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Notes from WebWise 2012

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The following is a guest post by Jefferson Bailey, Fellow at the Library of Congress’s Office of Strategic Initiatives.

WebWise 2012, the annual, free conference held by the Institute of Museum and Library Services, is both a showcase of IMLS-funded projects and an excellent opportunity to spot emerging trends, tools, and services in libraries and museums. If one theme emerged from this year’s session, it was an emphasis on creating a more unmediated user experience by supporting evolving narratives, generative storytelling, and a deeper level of interaction between patrons and collections. Facilitating these more user-driven experiences took a variety of forms, from mobile and location-based apps to transcription and visualization platforms and what Ben Vershbow from NYPL Labs called “maker tools”. In keeping with the conference’s title of “Tradition and Innovation,” a key element of these projects was using technological tools to support new ways for users to discover, interpret, and reshape traditional cultural heritage collections and services.

The preconference featured a number of workshops as well as the WiseCamp unconference. Less project or presentation-oriented and more conversational (as unconferences are intended to be), WiseCamp brought together an eclectic mix of funders, practitioners, hackers, and academics to discuss both managerial and procedural problem-solving and creative brain-storming. One popular topic was that of linked open data in libraries, archives, and museums (aka the ever-popular “LOD-LAM“). While conversations around LOD-LAM can sometimes split into discussion of detailed technical issues (RDF triples, etc) or broader institutional buy-in, the enthusiastic conversations around this topic demonstrated a growing support of, and commitment to, the foundational principals of linked open data (for a summary of those principals, see this short video from Europeana or this long video of Jon Voss presenting on the topic).

WiseCamp attendees were also interested in exploring ways to introduce more qualitative interpretive reporting and outcomes into grant projects, including better methods of documenting community impact or post-project successes. Rethinking how grant-funded projects are evaluated and how their success is defined can potentially foment more innovative project proposals. These innovative projects can in turn lead to replicable scalable frameworks for widespread adoption.

The first day of the conference began with an opening keynote by LeVar Burton, of Star Trek and Reading Rainbow fame. LeVar emphasized that storytelling is an essential part of the human experience and the foundation of all culture. All three main sessions of the day revolved around building tools that foster participatory, dynamic ways for users to interact with collections.

Session One focused on location-based apps and included projects using tools such as Roundware, “a location-sensitive audio platform,” and TourML & TAP, “a toolkit supporting museum mobile experiences”. Jason Casden, when talking about NC State’s WolfWalk mobile app, made some salient points about how our conception of metadata requirements needs to be better oriented towards use instead of transmission (long descriptive metadata being inappropriate for mobile devices, for example).

Session Two focused on crowd-sourced transcription projects, with a number of speakers noting that transcription projects need to reward contributory behavior, build interfaces that match user behavior, and better pair collections with pre-existing patron communities. Ben Brumfield made the astute observation that such projects are less about “the crowd” and are often successful because of a coterie of “well-informed enthusiasts”. Ben Vershbow of NYPL labs spoke about their focus on building quick, pilot-project sized tools using smaller collections chosen with the input of curators and the foreknowledge of an existing user community.

Trevor Owens during his presentation.

Session Three focused on visualization tools that allow collection managers to create dynamic, user-driven means of interacting with collections. Trevor Owens (frequent contributor to The Signal) presented on our Viewshare platform and explained how interfaces are not just enhanced search tools but also a key resource through which users generate new knowledge and understanding of a digital collection. Day One closed with a wide-ranging, inspiring talk by Ian MacKaye of Fugazi and Dischord Records talking about the “Fugazi Live Series,” use and re-use in music, and building a DIY archive.

The final day of WebWise began with the conference’s second keynote, this one by John Palfrey, Chair of the Digital Public Library of America Steering Committee, talking about recent news and the overall goals of DPLA. While the project is still taking shape, it hopes to offer an expansive platform by which library collections can be supported and shared across institutions. The day’s sessions began by highlighting recent oral history projects, including Oral History in the Digital Age and the Oral History Metadata Synchronizer. The final session featured a number of multi-institutional collaborative projects and showcased how community building is not exclusively user-oriented, but must also focus on creating sustainable relationships both at the expert level and amongst sources communities in order to, as Ramesh Srinivasan eloquently put it, “empower the sovereignty” of the diverse voices that exist around objects and collections.

In summary, WebWise 2012 offered numerous examples of the continued innovation, collaboration, and knowledge-sharing across the library and museum community. New technologies and user expectations are driving new ways of supporting the discovery, use, and understanding of cultural heritage collections. There were many other excellent presenters and projects featured at the conference that, for brevity’s sake, were not included in this report. The WebWise 2012 agenda and speaker bios and full video of all the sessions are available online.


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