Thursday, August 13, 2009

SAA 2009: Building, Managing, and Participating in Online Communities (Session 101)

El Sol y La Luna, 600 East 6th Street, Austin, Texas, 13 August 2009. Reasonably priced and delicious Central and Latin American cuisine with an American granola/hippie touch. I particularly recommend Anna's Tofu Salad with tomato vinaigrette dressing.

I made a spur-of-the-moment decision to attend this session, which focused on using Web 2.0 tools to make archival materials more accessible to users. All of the speakers emphasized the need for archivists to meet their users where they are and to accept that content placed on the Web will be repurposed in various ways.

Camille Cloutier of San Jose State University discussed a pilot Wikipedia project designed to enhance access to Calisphere, a California Digital Library (CDL) resource that provides access to over 180,000 digitized materials held by repositories throughout California. Calisphere’s content is indexed by Google, but in an effort to reach more users, Cloutier began incorporating Calisphere content into Wikipedia; studies indicate that Wikipedia is heavily used by younger and college-educated users and that only two percent of student searches begin on a college or university library site. Cloutier initially wanted to add external links to the references sections of articles, but Wikipedia sometimes regards libraries’ and archives’ efforts to do so as self-promotion. As a result, Cloutier identified Calisphere content of likely interest to Wikipedia users, created a user account and made, and made 33 edits to existing Wikipedia articles and uploaded a substantial number of relevant images. She also found 66 existing links to Calisphere content, which gives some indication as to the user community’s interests. In the future, CDL staff will see whether Cloutier's edits are modified and encourage subject specialists to monitor articles relevant to their work.

Deborah Wyethe of the Brooklyn Museum detailed how her repository is using Flickr and Flickr Commons to enhance access to its photographic holdings. It began using Flickr to document current activities in 2006 and joined the Flickr Commons in 2008. It learned that it was important to monitor Flickr users’ comments, respond to the very large number of reference inquiries conveyed via Flickr, incorporate user tags into its own online catalog, accept that users will use, combine, and rework ways that staff never imagined. Although this work can be extremely time-consuming, Flickr makes cross-collection access possible, and makes it easier for users to find images. Images on the museum’s Web site get 10-30 hits, but images on Flickr get 1,000, 10,000, or more. Repository Web sites are ideal for archives that want a small community of scholarly users, but the museum wanted a large and diverse user community. Flickr makes this goal possible.

Mark Matienzo (whose views are not necessarily those of his employer) emphasized the need to embrace users' mashups and enhancements of the materials we place online. His discussion of the reuse of materials that the New York Public Library (NYPL) has placed online highlighted the value that such reuse has for other users and NYPL itself:
  • New York Then And Now: an Australian user took NYPL images, ran them through Google Maps’ API, and added geocoding data that enhanced NYPL's metadata.
  • Reaching for the Out of Reach: uses digitized stereoscope cards and merged them so that online users see the images in 3D. (Be warned: this project is cool, but might not be appropriate for those prone to motion sickness)
  • NYPL Digital Gallery on Wikimedia Commons: NYPL found that a user had found a way to download the high-resolution versions of its images on Wikimedia Commons. NYPL contacted him and encouraged him to download a specific collection. NYPL can make images available via Wikimedia Commons more quickly than it can on its own site.
Moderator Jeanne Kramer-Smyth (Discovery Communications) then noted that she would post to the Web a chart summarizing the essential characteristics of Wikipedia, Flickr and other online communities: community feel, potential user base, copyright, user interface, learning curve for participation, third-party applications, and methods of adding content. It’s a pretty cool chart.

The discussion session offered a lot of additional food for thought:
  • Online community projects should be viewed as experiments; you will learn as you go, and things are changing so quickly that waiting to participate really isn’t an option.
  • Participating in online communities as an individual is excellent preparation for institutional participation. There are social norms even on the Web, and archivists need to learn about them.
  • If you join one of these communities, you become a member. You can’t just jump in and jump back out. It requires an ongoing commitment. The history of digital library projects is “put something out and leave it there.” However, we have an obligation to figure out how users engage with our materials and interact with our users.
  • Having an institutional employee participate in an online community is a great way of making your institution seem engaged and human, and letting volunteers participate in online communities is a great way to engage them and allow them to contribute to your institution.
  • Employees who participate in online communities must be enthusiastic and committed; simply assigning it to someone who doesn’t want to do it is a recipe for failure. If staffers aren’t interested, consider recruiting volunteers.

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