This is the latest post in our series on career advice for the aspiring archives professionals. Each edition features information and career advice from a different member of the Archives team, regarding what they do, how they got here, and how you can too. Check out our previous posts, and don’t be afraid to let us know who you would like to hear from next!
The Archives has been online since 1997, but like most things digital in the office, it fell to the electronic records archivist to manage it. The first full time web manager/strategist (me) was brought on in 2009 to rethink the function, UX, and technology behind our public-facing digital properties. A few years later, a web developer position (now filled by Andrew Whitesell who you’ll hear from next month) was created to maintain and improve our Collections Management System (CMS) and website.
The early days of tech applications in cultural heritage organizations were largely concerned with business systems and collections management. One of the main organizations dedicated to computers in museum practice, Museum Computer Network, just turned 50 years old in 2017. In fact, MCN’s records happen to be in the Archives since the Smithsonian was a partner since the beginning. However, while technology has been used by cultural heritage organizations for years, dedicated web staff members came several years later. And today, they are structured in cultural heritage organizations in several ways, from being under educational divisions, communications divisions, or in separate divisions reporting directly to the organization's executive leader.
I came to work in museums technology (aka #musetech) through the side door. Half of my career has been in educational software development in the private sector during the “dot.com boom and bust” of the mid-to-late 1990s. At software companies, I served various roles from writer/editor to project manager to UX designer to instructional designer. Most people were self-taught and I was inspired to learn about several roles! When I was laid off during the “bust” in 2001, I had already signed up to go to grad school to develop my human-centered design interest. In 2003, I obtained my master’s degree in industrial design from the University of the Arts, Philadelphia, focusing on pervasive technology.
I worked as a consultant in educational technology and industrial design for a few years before learning of The Smithsonian Photography Initiative (SPI), one of the first online initiatives of its kind that was attempting to create an online-only experience about photography collections. We developed online publications, exhibits, and some of the first crowdsourcing activities at the Smithsonian to enhance the multi-disciplinary photography collections across our 19 museums, 9 research centers, and the Zoo. In 2009, SPI merged with the Smithsonian Institution Archives. Today my role as Chief of Content and Communications Strategy is two-fold; one, develop, oversee, and monitor the strategy for the presentation of the Archives collections on our own website and elsewhere, and two, develop strategic partnerships to achieve the Archives' mission.
For those thinking of a career on the digital side of the house, here are a few recommendations:
- Don’t be afraid of technology and trying new things. During my 20+ year career, we’ve gone from Web 1.0 to Web 3.0. It’s important to stay on top of trends to understand how, and if, they fit in with what you do. Follow a few popular tech publications to stay in touch on this topic. There is also plenty of training online for programming, UX design, human-centered design, social media, marketing, and more.
- Lead with mission and content. Technology is a tool that can enhance and enable your organization’s mission and goals. Don’t adopt technology for technology’s sake because you will need to maintain what you adopt.
- Follow people in the field to find out what they’re thinking about, and contribute to the conversation. Set up a Twitter account and follow people by looking at the #musetech or #musesocial threads depending on your interest.
- Museums and the Web has a wonderful archive of papers presented at their conferences. If you’re about to take on something new, search their archive to see what people before you have done! They also have scholarships to their conferences.
- Museum Computer Network also has annual conferences and each session brings “Ignite Talks” which are inspiring, lightening talks on the latest issues of the day.
- Internships are a great way to get real-world experience and get to know an organization you would like to one day work for.