Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Collaboration and Convergence

The concept of a division between collecting institutions in the GLAM sector is a 19th century phenomenon. Prior to that, artefacts, paintings, books and natural history specimens were often housed in the one organisation. The British Library, for instance, was only formed out of the Britsh Museum as recently as 1973.

Given the somewhat artificial nature then of this division, it is a logical process that we are seeing on the web as collecting institutions come together to once again link up their databases. I was listening yesterday to Dr Warwick Cathro, the Assistant Director General of the National Library of Australia talk at the Australian National Maritime Museum about the collaboration between the National Library, the National Archives and the National Film and Sound Archive that has resulted in Trove. Managed by the National Library it is a highly impressive metadata search engine for Australiana. A number of the audience confirmed how the speed with which they can identify primary resources for research purposes has transformed their lives.

It confirms a global trend, articulated recently by David Curry at the Future of Museums blogspot, in which he says:

Demand for access to and leverage of primary sources and collections of all kinds drives the need for common strategies around licensing, intellectual property, copyright management, and associated revenue streams. Just as important, GLAMs will have an increasingly common agenda in addressing preservation, access, physical storage, and overall management of primary source content overall, including “born-digital” content

The large and economically powerful “commercial” content market, which is perhaps anchored overmuch in entertainment content at the moment, is a key driver (and definer) for market and community expectations. Apple iTunes, Google Books+ and similar disruptions will increasingly “invade” the GLAM domain, driving the need for common, robust strategies to deal with the velocity and vectors of change.

So I read with interest an article in the New York Times last week, on how the British Museum has begun a collaboration with Wikipedia. My children are always telling me how they are forbidden to cite Wikipedia as a reference in essays, because of the amateur nature of its content. But the BM noted recently that their Rosetta Stone page views were up to five times less than the Wikipedia page on the same iconic artefact. If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em goes the phrase, and so that is exactly what they are doing, even to the extent of appointing a ‘Wikipedian in residence’, an Australian no less! Key to his role will be identifying the thousands of artefacts (from the total collection of 8 million), that might be worth having their own Wikipedia article.

It’s encouraging to see the BM doing this, as convergence, the term used to describe in this context the coming together of the museum/gallery sector with the library/archive sector, still struggles in my book to find a model that works. There is the celebrated Puke Ariki in New Plymouth, New Zealand and also attempts by Albury City Council in their new cultural centre, but are we ever going to treat a museum as a library and objects as reference material? My guess is that a new model will appear as the web develops, and we need to be open to all opportunities around it.

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