changing. In our Museum, curators and collection managers are largely interchangable, unlike the Smithsonian's model. If any of us is an expert on something it's because that person put in the investment of time to become one. I think if we can get a decent amount of material on the web, more people can tell us why they care about what we have.

The Blake project looks interesting. My wife needs the computer for work now, but I'll check it out. I'm a BIG fan of inter-institutional projects like this and would like to undertake a medical one some day - a perfect example is the photo collections of the museum and the National Library of Medicine. They were split in half in the 1950s and you can search theirs online, but not ours. OTOH, we provide quick inhouse turnaround for scan requests and don't put annoying watermarks on the images when we do have them on the web. And sometimes pictures from the same series ended up split between both places. Similar concepts could be made between us and the Smithsonians' American History museum's medical trade lit / advertising collection, or the prosthetic collections... it would be a wonderful resource.

Mike Rhode said...

And remind me to post some more about the fine arts photo curators now paying attention to William Bell's 19th century medical shots if you want to go into the role of the curator more.

Rachel Lee said...

Thanks for your responses, Mike!

The Blake Archive is probably in a slightly different position, being "born-digital" in 1995, but we're also thinking about some of these same issues.

From the beginning, the Blake Archive has been an experiment in "long-distance editing" (via email and listservs), as the primary people involved in the project are located at 3 different universities. The 3 editors of the project are definitely experts in their field (Blake studies), but many of the project assistants are graduate students from different areas of specialization: American Lit, computer science, programming, etc. The blog we've just started is a total experiment and we're still trying to figure out content & contributors. We talk a lot about how to improve the functionality of the website, and are working on a redesign and updated searching capabilities.

The problem of materials split up among varying institutions is definitely one of the reasons the Blake Archive exists - to bring Blake's materials together - especially the multiple copies of his Illuminated Books, which are located all over the place. The digital archive is the only place a reader/user/scholar can compare different copies of the same book side by side.

Yes, please do post more about the Bell collection & curators!

Mike Rhode said...

William Bell was the Museum's photographer at the end of the Civil War, and he continued to shoot pictures in Phil. after the war for us. He was a pro photographer, and the Nat'l Archives mixes his work up with Matthew Brady's. See http://www.rochester.edu/in_visible_culture/Issue_5/ConnorRhode/ConnorRhode.html for a LOT of information on AMM photography.

However, what we've seen this past year is a look at Bell as a fine art photographer. This is looking at the same photos, but with a 'curatorial' eye rather than an 'archivist' one. We might have 7 copies of one photograph, but we just catalogued them once, for subject matter like name and regiment. We didn't draw any distinctions about the relative quality of a picture unless it was blurry.

When Toby Jurovics of Smithsonian American Art Museum came in to research the pictures for a nice little exhibit he did this past year, he looked at them completely differently. Balance, composition, finesse of printing all mattered to him. He didn't pick a photograph of someone who survived 11 bullet wounds for the history of that person; he picked photos for their visual appeal. The same thing is occurring now with a Texas art museum that's planning a large photo show.

Finally, the curator of photography at the Metropolitan Museum of Art called earlier this year to clean up their online catalogue records for the William Bell photos they have (which were given to them recently by Stanley Burns). In this case, the ARTIST (ie Bell) was an issue of great concern, rather than the subject.

It's interesting to see how people approach the same pictures in different ways.