3 ideas for museums and archives

I was down in London on Tuesday to give a presentation as part of a training & development day for museums and archives with the palindromic title of Engaging Users, Users Engaging, taking place at the London Metropolitan Archives.

My role in the day was to talk about the process of designing social interactions online. I packaged this up as a list of '8 design principles' (I was aiming for 10, but came up short), which included such words of wisdom as 'pick your key verb', 'identify your users's needs' and 'design for visual affordances'. I won't list them all now (although let me know if you're interested, and I'll consider writing them up as a separate post), but I hoped that together they would give the attendees some useful frameworks and terminology with which to understand and design web activities where users can play a more active part.

One thing I was wary of though, when writing the presentation, was in just presenting a bunch of conceptual models for design, which were useful, but which bypassed that crucial step of actually having a good idea in the first place. I was also aware that there were a lot of people from archives institutions attending, and I didn't want them to feel that all this exciting online social interaction was ok for museums, but not relevant to them.

So I tried to come up with a few examples of ideas for online social interactions that would be applicable to archives. They are only the seeds of ideas, but I thought I'd post them here in case they'd be useful to a wider audience (or indeed, to see if there are any better ideas). So here goes.

Idea number 1 is about acquisitions. Museums and archives don't just have static collections, most of them continue to add stuff. I think it'd be really great to open this whole process up. Why not let people suggest what things they think ought to be conserved forever in the collections of a museum or archives centre? It is, after all, pubic money which often pays for this expensive process. I've not yet come across any institution that's done anything like this, holding a public debate or vote on what should be collected, and I reckon the first one that does will get a lot of kudos and attention. This idea is easily as applicable to archives as it is to museums - people could nominate, for example, their grandparents diaries or letters to be added to a collection.

Idea number 2 is all about the process of transcription. Archives are usually collections of the written word, and so 'digitising' doesn't just mean scanning the documents in, it also means turning those digital images into digital text. This is often seen as long, painstaking, expensive work, but I have a feeling that it could be turned into a much more enjoyable, engaging activity. If you could make the process of transcribing as simple as adding notes to a photo on Flickr, for example (which are often used for transcribing text in a photo), then I reckon people online would be interested in doing some of this. You could easily turn the process of transcription into a game, for example, with a leaderboard, and points for transcribing unusual words. This gives people an ostensible reason for taking part, but the real motivation would be that the process of transcription would be an act of discovery - reading documents that nobody has read before, and transcribing as you go.

Idea number 3 was thought up in consideration that many of those attending the workshop were from 'learning' departments, where a big part of their work is in dealing with school groups. It struck me that, whilst school groups are taking quite a lot of work to organise and manage, you could turn this perception on its head, and instead think of school groups as being a potential source of free labour - a mini workforce who could help museums and archives carry out some of their core work of scanning, cataloguing and interpreting their collections. This would take a bit of work to set up, of course, but it could be a really valuable and engaging experience for the school kids. Instead of learning about things that the museum already knows about its collection, they get to take an active part in uncovering new information and contributing to a growing body of knowledge and resources.

So those were my ideas. Mad? Or doable?