Thursday, February 18, 2010

Web 2.0 for Cultural Heritage Institutions and Their Users

Web 2.0 is the term currently en vogue for the facilitation of information sharing across the Internet. The terminology tries to express the evolution of the Internet from a one-sided presentation of ideas to an evolving system of communication. Contributors use various platforms to encourage discussions with individuals in the networks they develop.Some of the most commonly known Web 2.0 tools are blogs, Facebook, and Twitter. New technologies have lots of advantages to the individuals and cultural heritage institutions that choose to use them. I am not an expert in these areas, but I have been exploring the use of this technology for sharing ideas related to cultural heritage and I want to share my views with you.

I began my professional career almost twenty years ago as a sort of “jack-of-all trades” at the Waltham Public Library in Massachusetts. I was hired as an Archivist and Reference Librarian, but my job description quickly grew to that of the library’s first “Internet Coordinator” as well. In the old days (may I call them that?), libraries were racing to get on the “World Wide Web” to stake a presence in the emerging online world where people could access information about you and what you do twenty-four hours a day. Our headiest concern was what sort of information should go on a library web page. We put our address, hours, staff, contact information, circulation rules, a link to our library’s networked catalog, rules for use of the archives and other standard administrative topics that one could get through our telephone messaging system or by viewing the various user handbooks and printed information we had throughout the library.

But the Internet quickly grew and librarians’ ideas about what an internationally networked system could be developed accordingly. Through the library web site, patrons can order books, interact with a librarian, sign up for a class or read the library’s blog. The site is growing (now without me for over fifteen years), seeking new ways to interest people and looking for ways to reach new audiences.

It is interesting to see the many ways institutions are taking advantage of the opportunity to interact directly with their communities and potential audiences. We are still trying to figure out what sort of information we should post about ourselves, but now we have a lot more places to reach out and many more ways to accomplish the task. Cultural heritage institutions are trying to find interested citizens who want their information, while attracting people who may not even know they are interested.

I have been experimenting with online social networking tools and hope that you will share your own thoughts with me about your experiences through them. I have a Facebook page for Facebook group devoted to Cross-Professional CollaborationI also have been Tweeting for a few months and am migrating this newsletter and random thoughts I have during the month to a blog. Based on my experiences, I think that these tools offer incredible opportunities for cultural heritage, but not just for the institutions themselves. Web 2.0 benefits everyone by making institutions more open and accessible to individuals, encouraging dialogues between professionals and non-professionals, and spreading the idea that the collections in repositories embody everyone’s cultural heritage and everyone has a right to interact with our archives, artifacts, and special collections.

One of my favorite uses of “new” technology at the moment is the blog of the Beinecke Library at Yale University.Room 26 Cabinet of Curiosities shares interesting items from the Beinecke collections, gives a little history about them, and explains how they fit within the larger collections. Some materials are fascinating, some are funny, some are beautiful, but they all attract me to the work that Beinecke is doing.

Blogs like Beinecke’s are a great way to attract audiences. They offer people an inside look at what an institution does and how it functions. Blogs provide a means to make something that once seemed very formal a little more approachable. Blogs done right make the reader feel like they have a personal acquaintance with the author, encouraging the reader to support the person on the other end whom they come to view as a sort of friend.

Similarly, through Facebook, one can develop a better appreciation for an institution. Facebook was one of my first personal experiences with “social” networking. I began meeting people with similar interests around the world by searching for museums, libraries and archives who were using the platform to promote their work. I became a member of like-minded groups and follow threads of thought related to my work. In fact, as I explored, I realized that there were no Facebook sites spanning the cultural heritage professions of museums, libraries, and archives, so I started one that now has 75 members. I find that I do most of the “talking,” few people respond to my posts or post on their own, but we are a part of a community and I hope we feel we are working to a common goal. This seems to be the case on most of the museum, library and archives Facebook sites to which I belong. There’s a lot of talking, perhaps a lot of listening, but not a lot of interaction. The sites on which most people seem to interact provoke a sense of awe or outrage. I think cultural heritage institutions do not fit this bill in general and perhaps Facebook is not our best networking option.

To me, Twitter has the most potential for audience building and direct contact with potential supporters, but it requires patience and persistence. Twittering since late last year, I have over 250 “followers.” I have made professional contacts across the globe, have been asked to be a guest blogger for an Australian Oral History site, and am “talking” daily to real live people with similar interests and ideas. Furthermore, my work is not just attracting archivists, museum professionals, and librarians. I pick up followers who may be interested in a single thing that I say related to records management, genealogy, sports history, etc. I even posted something today about being a cat person. I’m sure there is a librarian out there interested in cats who will be interested![In fact, one-day after writing the first draft of this newsletter, my cat Twitter post has generated three responses from like-minded cat lovers.]

Twitter is like being in a crowded room where someone overhears a conversation and sidles alongside to hear more. The constant chatter of Twitter offers cultural heritage professionals a great opportunity to attract interest. It offers our patrons an equally great opportunity to find out that we are interesting and approachable. The more we talk in our short 140 character bursts, the more others listen (as long as we don’t talk too much!) We can open ourselves up to the community and encourage them to see collections and better yet, we can encourage them to interact with us directly. The more we all interact, the stronger our networking circle becomes. The more support we have , the better for cultural heritage institutions and culture in general.

Once upon a time, a person sitting in his home after a long day of work would have no reason to be interested in the Beinecke Library, but today, a few tweets from a likeminded friend can steer them to hours of fabulously entertaining resources from the collections that just might make them want to visit. Use the technology available today to explore the possibilities for reaching out.

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