WebWise 2012

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What do Fugazi, Star Trek, and Illinois farmers have in common? The preservation of culture, with an eye toward the future.

Cultural institutions (museums, libraries and archives) live in interesting times. Traditionally the stewards of the past, the digital revolution's emphasis on access has made some institutions look outdated. How to balance tradition and innovation?

"Tradition and innovation" was the theme of this year's WebWise conference, put together by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) as a showcase for recipients of their National Leadership Grants.

The conference provided some interesting examples of how cultural institutions are responding to the new digital challenges. Ultimately, the conference centered around new ways of organizing and presenting information.

One approach, not unexpectedly, is the development of museum "augmented reality" geo-location apps. The irony, of course, lies in using a mobile device to present highly localized information which could be displayed on a screen or (heaven help us) a physical sign; and I would venture that museums may be a good place to get folks to look away from their mobile devices.

Nevertheless, some interesting exhibits were shown, particularly Halsey Burgund’s Scapes exhibit at the deCordova space in the Boston Museum.

Having been trained by hard-core librarians and archivists, I am naturally skeptical about crowdsourcing library activities. However, the session on crowdsourcing proved fascinating as it presented new tools like FromThePage that allow users to transcribe handwritten text or line up old maps with current ones.

At WNYC we have some handwritten Soundcheck logs that could likely benefit from a few John Schaefer enthusiasts' eyes. It was also good to be reminded that there exist huge, successful crowdsourcing projects such as SETI and the North American Bird Phenology Program.

We are a visual culture, and collections can benefit from presenting their data in more visual forms — either through linking to maps in increasingly popular sites such as Streetmuseum and historypin or through dynamic displays. The Library of Congress' viewshare is a new free tool to this effect; other tools are listed in IMLS’s Digital Collection and Content site.

Where does all this fancy technology leave our much-beloved audio? Not necessarily behind, as oral historians amply demonstrated.

Representatives from oral history collections, from the Hudson Valley to the Illinois heartland, gave great tips (with additional tips online) on sharing your audio with sites like broadcastr, soundcloud and Facebook, all of which include free mobile applications (hint: create a 1-2 minute "highlight"); new tools like the impressive Oral History Metadata Synchronizer, allow inexpensive synchronizing of text with audio or video. Indexing was presented as an inexpensive, effective alternative to full transcripts for having your audio discoverable on the web.

All of these new technologies were surely followed closely by representatives from the Digital Public Library of America —an ambitious, massive, collaborative project passionately presented by Harvard's John Palfrey. Informed by similar projects like Europeana and the Hathi Trust, Mr. Palfrey exhorted the crowd to join in, proclaiming that "we can do better than Google." The DPLA's principles of collaboration and open code are also behind the exciting New York Times’ labs Linked Open Data project, as well as the open thesaurus project; it is always inspiring to see open sharing of such tools. Indeed, Ian MacKay praised cultural institutions' proclivity towards "collaboration, not litigation" during his presentation of the Fugazi Live Series archives, while LeVar Burton extolled both the pleasures of traditional reading and the promise of a digital future. But what else would you expect from someone who was both in Star Trek and Reading Rainbow?

Ultimately, these projects point to a much more interconnected, digital future for museums, libraries and archives. As plans for education in the 21st century develop, it will be challenging —and exciting— for cultural institutions to furnish the skills needed by the citizens of the future. To all of us, good luck.