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The Future is Collaborative Part I: Give The People What They Want

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog

About this week’s guest blogger: Günter Waibel is a Program Officer at OCLC Research with a long history of working at the intersection of libraries, archives and museums. He co-authored “Beyond the Silos of the LAMs: Collaboration Among Libraries, Archives and Museums” (a study of library, archive, museum collaboration at five campuses and museum complexes), and co-teaches the graduate class “Digital Collections in Libraries, Archives and Museums” in the School of Library and Information Science at Catholic University of America.

If I told you that the future of museums lies in collaboration, would you keep reading, or turn away with a yawn or a smirk? Unfortunately, the term “collaboration” has both been cheapened (there are no limits to facile interactions being hyped as “collaboration”), and vilified (you have certainly heard the quip “collaboration is an unnatural act between non-consenting adults”). Rather than superficial or beastly, true collaboration is utterly transformative – it changes behaviors, processes and organizational structures, and leads to a fundamental interconnectedness among the partners.

And in the networked age, it is no longer a choice. Ask yourself where you shop online, share your photos or update your friends and family about your toddler’s latest exploits. Likely, the sites which came to mind all share one common characteristic: they effectively match up a massively aggregated resource (all the books, photos, friends, etc. you could possibly want) with a massively aggregated user base – in other words, there are millions of people like you frequenting the same site. In the 90s, we gestured towards this idea with the words “economies of scale”, now we call it “network effects.”

Compare the lessons of Amazon, Flickr and Facebook with how museums are trying to serve their audience. Whereas the large network hubs co-locate resources, the 17,500 museums in the U.S. effectively divide what they have to offer over an equal number of institutional websites. To make matters worse, cultural content is not only silo’d into segregated sites, but further dispersed across 122,356 libraries and countless archives (I literally couldn’t find a count) across the U.S. All of them believe that they are at the center of their user’s universe – and none of them truly are. Online denizens are very clear that nobody but they themselves are at the center of their experience – after all, weren’t they TIME’s person of the year 2006, and shouldn’t we get with the program already? The “Knowledge Commons” referenced by fellow CFM guest-blogger Dave Curry, bringing together an aggregation of stuff at a similar scale to the commercial hubs setting user expectations and allowing creative re-use of those materials, would go a long way towards finally serving the person of the year 2006, our user.

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These ideas are hardly new, and clearly, such a knowledge commons can’t be talked into existence overnight. The powerful forces aligned against it are not technological, but social and political:

  • Social because creating such a commons would require libraries, archive and museums (or LAMs, as I will call them from here on out) to understand that online, their institutional success will increasingly depend on the success of the community as a whole – all for one, one for all. (A good example for this type of behavior is the phenomenally succesful ArtBabble, where museums, as well as a library, are placing high-quality art videos on a common site under the institution-neutral ArtBabble brand.)

  • Political, because in the United States, we do have funders backing collaborative ventures (prominently including IMLS), but we lack an infrastructure organization with the mandate and clout to shepherd the community to its shared destiny. (Not true in other countries – in the UK, for example, the Collections Trust inaugurated the Culture Grid, which in turn will feed into EU’s massive LAM aggregation Europeana.)

While no U.S. effort towards a national LAM knowledge commons exists, work towards shared resources is moving forward in varyingly scoped circles. At the state level, for example, statewide digitization programs are rallying LAMs; at the campus-level, Yale’s Cross Collection Discovery project and the high-profile development of the Smithsonian Commons stand as exemplars.

In other words, progress towards a more converged future is still possible, right in your own backyard. I’ll venture the guess that most of you reading this post work at institutions which are already a microcosm of convergence issues. Museums often house a library and an archive in their own building. (If you don’t have them in your building, you’ll have them right down the street in your local community.) Museums in a university context find particularly strong partners in the plethora of libraries and archives co-located with them on the same campus. LAMs under common administration have the opportunity to learn their allied community’s language, establish common interests, and become more interconnected so they can better serve the larger organization they are part of. By acting locally, they can get ready for the globally networked future of LAMs.

To join a conversation about the future of museums and libraries, visit the Institute of Museum and Library Services’ UpNext wiki.

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1 Comment

  1. Great post -! It would be ideal even for museums, libraries and archives to collaborate more with institutions of higher education, and even with high-quality resources created outside of an institution (I'm thinking of

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