I received a Kress Foundation / Digital Library Federation “cross-pollinator” fellowship to attend this year’s Museum Computer Network conference, which was held in New Orleans a week before the presidential election. Here are my reflections on the conference and related thoughts on digital collections. Re-posted from the original on the DLF blog.
In her keynote address at MCN, mere days before the presidential election, Catherine Bracy projected an image of Donald Trump on the giant ballroom screen. “Trust in institutions…is as low as it’s ever been,” she said. Bracy’s words set the stage for what was, for me, a reflective conference, as I gained new ideas from an adjacent field as well as fresh perspectives on my current one. And the questions I pondered over the course of the meeting, especially regarding the role of digital collections in the 21st century, have taken on even more significance in the weeks since the election.
MCN presented a decidedly more audience-centric perspective than the conferences I usually attend. Sessions about social media, crowdsourcing, virtual reality, and other tech topics engaged with this year’s theme, “the people-centered museum,” by wrestling with the value of these ventures rather than focusing on the processes undertaken to deliver them. A number of sessions also confronted issues of diversity and inclusion, in terms of both staffing an institution and welcoming visitors to it.
I was particularly inspired by initiatives that have invited users to participate in the construction of digital collections. For example, the Coyote project at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago provides an administrative interface for crowdsourcing descriptions of artworks, to make them more accessible to users with visual impairments. Europeana 1914-1918 solicits contributions to its virtual collection from everyday citizens, offering to digitize World War I relics scattered in attics across the continent.
Although crowdsourcing is nothing new, these projects achieve a deep level of engagement that most digital libraries—especially those at academic institutions—have only dabbled in. They challenge the very notion of who can create a digital collection and who, in turn, that collection can serve. Is digitizing our holdings enough, or is the real significance in user-contributed content? Is there perhaps more meaning in the process—if the process engages our users—than there is in the product?
These are concepts I’ve considered throughout my career, but at MCN and in the weeks since, they have come into sharper focus for me. I was pleased to hear that themes of community and cultural assessment likewise ran through the DLF conference. Now more than ever, we need to democratize digital collections.
Thank you to DLF, the Kress Foundation, and the Museum Computer Network for the support.