The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Location! Location! Location!
“Location, location, location” is a widely acknowledged mantra in real estate and marketing. To ultimately reap the biggest reward, situate yourself at the busy or prestigious intersection where the audiences you hope to reach congregate. The same hold true online and in virtual space; if you want to attract online attention, make sure to go play in traffic.
That’s what, according to a recent report in early June on The Atlantic’s website, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) has recently chosen to do. Acknowledging that Wikipedia has become the go-to first stop for impatient researchers, NARA has hired Dominic McDevitt-Parks, a graduate student working towards his master’s degree in history and archive management, as a “Wikipedian-in-residence” this summer.
While the National Archives is a unique repository of primary documents, records, and cultural records, “they don't do a great job,” McDevitt-Parks says, “of presenting this information to the public in a searchable, digestible format. This is exactly what Wikipedia does: presenting history and culture in a way that people use every day. For the Archives specifically, the mission is not just preserving documents, but promoting their use. Through some sort of collaboration, we can make these records available for regular use by the public at large."
As it turns out, the Smithsonian is also an active participant in the summer residency programs, and back in May announced that Sarah Stierch, a Museum Studies Masters student at George Washington University, would become a Wikipedian-in-Residence at the Archives of American Art (AAA), starting in June. Among her goals are to expand the Archives of American Art’s Wikipedia presence by creating new pages on notable topics, and making a content donation of documents and images from the archive’s collections, so that they can be used by educators and researchers worldwide with few copyright restrictions. (This leveraging of content on heavily trafficked public sites is something the Smithsonian Institution Archives has already been working on by digitizing sets of historic images and making them available to the public on sites like the Flickr Commons.)
"Women in Science," an example of one of the sets of Smithsonian Institution Archives images posted on the Smithsonian Flickr Commons.
With increasing frequency, national institutions around the world are signing on to partner with organizations like Wikipedia and experimenting with strategies to insure that their holdings not only reach larger audiences, but are accurately characterized on popular websites. In June 2010, according to a New York Times report, the British Museum invited dozens of Wikipedia contributors from the London area to spend time at the museum, granting them a “backstage pass” to take photographs and meet with curators in order to make sure the museum’s holdings and expertise are well represented. As Matthew Cock, who is in charge of the British Museum’s website, noted, “I looked at how many Rosetta Stone page views there were at Wikipedia…and five times as many people go to the Wikipedia article as to ours.”
There are, to be sure, intriguing options and tricky issues to deal with in such collaborations. Because Wikipedia is, as the Times mentioned, “strongly identified with the ‘free culture movement,’” problems can arise. They did when Wikipedia made high resolution images of objects from Britain’s National Portrait Gallery collection available, because it turned out that the rights and reproduction revenues generated by them were something the institution couldn’t afford to forgo.
Bumps in the road are, probably, inevitable as the sharing (and monetization) of information progresses, but the win-win impact of delivering archival content to larger audiences seems like something we’ll be hearing more about in the future.