“I have no idea what I’m doing but I know I’m doing it really, really well.” A Digital History course reflection

I signed up for this course because I believed I needed to know how to use current technologies on the web. Yet, the most influential takeaway I could have gathered from this course is that doing history on the web is not about being an expert on all digital technologies that exist in the current moment.

Perhaps twenty years down the line humans will develop a digital technology that allows us to stand up straight again. Computer in the contacts, anyone? I plan to be able to adapt to that when it arrives. http://www.funbodytherapy.com/gallery/evolution-of-man-to-computer/

Perhaps twenty years down the line humans will develop a digital technology that allows us to stand up straight again. Computer in the contacts, anyone? I plan to be able to adapt to that when it arrives. http://www.funbodytherapy.com/gallery/evolution-of-man-to-computer/

Rather, it is about honing the ability to learn, developing your adaptational skills, and conquering any fear of incompetency when you log onto a new website or try a new technological initiative. This is what our professor, Trevor Owens has brought up in several class meetings, and will be something I remind myself every time I try to bring history to audiences on the web, in whatever format that might be.

For example, this first clicked in during an “Ah Ha!” moment during Week 2, as I struggled to keep my sanity deciphering the differences between the Dublin Core categories on Omeka.net. I am not gonna lie, I questioned my career path a few times while creating my online collection (“What on earth is the difference between contributor and source? What do they mean by identifier??? If I can’t fill out these obscure categories, what good am I as a digital historian???”). Once I remembered that I was not aspiring to be a collections manager, that I only needed a working knowledge of omeka.net and the Dublin Core, the assignment became a lot easier to manage (both logistically and emotionally). The lesson was that digital history is about developing ones skills as a navigator, not as an expert on every working detail of one website. After all, the beauty of the web is that it is constantly evolving. And with that, so is the historical field.

Nowhere are the signs of change for historians more evident than on the World Wide Web.-Roy Rosenzweig, Digital History, Introduction. 

I’ll be honest. At the beginning of this course I did not understand the magnitude of Rosenzweig’s statement. I grew up with the World Wide Web, I have never known a world without it. Our venture into the archival debate, which I believe Trevor Owens encapsulated best in the question, “What do you mean by archive?”, truly helped to ground my understanding of how the practice of history is rapidly changing. After all, archivists are actively debating how to define boundaries between their archives and the word’s liberal and diverse uses online. Does this mean denouncing the “appropriation” of the word ‘archive’ outside the field? Does this mean collaborating, and adjusting archival appraisal best practices for the World Wide Web? Does this mean reminding fellow archivists of the field’s own ever-evolving history? While the debate itself is fascinating, my biggest takeaway that week was that digital history is about negotiation. Change is always presenting itself to historians, and this is especially true on the World Wide Web. Yet my lesson from this debate was that best practices are the products of the decisions we make as a field about these changes.

Personally, this takeaway carried over into Week 3 when we discussed the issue of collection access in the digital age. Museums, conceptualized in a world without internet, seem as a collective to struggle with the expectations of this new digital world. As Sheila Brennan stated in her article Getting to the Stuff,

Overall, more history museums have websites and they provide basic information about the physical sites [since 2004], but most still are not engaging online visitors in meaningful ways.

Yet, this is much simpler to state than it is to solve, as we discussed in class that week. Whether it be time, staff capabilities, staff numbers, money or priority, there are always understandable reasons why museums are lagging online. Yet, understandable does not mean acceptable.

As stated before, I was quick to absorb Trevor Owen’s sentiment that the digital world is about the ability to adapt, not develop expertise. Yet I think another hurdle museums have to navigate in the digital world is the balance between quick adaptation and establishing expertise. After all, what are museums if not institutionalized experts on historical subjects? As I stated in a past blog, “online availability of resources matters if museums want to remain cultural authorities in the digital age.” While I observed the archival debate safely from a distance, this debate struck very close to home for me, the aspiring museum professional. The digital world is changing the meanings of preservation, collection and access. As Sebastian Chan and Aaron Chope of Cooper-Hewitt wrote about acquisitioning the Ipad app Planetary,

“No longer can objects be collected simply for their long term significance (or scarcity), but for the conversations that they enable the museum to engage in the contemporary moment.”

Museums preserve objects and ideas from the past, but they serve people in the present. This is one of the defining lessons I have learned as a public history masters student. All the hurdles that can prevent museums from creating an established presence online, or adapting with the ever-changing digital technologies, cannot distract from the importance of making sure museums break through those hurdles.

Indiana Jones would much rather stick to his old fashioned tomb raiding ways, but his students have lots of questions. Museums have potential audiences out there with questions too, and unlike Indy, we shouldn't be climbing out our office windows. Though, that does look pretty badass.

Indiana Jones would much rather stick to his old fashioned tomb raiding ways, but his students have lots of questions. Museums have potential audiences out there with questions too, and unlike Indy, we shouldn’t be climbing out our office windows. Though, that does look pretty badass.

And more still, Michael Peter Edson is insightful when he argues that the digital world is exponentially expanding our potential audiences. It is rather mind blowing to sit back and think about the potential impact museums can have online. Yes, as much as I love my brick and mortar museums, I see his following point.

This is a critical issue that institutions will be contending with for decades to come: There’s just an enormous, humongous, gigantic audience out there connected to the Internet that is starving for authenticity, ideas, and meaning. We’re so accustomed to the scale of attention that we get from visitation to bricks-and-mortar buildings that it’s difficult to understand how big the Internet is—and how much attention, curiosity, and creativity a couple of billion people can have.

Many of the authors of our readings had ideas for how to address [fill in the blank] complications, whether it be open source collaboration, harnessing a volunteer community for digital projects, utilizing existing digital technologies like historypin.com or omeka.net, or harnessing the growing technology of mobile apps. And as I played around with our different digital assignments, I really saw the potential these technologies (or future inventions) can have to reach museum audiences on the web.

So, as I have restated throughout this post, my largest takeaway from this course is that adaptation is key in the digital world. My key challenge moving forward is one that many of the others pinpoint for museums and other public history sites as a whole. This is one that we discussed quite heavily in class, and one that I see myself continuing to discuss with future colleagues as I attempt to use digital technologies to reach my audiences in the future. That is, how do we navigate the everyday logistical challenges that surface as we attempt to adapt?

Right there with you, Andy.

Right there with you, Andy.

I said that coming into this course I wanted to develop skills in digital technologies, because I recognized the value the internet brings to the field of public history. As the class comes to a close, I am leaving with the idea that perhaps I understand the necessity of adaptation to be both of technological understanding and the ability to navigate around logistical obstacles that will always present themselves to the digital historian.

“Pardon Me, Have You Seen My Dog, Thimble?”: Video Games and “experiencing” the Boston Tea Party

In the virtual game, Mission America: for Crown of Colony? There is fourteen year old boy named Nat Wheeler living in Uxbridge, Massachusetts in 1773. He knows he cannot inherit his father’s farm because he is a second son. His father lands him the position of printer’s apprentice in Boston.

There are three identities tied up in a video game character: the virtual identity of the character, the real-world identity of the player, and the projective identity of the player onto the virtual character (Gee, 49-50).

There are three identities tied up in a video game character: the virtual identity of the character, the real-world identity of the player, and the projective identity of the player onto the virtual character (Gee, 49-50).

Nat’s mother says, “Nat, your father and I are so proud of you. We know you will make a wonderful printer’s apprentice.” Nat has the option of saying either, “ Thanks Ma, I won’t disappoint you,” or “How much money will I make as a printer’s apprentice?”

This is just one of the first of many choices Nat will have to make as he navigates the tumultuous environment of Boston, Massachusetts leading up to the Boston Tea Party. But Nat does not have to go it alone. He is teamed up with a student from 5th to 8th grade in a modern day history class. Together, Nat and the student make a series of choices, based on the people, opinions and events they encounter, which ultimately culminates in a final choice. Does Nat remain a Loyalist to the British Crown? Does he become an active supporter of the Revolution? Or does he choose to follow in his parents’ footsteps and try to stay out of the conflict altogether?

Such is the initiative of Mission America, a multimedia digital game meant to:

“engage students in learning and analyzing U.S. history. Adapting the most popular emerging technology in young people’s lives – gaming – it will immerse students in the dramatic struggles of Americans from the Revolutionary era through the 20th century.”

But…but…but…What is wrong with good old fashioned history textbooks? What is wrong with quizzes about significant names, dates and places? What could video games possibly teach students about the past?

To all these questions, the makers of Mission America answer “quite a lot,” in their National Endowment for the Humanities Grant Proposal. They argue that learning history should be more about exploring emotion, diversity of arguments and the possible outcomes of different choices. Importantly, video games create an environment of action and experience, rather than static events listed in a history textbook.

“Role-playing elements of the game put students inside crucial moments in U.S. history, and help to challenge assumptions about historical inevitability.” Or, as one 8th grader Umar describes the value of Mission America, “The game actually puts the American Revolution…in your hands. It helps you get a better understanding of your environment as you go through.”

Thanks bostonteapartyship.com, but if I am not using these facts for situated cognition, New Literacy Studies and connectionism, its all in one ear and out the other.  courtesy of http://www.bostonteapartyship.com/boston-tea-party-facts

Thanks bostonteapartyship.com, but if I am not using these facts for situated cognition, New Literacy Studies and connectionism, its all in one ear and out the other.
courtesy of http://www.bostonteapartyship.com/boston-tea-party-facts

Thus the makers of Mission America want users to realize that historical events, like events happening in the present day, did not unfold inevitably—they were created by many people making choices everyday. Tapping into that understanding through video games seems very powerful, and emotional—just what we want students to get from any history class.

Indeed, Mission America seems to speak to many of the issues that James Paul Gee highlights about school teaching in his book What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy (2007). He argues that video games have the potential to hone students skills in situated cognition, New Literacy Studies and connectionism, which are three areas he argues that today’s schools address quite poorly (Gee, 8-9).

Situated cognition, explained in the context of Mission America, is when the student (through Nat) experiences the events leading up to the Boston Tea Party, rather than memorizing the name Paul Revere or the date 1773 in a history textbook. In the video game, the student has the opportunity to embed themselves in the material, social and cultural contexts of Boston during the Revolutionary Era. What does this look like exactly? Just as one is embedded in the social, cultural and material contexts of the present day, video gamers are introduced to virtual reimagining of the types of experiences a printer’s apprentice might have experienced in 1773. Not only that, they are introduced to the active choices people in the past made that created who they were and how they impacted history. A well-off niece of a loyalist shopkeeper, for instance, stops Nat as he makes his way down the street. “Pardon me, have you seen my dog, Thimble?,” she asks. If the student agrees to help her, they will eventually spot the dog and run after it, following it into an alleyway where they happen to run into an armed confrontation between British Soldiers and revolting colonists. I don’t know about you, but this experience would stick in my mind much better than reading that the confrontation happened on some obscure date in 1773.

New Literacy Studies has potential in the gaming world of Mission America, or,

“a body of work that argues that reading and writing should be viewed not only as mental achievements going on inside people’s heads, but also as social and cultural practices with economic, historical and political implications (9).”

Vocabulary lessons in schools often teach words detached from their social, cultural implications in the students own lives. I mean, thanks for giving me extra credit on that vocabulary test, Mrs. 7th Grade English Teacher, but when will I need to use the word “cupidity” again? Rather, Mission America situates vocabulary in user experiences. “Nat, your father and I are so proud of you. We know you will make a wonderful printer’s apprentice.” The student has the option to click on the word ‘apprentice,’ to learn its meaning, and to reuse it periodically throughout the game. The student learns the word because it is relevant and significant to Nat’s lived experiences.

Lastly, connectionism, or the understanding that humans are very good at recognizing patterns, and learn best when they can connect the problem at hand with lived, embodied experiences. I see this playing out most explicitly in a game like Mission America when it comes time for Nat to make his final choice—Does he join the revolutionary cause? Does he remain loyal to the crown? Does he find avoid involvement in the escalating violence entirely? As Nat (and his student companion) encounter many different viewpoints, embodied by different characters, it should become clear to the student that each character is making a choice in his or her best interest. And that choice is different based on the characters position in society, their embodied experiences.

I’m sold by the argument the Mission America team makes for their grant, and Gee convinced me of the potential video games have to engage students in history. I would wholeheartedly support the furthering of video game class activities like Mission America. Yet, I also see issues with Mission America that have less to do with the video game capabilities and more to do with the content being taught (and asserted) as significant American history. The video game series selects five topics deemed highly significant to American history, by a group of all white historians, and I am afraid it shows. While I have not played any of these games, the content does appear to lean heavily towards the Eurocentric. There does not appear to be any deep ventures into Native histories (if at all) or Asian American histories (besides Chinese laborers on the railroad system) explored in any of the games, and the one game with an African American protagonist, titled Flight to Freedom, apparently spends a good portion of the time occupied with contextualizing the abolitionist movement. While this is not a critique isolated to the game Mission America, I do wonder, in this regard, if the games are as polyvocal and contextualized as the makers claim them to be.

While I would argue that there is still work to be done on content and presentation of historical events, I am encouraged by the interactivity that games like Mission America can offer in the classroom. I am quite certain that if I had a game like this in the classroom, I would have experienced the emotion and ethical dilemmas that the makers argue connects students to history. And I probably would have learned a lot more as a result. In fact, I am tempted to sneak into one of those classroom sessions and accompany Nat during the Revolutionary War myself.

Retracing the Photographer’s steps–Historypin on Vashon Island

Of all the assignments we have completed for this semester, historypin is by far my favorite. Perhaps that is because the assignment is part detective work. Where was the photograph taken? Should I pin the photograph to that exact location, or to another place that has more thematic relevance to the photograph today? As Mark Tebeau discusses in his article Listening to the City: Oral History and Place in the Digital Era, geolocating a historical artifact should not simply be nailing down the geographical coordinates, it should also mean considering the ties these artifacts have to different places in the present.

Historypin.com allows anyone to upload a photograph and geolocate it on a map. If it is possible, the creator can also use a streetview application. Any user who takes the virtual tour of photographs can see what a certain place looked like at that moment in time, versus what it looks like today. While this was very helpful for some photographs I created for my tour Faces and Places of Vashon Island, Washington, it was not always.

The first permanent school house on Vashon Island, ca 1897, north of Vashon Town. Well exactly where is that again? courtesy of MOHAI

The first permanent school house on Vashon Island, ca 1897, north of Vashon Town. Well exactly where is that again?
courtesy of MOHAI

For instance, I used the Museum of History and Industry, Seattle’s (MOHAI) digitized photograph collection for most of my tour. While MOHAI is very good about detailing where and when their photographs were taken, some locations were rough estimates. For instance, one photograph of the first permanent school on Vashon Island is stated in their description as “north of Vashon Town.” Well, what on earth does that mean for me, I can’t tag the whole north end of Vashon Island! Instead, I chose to geolocate the image to the current location of Chautauqua Elementary School, the current public school on Vashon Island. This school is located to the south of Vashon Town. My reasoning here is that Chautauqua has historical roots to the first permanent school house on Vashon Island.

I had a lot of fun creating my history pin tour, and thoroughly enjoyed the experience of clicking through the historypin site and seeing what everyone else has geolocated. I am a firm believer in the power of place, and find historypin an interesting way to incorporate digital communities in place-based histories.

Old Maps and Mobile Apps–A Comparison for Museums

I see an affinity between old maps and mobile apps. Those weathered yellow sketches from long ago that depict the first renderings of buildings, countries, continents or seas were meant to discover or convey space, connection and utility. Whether the cartographer ventured into uncharted waters, or added detail and meaning to landscapes previously sketched, they did not conduct their assignment simply because it was fun and exciting, but because they were responding to a social need of their time. Some of the key questions the cartographer sought to answer with their maps are often asked of mobile app builders today. In terms of space, where are the boundaries of landscape? In terms of connection, are there social communications we can foster? In terms of utility, how will the final product convey meaning to users?

Ecumene, by Johannes Schnitzer, 1482. courtesy of Wikipedia.   Mobile App builders wish they could make their sites as detailed and interactive as this map from 1482.

Ecumene, by Johannes Schnitzer, 1482. courtesy of Wikipedia.
Mobile App builders wish they could make their sites as detailed and interactive as this map from 1482.

Space

As many museum professionals realize it is time they chart their exhibits, collections and spaces for the growing mobile communities, a common question that arises is—what could be out there? For instance, if it is possible to create an app that geolocates interpreted oral histories, such as the Cleveland Historical Project that Mark Tebeau describes in his ‘Listening to the City: Oral History and Place in the Digital Era,’ mobile app builders are expanding the possibilities of what it means to curate and discuss place-based history. This creates new questions the makers of Cleveland Historical must chart for themselves,

“If geolocating oral history offers a new dimension to oral history narratives, it is not entirely clear where a story should be geolocated or whether geolocation even provides the best way to contextualize historical stories.”

Does it create a viable new dimension for oral history narratives? How do we evaluate the meanings that users create from the oral histories? Most fundamentally, is a downloadable mobile app a form of active curation? What are possibilities? What are the limits? Much like early cartographers, mobile app builders are still developing detailed ideas of what this could mean. Geoffrey Alan Rhodes, in his blogpost, ‘A Place For Everything’ writes,

“This is where the ongoing expansion and development of digital tools in our museums and communities can help us. We can experiment in this realm. We can iterate. Test an idea, develop an experience, evaluate it, and decide if it works. If it does, we can do more. If not, we can try something new more quickly and easily than ever before.”

Connection

Both the cartographer and the mobile app builder respond to a social need for connection. The cartographer had users to which they needed to communicate ideas, and so do modern museum professionals who dare to venture into the limitedly charted waters of mobile app design. Mobile apps are not simply fun hobbies, but real efforts on the part of museum professionals to foster levels of community and connection that are socially expected in the twenty-first century. Much in line with Paul Ford’s theory that the digital age is fueled by a common human need, ‘why wasn’t I consulted?’ The digital historians in charge of Mobile for Museums, Sharon Leon, Sheila Brennan and Andrea Odjorne argue,

“By experimenting with mobile projects, we believe that museums can not only establish better relationships with their visitors that foster a sense of stewardship for the brick and mortar museum, but also help both the museum’s staff and visitors build meaning around art and objects that matter to their community.”

Thus, mobile apps are about connection between people and across spaces. They have the potential to utilize several physical senses and bridge the gap between different medias. This is not much different from the mission of cartographers who sought to answer the questions, who is out there to connect with, and what routes can we take to do so?

Utility

How will users use our products? And perhaps equally important, how will our products change the way resources are used? This is another parallel I see between early cartographers and mobile app builders. One of the most prominent themes for historians as they adjust to the digital age is of the increasing need of user accessibility. Thus, if we have the potential to map every nook and cranny of our collections, our exhibit spaces, our historical coverages, how will this change the way we interpret history? How will it change the way users engage with history?

The Getty Museum teamed with Google to create a mobile app aimed at engaging users. Time to map the possible transformations mobile apps can offer museums. courtesy of tednguyenusa.com

The Getty Museum teamed with Google to create a mobile app aimed at engaging users. Time to map the possible transformations mobile apps can offer museums.
courtesy of tednguyenusa.com

Akin with these questions, Geoffrey Alan Rhodes wonders specifically about the role of artifacts, collections and interpretations in the digital age. Does the digital age create possibilities for museums and their publics to utilize cultural resources like never before? And if that is true, does that mean the things that are not utilized are not worth preserving anymore?

Additionally, how will mobile app builders utilize what has already been done and expand the technological capabilities? Cartographers often built on the foundation of what had been mapped before. Just the same, Mobile apps of tomorrow will model or take lessons from what has already been created. As Leon, Brennan and Odjorne further,

“A primary focus of our implementations has been to extend and utilize pre-existing software frameworks and standards. This approach to mobile development avoids having to start from scratch every time an institution wishes to launch content for mobile, saving valuable resources.”

There is something very familiar but also strange about old maps. Names are different, continents are disproportionate, and symbols lose their meanings and purpose over time. More and more, historic sites and museums are attempting to utilize the growing technology of mobile apps, because they realize these have the potential to address a social need for users to develop a deeper, more engaged online connection with history like never before. Just like the cartographer created the most up-to-date, meaningful landscapes for the people of their time, mobile apps offer an opportunity to do the same for users in ours.

Vashon, Washington: Contextualizing my Hometown on Wikipedia

Wikipedia has a lengthy article for site contributors titled ‘Places of Local Interest.’ I would imagine this is because there are many people like me who love the small towns they come from and want to share all they know on Wikipedia. The world needs to know all about Vashon Island, Washington. Our local lavender lemonade is fantastic, our Point Robinson lighthouse is picturesque, and our bike in the tree is a fan favorite. Before I started, I brainstormed with some fellow islanders about what should be added to the Vashon, Washington webpage, and everyone I talked to had great ideas. There are a lot of things that we Vashon Islanders consider notable about our town.

Vashon, Washington Wikipedia Page. Trying to edit local history inside a global encyclopedia can be tricky.

Vashon, Washington Wikipedia Page. Trying to edit local history inside a global encyclopedia can be tricky.

But as I began my work editing the page, I realized there is a key difference between what is important to me as a local, and what is appropriate for a global encyclopedia. When I surveyed the Vashon, Island page, I recognized significant gaps. For instance the history section only mentioned initial “discovery” by French explorers, and creating a land bridge between Vashon Island and the smaller Maury Island. Additionally, the Notable Places section had a random three places, and these places were not necessarily the most famous island localities.

While there was a lot I could add, I struggled to justify why I needed to add a certain historic hardware store, or a specific nature reserve. Originally, I had toyed with the idea of creating a Wikipedia page about the bike in the tree, (exactly what it sounds like). But as I began gathering my sources, I realized that it really was more of a local phenomenon than it is a notable encyclopedic entry. Why would somebody in Tokyo care? As the Places of Local Interest article stated,

An article about a local place or person may be created if there is enough referenced information to make it encyclopedic. Otherwise, include the information in the nearest appropriate parent article.

Therefore, I heeded the article’s advice and added more information about the bike in the tree to the Vashon, Washington page in my editing.

I do not feel like I have done everything I can do to edit the Vashon, Washington page. The paragraphs I added to the History section are not a sufficient summary of the entire history of Vashon Island. Because I am not a local history expert, I decided to start with the earlier history of the island. I would write more about a certain piece of the history than write sporadically about all of it. That way, when I  or someone else comes back later they would hopefully spend less time filling in missing pieces to the timeline already supposed to have been covered.

As a new wiki editor, I believe I need to spend more time tinkering around with appropriate tone and gaging how much to write about each notable historical event. As a historian in training, I am tempted to provide a mini research paper on each subject. Should the entire history of Vashon College really be reduced to two sentences? Then again, it was absent before so perhaps other editors did not consider it even notable enough.

I think I will keep working on the Vashon, Washington page later this summer, because I think there is a lot more to say. I have not gotten responses from other wiki users yet, so I think experience watching others encounter and react to my edits would be valuable experience.

“Oh look sire, the herd is on the move!”: Doing History with the Crowd

To me, crowdsourcing sounds both freeing and terrifying. Much like in The Lion King (1994) when Simba gleefully goes to the gorge for a surprise, only to have a terrifying stampede of wildebeests come chasing after him. He did not understand what motivated the wildebeests, he had not planned for the wildebeests, and he did not know who to communicate with in order to execute his escape. Don’t get me wrong, wildebeests are great, it is just that Simba was unprepared. As we all know, that ended badly.

I think crowdsourcing has great potential to help museum professionals complete enormous projects and foster more intimate relationships with potential visitors. But did you plan well?

I think crowdsourcing has great potential to help museum professionals complete enormous projects and foster more intimate relationships with potential visitors. But did you plan well? pinstopin.com

I share the sentiments of Tim Causer and Valerie Wallace when they say,

“Crowdsourcing is becoming more widespread, and thus, it is important to understand exactly how, and if, it works. It is a viable and cost-effective strategy only if the task is well facilitated, and the institution or project leaders are able to build up a cohort of willing volunteers.”

In many ways, crowdsourcing in museums sounds fantastic. First, it has the potential to exponentially multiply information for museums faster than ever before. I say, bring on the wildebeests, so long as you know what you are doing. For example, recently the National Numismatic Collection completed a several month long partnership with the Smithsonian Digitization Program Office, The Smithsonian Transcription Center and the National Currency Foundation to rapidly photograph banknote proof sheets and digitize them in less than 48 hours. After that came the wildebeests. Online volunteers from around the world could spend anywhere from 5 seconds to 5 hours transcribing and analyzing these banknotes. The amount of labor the crowd completed (and continues to complete) for the National Numismatic Collection would likely have taken one staff member a career and a half. That is invaluable.

However, organizing the crowd is quite a task. It requires thoughtful collaboration across departments and institutions. This entails consistent and thorough communication, so that all parties hold the same consistency of vision, accountability and traceability that Dan M. Brown writes about in his book Communicating Design: Developing Web Site Documentation for Design and Planning (2007). Thus, harnessing the herd of wildebeests that is crowdsourcing requires careful organization of yourself and all the people you need to carry out the process. That is quite the ordeal, and it does take time, energy and money away from other duties within the museum. For example, although digitizing objects provides a tremendously faster transcription process over the long term, the giant, loud machine could create some hinderances in the office space over the short term. If you do not plan for the wildebeests, the project could end up taking up more resources than intended, and that can be very costly, even if the crowdsourcing itself is free.

Crowdsourcing has the potential to help complete important digitization or web-related projects in museums that could take staff 20 years to do on their own.

Crowdsourcing has the potential to help complete important digitization or web-related projects in museums that could take staff 20 years to do on their own. lionkingwikia.com

Secondly, crowdsourcing fulfills a social desire that most museums have not historically addressed. As Paul Ford points out—that is the need to be consulted. What I liked about Ford’s article was that explained that crowdsourcing is not just a cool new thing we can do using the world wide web. It is more than that. It has the potential to create meaningful dialog both between the museum and the community and amongst the community itself. He argues,

“Turn your readers into members. Not visitors, not subscribers; you want members. And then don’t just consult them, but give them tools to consult amongst themselves.”

Michael Peter Edson takes this discussion to a level of meaning that I find very interesting. He argues that crowdsourcing offers a level of empathy and respect to the participants within the crowd. By creating communities built around the drive to further knowledge, institutions are simultaneously validating that the knowledge each wildebeest brings to the product is significant to us all. As he writes of successful crowdsourcing websites,

“What makes these sites tick? For many of them, it’s a strategy of openness and generosity—a genuine respect for, interest in, and admiration for the people who participate. It’s an ongoing commitment to listening, respect, and empathy that manifests itself in every decision and strategic choice, and which benefits both the participants and the convener.“

Edson also points out something about museums and crowdsourcing that I find very significant. That is, that these two things are not so different. Are museums not, in some way, a form of crowdsourcing in and of themselves? Generations of scholars bring what they have discovered to an institution, and each generation builds upon the work that came before. So all this time I have been concerned about the ramifications of a stampede of wildebeests, I did not consider that museum professionals are their own crowd. Edson writes,

I am talking about museums, libraries, and archives—heritage, culture, knowledge, and memory institutions—and there is really nothing like them on the face of the earth. And whether we’ve realized it or not, my colleagues and I who work with technology in these institutions have been participating in an extraordinary project — the building of a planetary scale knowledge sharing network for the benefit of everyone in the world.

I am convinced that the herd of wildebeests is inherently a great thing for museums. Crowdsourcing has the potential to foster online communities with visitors, creating a network with our audiences built around trust, respect and the common good. Volunteers have the opportunity to be intimately involved in important cultural projects like never before. Crowdsourcing could change how museums relate to their audiences altogether.

Yet, I think for many museum professionals, harnessing the herd can pose real logistical challenges. Yes, crowdsourcing is free, but getting to the crowd is usually not. While each project presents different questions, some of these might be: What if the responsibilities this project creates take over my work day? What if the giant two-ton digitization machine makes it hard to get in and out of the office? What if the project ends up taking longer than anticipated? What if the money runs out before we get everything done? What if the other departments I am collaborating with have different priorities for the project than mine does?

These questions bring us back to what has driven Dan M. Brown to write an entire manual about the logistics of communicating, organizing and facilitating online crowdsourcing projects. They can be fantastically successful, if well planned. Free labor sounds like a museum professional’s dream come true, but it seems that is only possible once the appropriate discussions, funds, labor and time has been allocated to the task at hand. In other words—are you prepared for the wildebeests?

How can museum professionals appropriately prepare for crowdsourcing projects so they do not exhaust their resources in the process lionking.wikia.com

How can museum professionals appropriately prepare for crowdsourcing projects so they do not exhaust their resources in the process lionking.wikia.com

Interpreting Online with Omeka.net Exhibits

Last week’s assignment was to create an online collection using Omeka.net. This week, we were tasked with creating an exhibit out of this collection. Personally, I enjoy interpretation much more than cataloging, which is why I am interested in becoming a curator rather than a collections manager. As a result, I found this assignment very enjoyable. You can find my collection, titled From Tokugawa to Meiji: Japanese Coins here.

I found the exhibit creation process very intuitive. Once I discovered that I needed to download the exhibit builder plug-in, the building process went very smoothly. Rather than building a collection, which asks you to fill out about ten boxes of information for each object, the exhibit builder plug-in allowed for a faster process.

I decided to break my collection of ten coins into three different groups: Tokugawa Period Shogunate Coins, Tokugawa Period Commodity Coins and Meiji Period Government Coins. I chose to do this because I was interested in highlighting the numismatic changes that occurred during the Meiji Restoration. For those of you not versed in Japanese history, the Tokugawa Period (1601-1868) was characterized by a Japan voluntarily closed off to most foreign trade. During this period, power usually rested in Shogunate (or military) families, rather than the Japanese royal family and their government. Though there was a Tokugawa Shogunate currency (which you can learn about in my exhibit), commodity trade and foreign coin circulation was also quite common.

During the Meiji Restoration, the Japanese Government consolidated economic and political power. Meiji coins were standardized throughout Japan, and as a result, they looked quite different.

As is probably obvious by now, I chose an enormous topic, and that posed some interpretive problems for me as I tried to tell some of this story with just ten coins. Therefore, in my introduction to the exhibit I stress that these coins provide select snapshots of a very big story.

A snapshot from my Omeka.net exhibit, 'From Tokugawa to Meiji: Japanese Coins'

A snapshot from my Omeka.net exhibit, ‘From Tokugawa to Meiji: Japanese Coins’

However, I still feel a little uncertain about posting such a small and highly selective exhibit on this topic to the web. There really is so much more to the process of numismatics during the Tokugawa and Meiji Periods. I know I have not come close to doing it justice. Perhaps the biggest lesson I can take away here is that I need to spend more time with future exhibits narrowing down my scope so that I can be sure that my interpretation of the objects can tie them together in a cohesive and understandable way for my audiences.

Nevertheless, I am pleased with the knowledge I have gained during this learning process. Digital exhibits are easy and fun to design. Additionally, the formats are designed in such ways that visitors are easily oriented. I think Omeka.net is a great example of how historical topics can be exhibited on the web.