We have been very privileged to host a number of wonderful people over the past few months, such as Medical Heritage Library, the Medical Historical Library (Yale), the Osler Library, the British Library, the American College of Surgeons, the Dittrick Museum of Medical History, the National Library of Medicine, the Melnick Museum, the Robert Brown History of Health Sciences Collection, and the New York Academy of Medicine. Each of these collections has used digital platforms to reach a wider audience, and so today I have asked some of the librarians and curators to weigh in a few questions.
The first Round Table addressed concerns both the viewer and the teller. The second Round Table looked at the balance between digital and actual exhibit spaces. Today, we are considering access issues for digital collections–and we thank you for joining us!
We have spoken already about issues of access–for instance, the use of digital platforms means to improve the access of greater numbers of people. However, it is also important to think about the kinds of users very carefully. What about users who are unfamiliar with smartphone tech? Or those whose computers can’t refresh fast enough for the latest graphics? How do we avoid accidentally creating a tech-hierarchy?
A final question has to do with attracting and keeping new audiences. The Dittrick Museum, for instance, used to be primarily aimed at doctors–but now has a much broader audience in mind. Those who come to medical museums may not be researchers, but rather an interested public (especially in the West, where medicine is such a central part of our common experiences). How do we serve this wider population and avoid alienating either through lexicon or navigation expectations?
5: A tech-hierarchy already exists, the challenge is to build within it. One way is to build individual products along the spectrum so that you have an offering that everyone is comfortable with, but this is becoming problematic as maintaining the large number of products drains resources. As a government institution, with dwindling resources, we’re beginning to be more careful about the stand-alone products we create. We’re looking more to responsive web technologies to help create one product that works across many platforms. We’re taking advantage of the accessibility requirements we are obligated to meet to ensure that the products we create are robust, degrade gracefully, and are built semantically to ensure that users can access the information with whatever devise suits them. Social media tools (whose interfaces are built by a company in whose interest it is to have everyone on the planet be able to use their software) are also a good tool to share information in a predictable, reliable way to certain audiences.
6: Most institutions have a wide variety of communications strategies aimed at specific audiences. As content for each medium is developed (websites, conferences, lectures, newsletters, blogs, etc. it’s important to meet the needs of the intended audience. Where an institution has widely varying audiences different audiences should be addressed with different tools. A blog for example might be intended for the general public. Articles for the blog should be written to be understandable and interesting for everyone, however the subject of the blog could well be drawn from a scholarly paper given at a lecture series or a particular collection item of great interest to scholars. In the same way, a part of the website dedicated to exhibitions or public programs should read quite differently from the section dedicated to providing scholars with information about the institution’s holdings. An institution can have many voices suited to many ears, individuals will find the one that speaks to them and listen to it.
5: To take the last question first – I’m not sure we can avoid creating a tech-hierarchy at this point because I think it has already been created. Many of us have mission statements that include something like, ‘creating worldwide access’ or ‘access to researchers everywhere’ or ‘international audience’ and that just isn’t possible; I know there are lots of projects to get laptops to rural users in Africa, for example, but a) they can’t reach everyone; b) is a solid internet connection really going to be a priority for that community?; and c) all the other variables we can’t control!
That said, I think we can work to keep this split in access from getting worse at least from our, presentation, end. Having a graphics-light or text-only version of a page is probably the easiest way to do this and may work both for audiences on a slow connection or a mobile – I have very little experience with mobile sites, since I just got my first mobile device less than three months ago! In that three months, though, I have really come to value sites that strip down for a mobile version – I’ve noticed that I do completely different types of surfing on my laptop and the tablet and that has nothing to do with the processor speed, keyboard, or screen; it’s pretty much down to which websites load fastest and are most useable on which machine.
I think it’s also worth keeping in mind that what seems really basic to us – because we think about it and work with it 25/8 – is not necessarily even beginner stuff to someone else. I’m thinking of a list of web resources that I took over, originally created by another group member, on the MHL website. It’s been up for about two years and it’s woefully out of date; as such lists tend to be, it has really been out of date since it was created! But when I tweeted the page after making some changes and asking people to update their bookmarks, it got massive (for us!) traffic and people were saying how much they loved the list, how helpful it was, how they were going to pass it on to students. Thinking further with this idea, walkthroughs on websites, FAQ pages, pre-designed tours may seem hokey to us because we know all the cooler things we could be doing but there are still plenty of users who both need and like those functions.
6: I think the first and possibly the most critical step here is just getting curators, archivists, etc. to admit that the audience has/is changing and that isn’t the end of the world and it isn’t an audience they can afford to ignore. People looking at medical photographs online, for example, aren’t necessarily ‘weirdos’ looking for some kind of odd thrill (and is it really an issue if they are? “So long as they don’t do it in the street and scare the horses,” as my mother used to say!); they might be photographers with an interest in technique, genealogists looking for family members in funeral photographs, or artists looking for inspiration. And that’s all okay, it’s all use, these are all people we should be talking to, just as much as the researcher who walks in the front door of our reading room; we just expect the latter type.
I think we also need to remember that this new, broader audience may not want very much from us; they’re not necessarily asking for the same kind of detailed presentation and interpretation that a research-based, traditional academic community might want. We feel that kind of presentation is necessary and, for some things in some contexts, it absolutely is. But for presenting images, for example, it may not be; Tumblr feeds don’t have to be little historical essays complete with footnotes in order to present a ‘cool’ image every week and get some attention for your collections. I don’t think we need to dumb down what we’re saying at all, maybe just strip it down a little. Providing pointers so the user can do his or her own research is always my preferred style: “Here’s an entry-point: go.” Fortunately, in terms of medical cataloging, vocabularies like MeSH (which just released its 2014 changes) seems to be moving, at least a little, towards a more common-sense vocabulary.
5: As a recent Pew Internet report shows, 15% of adults 18 and above don’t go online. We help these people in our library, as we’re sure many other libraries do, too. Access isn’t just about fast and slow. It’s also about who doesn’t know how to log on and who doesn’t have access to the Internet outside a place like a library or community center. Physical access remains integral to this population. Physical access also remains important to the other 85% of adults. Although many of our holdings have digital surrogates, either through us or through another source, the serious scholar relies on the physical object.
As we begin conversations about expanding our digitization efforts, questions of access have come to the forefront. When people cannot visit our library, putting digital collections online should remain about content and not bouncing animations—we shouldn’t worry about flashy slideshows and high bandwidth interactions so much as creating online collections linked to other resources. We aim to allow digital visitors to browse or search in multiple ways and reach more information about each object. Paying close attention to practices around linked data and the semantic web should be a standard for museums and libraries putting collections online.
6: The New York Academy of Medicine library has welcomed the public since 1878. We proudly continue that tradition today as we shift to a focus on the history of medicine. We serve patrons with divergent needs, from those with consumer health questions to researchers new to the field of medical history to established scholars. Everyone can use our materials, regardless of their background. Our staff is skilled in assessing individual needs and presenting materials and research methods accordingly. We provide historical context, give database instruction, lead patrons to helpful tools online and in print, and offer other services depending on a patron’s needs. In addition, our blog entries and public programming focus on topics of interest to researchers and the lay enthusiast alike.
5: This is an issue that we have encountered in our efforts to increase the visibility of the History of Medicine Collection. While it is true that a majority of people today are “hooked in” to the new technologies and the internet, there are still those who are not. Some of the collection’s strongest supporters, such as certain members of our Friends group, do not use computers or even email as their preferred method of keeping up with what is going on. In order to keep this group connected with our activities and evolving collections, we still do rely on print resources that we can provide to them. Also, when we make presentations to off-campus organizations, in addition to books and other objects, we like to take a print handout with us so that the attendees can have something to take away with them that provides contact and other information about the History of Medicine. Sometimes a telephone number can be as useful as an email address. One specific example is our newsletter “History Matters” that we send to our Friends members in either print or electronic format depending on their preference. We also post selections from it on our blog for a wider audience to see. When we want to advertise events that we are planning for the collection to as many people as possible, we use not only on-campus and local electronic methods such as individual emails, listservs and blog posts, but also more traditional means such as campus and local newspapers. We want to reach out to as many potential and returning visitors as possible.
6: One way in which we try to accomplish the goal of serving a wider population is to be mindful of how we present our collections, both in person and online. We try to provide an interesting mix of materials that hopefully visitors will find visually appealing; we supplement the visual objects with just enough non-technical text to explain the basics about each item. Ideally this will prompt the visitor to ask additional questions that can be answered by the staff. Sometimes the most interesting aspect of an object is its “backstory” which can bring together tales of people, history and society. If there is a local connection, so much the better. The same can be said for our online presence; our blog posts are about some of the unique parts of our collection as well as other topics. We provide an accurate but “conversational” description of not just the particular book or instrument, but also seek to include related information that can provide more depth and understanding. We hope that these efforts will create a welcoming environment for guests no matter what their age or backgrounds.
To all the librarians, curators, archivists, and other museum/library workers who have participated in the series: Thank you! Your insights are valuable, and I am so pleased that we could present them here on the Daily Dose!
Thanks for joining us! Look for additional Digital Collection posts in the spring/summer!