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Putting Culture Online


by Abby Smith, Council on Library and Information Resources

The World Wide Web is the brainchild of a consortium of academics who wished to create a content-neutral medium, open to all as a means of communication. It did not take long for the Web to be colonized by the commercial sector and, even more quickly, by a host of self-publishers posting materials of varying value, reliability, taste, purpose, and quality. As more and more information went up on the Web, public figures began to call for “quality content” on the Web, that is, things that have educational value and are created and maintained by trusted, brand-name institutions. Museums and libraries started receiving large sums from federal agencies and foundations, as well as digging deep into their own pockets, to digitize their collections.

How do museum and library collections translate into content on the Web? When art and research objects go from real to virtual, how does the relationship between object and viewer/user change? And who are the users of museum and library Web sites?

Thirty leaders of museums and libraries met at the Chicago Historical Society October 5-7, 1999, to discuss these questions and explore the ways that the World Wide Web is affecting their collection-based institutions. Collections, Content, and the Web was organized by the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) and the Chicago Historical Society (CHS) and funded by the Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS). For many who came, it was their first opportunity to discuss common questions and concerns with peers from other cultural communities. Libraries and museums share few professional organizations, funding agencies, or external structures that regularly bring them together for substantive purposes. We took as our starting point one well-defined common feature of our institutions-the fact that we have been doing business (in some cases for more than 200 years) by collecting physical things in order to make recorded knowledge and aesthetic experience accessible to our patrons. We chose to focus on three key issues-collections, audience, and, inevitably, technology. Because we asked questions about the relationship between collections and audience, we commissioned a survey of institutional Web sites to gather preliminary data about how sites have been conceived and for whom, and about who actually uses them.

Libraries and museums come to the Web with very different experiences of information technology. Libraries have long used automation for managing the description, cataloging, and inventory control of collections. They had used the Internet, the backbone of communication on which the Web ships its information cargo, long before the Web was created. This does not mean that they were necessarily early adopters of the Web, any more than were museums, which as a rule do not have the same robust technological infrastructures as libraries for management of their collections. On the other hand, museums in the last several decades have made great strides in making their collections more accessible to a large public and have developed intellectual, aesthetic, and educational portals for onsite visitors to their institutions.

Over the course of two days, participants at the Chicago meeting not only shared experience and expertise but also created a framework for an ongoing conversation that all hope will continue as we find our way in the new Web environment. The differences that became apparent between the operating assumptions of library and museum leaders were in some cases quite predictable. Perspectives on intellectual property, for example, diverged because of the traditional roles that libraries have played in the administration of fair use in the print world and the particular interest that museums have had in protecting the rights of those artists whom they display. Museums dealt forthrightly with issues of selection and presentation because they have a mandate to interpret. Librarians approached the matter of selection in some cases as if it were synonymous with censorship, because they traditionally place a high value on making information accessible without mediation. But in some cases the differences between types of museums (art or historical) and types of libraries (academic or public) were even more striking. In summarizing the discussions, we have tried to represent distinctly these four points of view-public and academic libraries, art and historical museums-to highlight the often-surprising intersections of values and concerns and the equally unexpected divergences of interest or experience.

This report presents the papers that were prepared in advance of the meeting and summaries of the discussions they provoked. It also includes the Web survey that CLIR commissioned from the Institute for Learning Innovation, which was designed to gather preliminary data about museum and library Web site design and use. There is no way that this report can capture the full flavor or content of the conversations that were begun in Chicago, but we hope that it serves to share many of the insights that participants brought to bear on a variety of topics. Most of all, this report attempts to present the framework in which we hope to continue the conversations so fruitfully begun in Chicago.

We thank the Institute for Museum and Library Services for its support of the conference. The grant was part of its new effort to forge working partnerships between libraries and museums. We thank our partner, the Chicago Historical Society, which helped shape the program and created a hospitable atmosphere for our deliberations. We are especially grateful to those who came and gave their time and attention to the questions we posed. Their willingness to engage new and often difficult questions with candor and curiosity transformed our conjecture-that museums and libraries that digitize their collections have a lot to talk about-into a spirited and inspiriting exchange. Finally, we hope, through this report, to engage others who identify with the concerns aired here and wish to create collaborative structures for putting culturally significant materials on the Web.


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