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5/27/2009
04:19 PM
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Smithsonian Online

With transparency the new government buzzword, the Smithsonian Institution is working hard to figure out how it should make itself and its collection more accessible online, and wants the public to give it an additional push.

With transparency the new government buzzword, the Smithsonian Institution is working hard to figure out how it should make itself and its collection more accessible online, and wants the public to give it an additional push.The museum has already held two "Smithsonian 2.0" events this year -- see here and here -- and last week posted a YouTube video asking for public feedback on the Smithsonian's role in the era of Web 2.0. However, on the other hand, certain records of the Smithsonian's collection haven't been updated online since 2004.

The Smithsonian's request for public input on a new way forward represents the latest in what's become a string of agencies looking to get citizens more involved in government transparency. For example, President Obama held a press conference earlier this year to answer the queries of the online public, and the Office of Management and Budget is seeking public opinion about what streams of public information and statistics should be made available on the government's new data.gov Website.

My advice for the Smithsonian? The Smithsonian is a free public museum, run with public funds. However, much of its collection is locked away in basements, hidden from public view unless the curator decides certain items should be put on display. The Web is a perfect place to make those treasures known, and a great place to have the public help decide what should go on physical display.

The museums' office of the CIO is acutely aware of the need to post more content online, as this vision for a "Smithsonian Commons" presented last December by Michael Edson, director of the Smithsonian's Web and new media strategy, suggests.

The social media revolution is upon us, and it's important that the Smithsonian get on board. Posting almost 2,000 photos on Flickr, where the public can provide more background info and discuss photos of historical people, places and events, is a good start, but it's only a start. The Smithsonian should take a much wider view of possibilities of online access, with a default that more information posted online is better. The Smithsonian undoubtedly has a well-catalogued, at-least-somewhat organized collection of its 137 million artifacts, replete with historical data, and as a public museum, it's the civic duty of the Smithsonian to make that catalog publicly accessible.

I've often wanted to wander through the basements of the Smithsonian museums, like Robert Langdon in the Vatican archives in Dan Brown's Angels and Demons. In this tough economic climate, it's unclear that the Smithsonian would be able to get more funding to further overhaul its physical museums. However, a project to digitize, standardize and post as many records and pictures of artifacts online as possible would be an admirable one, and one that might be cheaper than expected, if it can be done in an automated fashion.

As the success of the Smithsonian's presence on Flickr (one picture that the Smithsonian has on both its Website and Flickr gets 8 monthly hits at the Smithsonian's Website and 2,000 at Flickr's Website) suggests, it might be best for the Smithsonian to post data about its archives in places where the public already migrates online, such as Flickr, YouTube and Wikipedia. By placing basic data and photos on these public, searchable, user-generated-content oriented sites, the public can add to and build on the knowledge the Smithsonian provides about its artifacts, thus building out the stories around those artifacts. The Library of Congress, for example, has had great success with some of its old photos posted online, as the public filled out sparse records about some of its photo collections.

By putting more information online, the Smithsonian can also do a much better job in gauging public interest in its collections, and that data might guide curators to understand objects and information that citizens find the most valuable, relevant and interesting to their lives. For example, it might be interesting to hold a vote for items or a category of items that the public would most like to see on physical display.

Whatever the case, the Smithsonian needs to get with the present. It's unfortunate, and does a disservice to the public, if archives continue to collect dust like junk in the basement of a hoarder, and with so much data being posted online, it would be sad to see the Smithsonian become in some ways a relic of the past instead of a beacon for the future.

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