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of the American Society for Information Science and Technology           Vol. 30, No. 5               June/July 2004

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Special Section

Museum Informatics: Collections, People, Access, Use
by Layna White, Guest Editor

Layna White, head of Collections Information and Access, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, can be reached at lwhite@sfmoma.org

Museums create, manage and preserve varied information about their collections over years of activity, as objects are considered for or used in exhibitions, publications, educational programs, marketing and other activities. This information is textual, visual, and aural, and it refers to related objects, bibliographic resources and information from institutional archives. Museums are pushing this information outward in digital projects and programs, and this dynamic, often fast-paced movement has implications for information management, people, access and use.

Research is available about the effectiveness of exhibition design, didactics and programming for onsite visitors to museums; however, gauging the usefulness of online public access to museum information is a relatively new area of investigation. Research of this kind is especially important now, as there may be a need for museums to shift some practices and policies for managing and communicating information.

This special section presents four papers on information activity related to providing online access to museum information, primarily about collections in the arts and humanities. What needs to happen for museum information to be managed and delivered successfully in a variety of venues and for a range of users and uses? The authors frequently mention people, including people working from the inside out the museum professionals caring for and sharing information and people cruising from the outside in for instance, non-staff, teachers, casual visitors, colleagues in museums, libraries and archives, and anyone with an interest in information about museum collections.

In his paper Hamma suggests that art museums should "become digital" only with the same level of ongoing consideration and careful analysis they have given to overseeing and using physical collections. Digital asset creation, management, preservation and publication must be integrated into museum operations and functions as well as correlated to goals expressed in a museum's strategic plan. While one size will not fit all art museums, Hamma identifies key issues museums should address before and during progression into digital production and programs. He invites museums to consider what they are doing, why, by and for whom, and how. For some museums, those considerations may mean making shifts in information practices and policies.

Ideally, a museum will have an infrastructure in place of professionals, systems and methodologies for capturing and sharing information about its collections. Coburn and Baca discuss the work involved in creating meaningful access to information about museum collections. Creating access differs from simply delivering "tombstone" information pulled directly and flatly from a closed, internal management system. Creating and sustaining access means careful consideration of staffing and audiences and an understanding of how tools such as data standards, vocabularies and thesauri and best practices can be implemented to make information readily accessible and relevant for a variety of users and uses. The authors identify various standards available to the museum community and, using examples from the Getty Museum, illustrate how new models of museum information management can put information into play successfully in multiple ways for instance, on the Web, in gallery kiosks or on hand-held devices.

New models of information management are indeed emerging in museums perhaps in response to increased expectations that access is available or as a result of recent collaborative or crossover work among museums, libraries and archives. In his paper, Marty introduces current research investigating the roles and responsibilities of information professionals working in museums. Who are museum information professionals? What skills do they need? For this paper Marty focuses on one information-oriented discipline in museums Web mastering. Using quotes gathered in interviews with museum professionals to illustrate his points, Marty identifies a shift in the work of and demands on museum webmasters. An early emphasis on technical know-how has evolved into newly required and acquired skills in information organization, access and architecture.

Indeed, this evolving role of many museum professionals suggests another kind of shift in museum informatics noted by all authors the importance of knowing and understanding the needs and expectations of audiences. Marty argues that the museum webmaster, for one, is in a very good position to learn about the needs of online museum visitors and to advocate on their behalf.

Museum professionals may be taking notice of users, but how are these efforts playing out in terms of what museums are creating and delivering online? Gilliland-Swetland and White describe a formal user evaluation of one public access project that aggregates museum, library and archive collections on the Web. Museum information professionals, one of the user constituencies targeted in the evaluation, have been studied the least either as users of online resources or as providers of descriptions and digitized materials. The paper begins with an overview of the project selected for evaluation, including decisions about descriptive standards and content presentation the information professionals made prior to producing digital resources for the project. The authors then explore the roles of information professionals as providers and users of online resources and point to interesting questions about professionals emerging from the study.

The authors in this special section consider the flow of information in, through and out of museums. Their papers suggest that the value and usefulness of descriptions, packaging and presentation depends on the people involved (and potentially involved), community-based tools, an understanding of use (and potential use) and ongoing review and assessment.


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