National Digital Forum 2010

The theme of the 2010 National Digital Forum was, ironically, “lets not think about digitization!” It is cumbersome, expensive, staff-intensive and constantly buffeted by developments in technology and copyright issues. Why get bogged down with those nuts and bolts issues? Just deal with them as they come and get on with it. Think about digitization backwards. What can it be? And then how will we get there?

The world of information is already moving with those technologies in place, whether we like it or not. Our customer base expects these. Libraries, one of the institutions holding the gates open to the world of information, need to think about the web as a bigger megaphone – you can reach more people with the same stuff. Michael Edson, director of web and new media strategy of the Smithsonian Institution says we still need to focus on “work that matters” for real people, and that is not new, that is what public institutions exist for.

The three keynote speakers were intent on raising awareness of the bigger picture and questions facing librarians today.

  1. Why are we here?
  2. What does it mean to deliver cultural services?
  3. Who are our customers?
  4. What do they want?
  5. What are we good at?
  6. Why do they come to us?
  7. What separates us from Google?
  8. What does a library look like now?

These are important questions which Nik Poole, CEO of   Collections Trust UK puts forward. We actually already know how to do that and libraries all over the world are in various phases of being on track to meet these requirements digitally. Assume it is happening and get on with the real deal. Make our libraries – and other cultural institutions – the hub of the community and a source of social enrichment. Digital is not different but is part of a broader delivery of culture to people. The point is the end experience and value to the user. He put it in terms of a cultural supply chain which equates to a manufacturing loop: extraction-processing-management-distribution-buy-in-use… We are good at the processing and management bit. Perhaps we should work with other industry areas to maximise our opportunites in the other areas.

What separates libraries, museums, galleries and archives from Google and the like?
From this base we can use already existing tools to reach our community. Social Media is just one of those tools and it has proven to be a good one.

The Powerhouse Museum in Sydney experimented with this for their 80s Are Back exhibition. They started with the really important question: How can we involve our audience from inception to post-launch?

This is what they did:

The curator started a curatorial blog which resulted in successful qualitative interactions with their intended audience. Then they started a FaceBook page which was where they received a record amount of props and loans for the exhibition. They met with mediocre success with Flickr and Twitter but had some interesting results with YouTube “voxpops”. They used which evolved into an 80s music request line and picked up lots of followers. Then they launched their website which ended up having a less curatorial and more personal style due to the extent of outside content. The website was the most popular item on the Social Media list. It was hugely successful as well as lots of work. They had a dedicated fund for social media.

This is what they learned:

  1. Social Media works best when coupled with traditional marketing and promotion
  2. It’s the next best thing down from face-to-face
  3. It is better to share the load
  4. Be ready for passionate supporters
  5. It is a fun way to do things

The fun needed to be seamlessly transferred to the building with a secession or sustainability plan. There is no point having a great time online and then it all falls a bit flat in the flesh. It is hard enough getting people involved in the first place so if something works, there is a need to keep that alive somehow.

Another closer-to-home successful social media example is NZ on Screen.

They have a well-followed FaceBook page and they use Twitter to a lesser degree of  success. A lot of their content is talked about on forums other than their own. It is important to let go of ownership and accept that the content is circulating and new stories are being created.

The material can be embedded which helps the information flow and gives opportunities for new contexts to be created.

  1. There is lots of Te Reo and Maori content
  2. There is lots of content-sharing
  3. There is lots of referrals

NZOnAir is not a stream but a programme download. They have their own watermark which keeps them visible.

What does a library look like?

10 years ago, who would have thought they would see people wandering around using their laptops like some sort of diving rod searching for a signal?

The physical/digital barrier is porous. The library and public space has blurred. The public/private lines are less obvious and the building is more interactive. Interlaced with the bricks and mortar of the building there is also an invisible structure of wireless hotspots. Design, including the design of space, is now more akin to industrial design.

For example the Brisbane library has a media façade which creates the sense of an outward-looking building and moves away from the more insular style of libraries of the last century.

Behaviours and relationships with the building space subsequently change. People come to the library to be social, because it is free and because it is relaxing. 10 years ago, would we have envisioned people with their shoes and socks off taking a nap with their laptops open in front of them?

Dan Hill, an urban designer for Arup, showed us a picture of Sydney in 1906. There was a blurring of boundaries between the street and the footpath, shops and the street, the community and the events amongst it. Cars came along and divided that communal aspect and people, culture and behaviours all changed. We seem to have done a full circle type of thing, although I see it as more like a spiral because we are moving up and around, not just coming back to where we were.

The 2010 National Digital Forum highlighted the changes that have actually happened. The future-oriented thinking of the speakers was inspirational and I hope that all cultural institutions within New Zealand, including CCL, are fluid enough in their approach to embrace this sharp turn in the relationship between us and our users. “The future is ours if we stop talking about technology and start talking about what it is our organisation needs to deliver and realise our cultural role”.

Nicole Reddington

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