Janet Carding and I have been talking about her upcoming CODE|WORDS essay on change management in the digital era, and one painful truth she points out is that she still goes to events where museum leaders talk about putting their collections online and making them available to search, a full generation after this problem was first solved. And that solution – search – is itself hugely problematic, for me, and others, I think, largely because of how stingy we are in how we provide access to those collections.
Once upon a time, when you wanted to find out something, you’d go to the library and look in a card catalogue for a topic or a title. Once you got a number, you’d go wander the aisles or stacks, looking at book spines for the right number. Maybe you’d find what you were looking for. Maybe you wouldn’t. But in either case, you’d encounter a ton of information on the way that would give you both a sense of what you were looking for and what information surrounded it.
Fast forward to 2015 and how have we advanced in our ability to present vast sums of knowledge?
Bit of a let down, isn’t it?
Hold the idea of being in the library stacks and then look at the blank search box, revealing nothing, mocking your ignorance, coyly withholding its treasures and forcing you to figure out what magic formula will get it to show you the goods. As Mitchell Whitelaw points out in his excellent article “Generous Interfaces for Digital Cultural Collections”
“Decades of digitisation have made a wealth of digital cultural material available online. Yet search — the dominant interface to these collections — is incapable of representing this abundance. Search is ungenerous: it withholds information, and demands a query.”
I expressed a strong opinion on this in my CODE|WORDS essay “The Virtues of Promiscuity”
“Let’s be clear that what I’m talking about is not “Let’s put the collection online” by making a database with a web interface. Access is important, but a web portal is an oracular cave, dark and mysterious. You go into the dark place, ask your question, and the Sibyl answers. Hopefully, it makes sense. Sometimes, it’s a very detailed answer, sometimes not. But the seeker never has the ability to appreciate the collection as a whole, or to interrogate it in any ways other than those chosen by the architects of the CMS and the portal. And they’re black holes to indexers. Google, Yahoo! and Baidu have no way of knowing what lies beyond your search box, and in a world where findability equals existence, this is death. Actually it’s worse, it’s annihilation — being made into nothing. Not a great strategy for proving relevance.”
The really frustrating thing is that the problem with search has been recognized as a problem pretty much since the beginning. At the very first Museums and the Web conference in 1997(!), in “The Best of Intentions: Public Access, the Web & the Evolution of Museum Automation”, Kevin Donovan wrote,
“The search interface approach employs the frightful blank search field method of providing access to data. This method reproduces the most inscrutable characteristics of database technology, a technology so daunting that even within museums only those deliberate souls whose jobs depend on it, collections managers and registrars, will use it.”
We’re talking 1997 Web 1.0 days, when there was no Facebook, no Twitter, and Netscape Navigator had a 62% market share compared to Internet Explorer’s 35% (over half of whom were using IE3 on Windows 95 machines). Even then, when dinosaurs roamed the Earth, search was unsatisfying and problematic.
So, what are alternatives?
I’m sure (I hope?) that there are museum collections that can be explored in more generous ways than search. If you know of any, send me a link, eh? Here are two examples I know of, though both are long in the tooth now.
The Visual Thesaurus is an interactive dictionary and thesaurus, based on the Thinkmap architecture. It was all the rage around the turn of the millennium. I recall owning a copy of it on floppy disk. Luckily, the web version continues to this day. It’s a great tool for exploring the relationships between words and their meanings. It allows you to drift from word to word and concept to concept, all while showing you the landscape around the object of your study. It’s a great tool, and had obvious museum applications from the get-go. Thinkmap and the Experience Music Project presented “Artifact as Inspiration: Using existing collections and management systems to inform and create new narrative structures” at MW2001. It’s still relevant, 14 years later. I tried a couple of times to get projects off the ground using Thinkmap, but with no luck.
Planetary is an example of both visualization and of evolving museum practice. It was a great iPad app for visualizing your iTunes music library that employed a novel conceit: it used a planetary system metaphor for displaying metadata. Artists were stars, albums were planets, tracks were moons. It was a very different take on looking at your music, and the visuals were amazing. Here’s a look.
An interesting postscript to Planetary’s short life was that it was the first digital object the Cooper Hewitt collected, in 2013. “Planetary: Collecting and Preserving code as a living object” raises a number of issues about ways of visualizing abundance. I added some commentary at the time, too.
Both of these models offer glimpses of how exploring museum datasets could be more interesting, more generous, and more useful to our audiences. It’s a great opportunity to innovate, because the stakes are so high. Putting our abundant resources out on the open web won’t gain us much if we don’t find ways to make them more inviting, to lure potential explorers into their depths, and to encourage the kinds of serendipitous explorations that a trip through the stacks could produce. I’ll leave you with another Whitelaw quote that says it better than I would.
The stakes here are high, because the interface plays an inescapable role in mediating digital heritage. Whether a command-line console or an immersive visualisation, these collections come to us in some specific, concrete form; and crucially, that form is constructed and contingent. It can always be otherwise. As our cultural heritage is increasingly networked and digital, the life and use of that heritage will increasingly be conditioned by the forms in which it reaches us, how it is made concrete and available both for scholars and the wider public. As argued above, search-centred conventions offer meagre representational tools; while there are promising signs of a new generosity emerging, much more is possible.
“Generous Interfaces for Digital Cultural Collections” DHQ: Digital Humanities Quarterly, Volume 9 Number 1, 2015
“The Virtues of Promiscuity: or, Why giving it away is the future”, CODE | WORDS: Technology and Theory in the Museum. 2014
“The Best of Intentions: Public Access, the Web & the Evolution of Museum Automation” Museums and the Web 1997
“Planetary: Collecting and Preserving code as a living object” Cooper Hewitt blog, 2013.