From February 25-27, I had the opportunity to go to the WebWise conference in Washington DC, an annual gathering of 300-some professionals from libraries and museums to discuss how to keep their cultural institutions relevant in the digital age. It was great getting to hear from some of the leading museums and libraries in America (The Smithsonian, the Library of Congress, the US Holocaust Museum, the National Endowment for the Arts, etc) about how they are struggling, debating and at times innovating in this space.
My overall sense was that this is still very much an untested frontier for these often conservative and stodgy institutions. Most projects I encountered were in the initial planning or pilot phase. But there is also a lot of excitement in the air among these librarians, museum directors, curators, IT experts and web developers about the potential for digital technologies to help reinvent their institutions and reach new audiences with their content and knowledge.
More detailed notes after the jump…
Global Kids was asked to be there by MacArthur to represent our work in Second Life during an informal reception on the evening of February 25. They had a really swank set up with large flatscreen monitors connected to laptops and speakers, which made it super easy and fun to demo our work. I was basically logged into Second Life the whole time, showing several dozen people around Foundations Island. Several folks already knew about SL and asked detailed questions about our projects and services. I got a lot of attention from my new 3D SpaceNavigator device that makes zooming around in SL a breeze. (Not a paid endorsement.)
Later that evening I hosted a dinner table discussion along with Akili Lee of Digital Youth Network that was attended by several other library and museum folks who were interested in our work. That included a children's museum in Indiana, a major art museum in NY, an arts and design museum in Miami, and a NY city public school librarian. We talked about the challenges of digitizing our holdings and making them available to a broader public, and how to integrate games and virtual worlds into your exhibits and programs.
During the breaks, several innovative museum and library projects funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (a US government agency) presented their work in the exhibition space. I was particularly impressed by the Civil Rights Digital Library, a fairly comprehensive online database of educational materials around the civil rights era in the US, including 30 hours of rare video footage.
The main sessions were dominated by presentations by major national cultural institutions about how they are thinking about digital media. Some notable ones:
- Michael Edson of the Smithsonian spoke about creating transitional models to build systemic support for digital media and new models
- Deanna Marcum of the Library of Congress discussed how they are helping library staff make the transition to new media distribution
- Shelly Bernstein, online community manager at the Brooklyn Museum wowed us with how they are using Flickr to extend their mission using the Flickr Commons community. (I'm a proud "1st Fan" supporter of the Brooklyn Museum.)
There was a very informative session on privacy and intellectual property concerns. This reminded me that we have an enormous responsibility to our youth to help them be savvy about what information they share about themselves and how they understand copyright and IP issues. Our Media Masters program at Global Kids is addressing a lot of these core concerns, but I would love to see this extended further to more of our youth around the city and around the world,
Probably the most helpful session was the last one on "Chasing the Edge and Maintaining the Core." Skillfully chaired by Ben Stokes of the MacArthur Foundation, it featured David Ferriero of the New York Public Library, Troy Livingston of the Museum of Life and Science in Durham, NC and Patrick Whitney of the Illinois Institute of Technology. Ben moderated the session with rapid-fire questions he threw at the panelists, interspersed with questions and commentary from the crowd in an organic and wide ranging discussion of the challenges of fostering innovation while also maintaining essential services at your institution.
David of the NY Public Library gave a great overview of how the library system in New York has struggled with integrating digital media. He admitted that they are a very conservative institution and that they don't have a problem with "too much edginess." They are managing the transition with a "digital experience group" composed of a range of individuals from different departments.
David gave a great anecdote about their challenges: They organized a gaming event in Astor Hall of the main library, where 1,000 teens, parents, caregivers were playing digital games. Getting to that point was horrible because it was so different from what they have done before. They had senior curators on the edge shaking their heads. But a New York Times reporter was there and wrote a glowing story about what the library was doing.
Troy of the Durham Museum of Life and Science said his goal was to make the museum "more permeable" and to push the boundary on who can participate. He noted that for science museums the "edge" is older youth and adults; most of their traffic comes from younger children and families.But he is fortunate to have a board that gets that "edge" technologies and approaches are vital to the future of the institution.
Patrick Whitney gave a more broad overview of how museums and libraries were designed. He noted that if Henry Ford were alive today, there were only a few things he would recognize: public schools, museums and libraries, and not much else.
Finally there was a discussion about developing new funding models for these edge technologies and applications. People discussed the "NPR model" of membership, advertising, the "iTunes Model" of offering small pieces of content for small amounts of money, public-private partnerships (aka the Google Digitization Project) and monetizing social networks like the Brooklyn Museum is doing.
One of my favorite quotes from the conference was from the coolest person I met there, Nina Simon, a museum specialist who writes the amazing Museum 2.0 blog:
I believe that museums and libraries can become physical analogs to social networks around particular objects. We are losing to Starbucks for no good reason.
My main takeaway from the event is that cultural institutions need to become better at meeting their audiences where they are at. That means for me:
- Re-inventing public institutions so that they are agile and responsive to what youth are orienting towards. A corollary to that is that management has to hire staff who can deliver innovative programs and back them up internally.
- Re-visioning pathways into your institution and content. Beyond the turnstile, how are people accessing your content online, over various media, using games, virtual worlds , ARGs, etc.
- Viewing youth as having unique strengths that should be celebrated and built upon — filtering, multi-tasking, remixing.
All in all, a stimulating and enjoyable event that I was honored to be a part of.