Oral History of Museum Computing: Greg Albers
This oral history of museum computing is provided by Greg Albers, and was recorded on the 29th of March, 2021, by Paul Marty and Kathy Jones. It is shared under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license (CC-BY), which allows for unrestricted reuse provided that appropriate credit is given to the original source. For the recording of this oral history, please see https://youtu.be/uXYpEAMMUKU.
I’m Greg Albers. I’m currently the Digital Publications Manager at Getty in Los Angeles. So, my history in museums really started coming in from as a print book publisher, actually. That’s how I first came to museums. I was looking to do book publishing, and I started at the MFA Boston, just part time there for a little while, doing some work with their publishing group, and then I moved over the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, and was doing the ephemera, the booklets, the member invitations, like, all those kind of things that go along with print, printed things that go along with running a museum. And it was really books that were my focus, and publishing that was really my focus from the beginning, in my museum career, and I wanted to continue doing that, so I actually left museums. I left the Gardener at that point. And I remember, actually I should say, maybe my, my one, one note of museum computing at the Gardener: we had a website that was very, very simple and very, very basic and there was no one, there was a webmaster or sort of I.T. person in-house, I believe, he is actually still there, but he didn’t directly update the website, so when we needed it updated, we had to go through, you know, a contractor, and, and sort of I would, I would do that process. I would kind of write out in longhand what changes I wanted made to what pages, that kind of thing. I would send it, I would like, you know, send that out, and it would get made, and then, that was sort of the beginnings of museum computing for me, I guess, but that was just sort of a happenstance. It wasn’t something I was, I was looking to do at the time. I really was just into print books and museums, generally.
So I left the Gardener, and I just started a book publishing sort of company, and right when I did was when Amazon launched the Kindle, its first e-reading device, which is very, it became very, very popular very, very quickly, with Amazon’s sort of power behind it, and it really opened up the idea of e-book publishing, and digital publishing to the mainstream. I think there were a lot of efforts before that, stretching decades back behind… before the Amazon Kindle came around, but really it was the Kindle that made it, made all the big publishers take note, and all the small publishers also take note as well, and as a small publisher myself, just starting out, I thought e-books were a great way for me to sort of expand my audience. And so, I was doing e-book work, and my… so I started doing e-books alongside my print books, but my real focus was on the books that were on visual art, and I was the only art book publisher doing e-books and I, that was a lonely place to be at that time, back in sort of 2008, 2009. And I wanted other people to do it as well, so I started looking for a community of museum publishers who might be interested in digital work, and that was… I started, I attended, my first MCN in 2011, and MW that year as well. Again, looking for community, and wanting to sort of promote this idea of digital publishing to museum publishers, and so, I loved the community that I was finding there and at other conferences, and I started doing that more and more. And I became a sort of de facto, like digital publishing person for art museums. Like, that’s, you know, I would take lots of calls about what that was, and what that looked like, what was digital publishing, how can we be more digital with our books? And sort of, did a lot of speaking and kind of informal consulting around that area, and got more and more interested in that digital aspect of publishing. A, because of the Recession, and it was harder to keep printing books, and holding an inventory of books and, and having that expense, and so e-books let me go further than I could otherwise as an independent publisher, but I also just thought this technology was super interesting as well.
And so, as, sort of being outside of the museum world, but kind of participating in it a little bit I, you know, one of the things I saw early on was the OSCI programs. So the Getty — before I was at the Getty in 2009 — launched the Online Scholarly Catalog Initiative, which was a multiyear initiative with, I believe it was eight museums — I should know the number — who the Getty gave, the Getty Foundation gave money to explore the idea of putting their collection catalogs online. So that’s called, that’s known as OSCI, O-S-C-I, and the idea at the time, in 2009, was the question was: Could these things even go online? Like, these are these big, printed collection volumes. They, they… there was basically like a, you know, like a collections database, but printed out into a book, and then of course authored, and added essays, and provenance information, all kinds of other stuff. On top of that, and they were expensive to produce, and they were out of date the moment that they were printed, so, and, of course, once printed, you can’t reprint something that expensive. So, they weren’t… having them in a print book was not very practical, but it seemed, so making them in digital seemed like a good answer. A good, you know, a good possibility, but, at the time, museums participating in that initiative, the big… there was a big question about was that even… A, was it technically feasible? And B, was it sort of, you know, was it going to be accepted by both curators, and to people inside the museum who were putting these books out? And also scholars who would be then researching from these things? So, would a scholar accept a digital version of the catalog versus the printed version as the, as the sort of authoritative and stable kind of, kind of thing?
So, that was an early… a big early push into digital publishing, on behalf of museums that really drove things forward, and that I was definitely watching. I remember seeing Liz Neely, and I think Sam Quigley as well, presenting, on their work, and with OSCI at the Art Institute of Chicago early on at one of the conferences. So, that was something I was watching that, from sort of from outside, at the time.
And then the other thing that was happening in this space, again, before I got back into the museum world, formerly, was that the… Apple launched the iPad in 2010, and all of a sudden, there was a sort of amazing, beautiful device, where it seemed like, oh, like, for museums, looking at the Kindle, which was an e-ink device: it’s black and white, it doesn’t do images very well, especially the early versions, they were very chunky, and kind of clunky. But here, the iPad presented this really beautiful, full color beautiful package that means that art museums especially, began to think of themselves as, like they could see their publications and their artwork as being desirable on that, on an iPad, like, on a device like that. Then all of a sudden, e-book publishing or digital publishing became sort of more appealing.
And then there were… so, there are two tools that came out at the time as well. One was iBooks Author, which was Apple’s publishing tool. So, which enabled you to… it was a drag and drop… it made it sort of beautiful little package, you could do interactives, you could have videos, you can have different kinds of images. The design was really nice, and so it’s really appealing, and it was easy to use, so it was appealing for museums who are looking to do digital publishing as a kind of an easy way in to get their content onto some nice, a nice package, and on a nice device. So, that was really appealing, and people in some museums started experimenting with that. And then another tool was Adobe’s Digital Publishing Suite, which was some… Adobe gave users a way to publish from InDesign, which is a print… InDesign is a print publishing software that Adobe uses, and that all book publishers use. But the digital publishing suite tool allowed you to take InDesign and actually publish an app to the, to an iPad, to the app… to the app store. And so, that was really appealing for museum publishers who were… they had designers who were familiar with InDesign and using that every day, by learning just a little bit more, they were all of a sudden able to put an app out. A digital publication that looked like an app, and again, had kind of all the bells and whistles, and can be you know sort of shiny, and look beautiful and pretty. And so, some museums started, started experimenting with that as well.
And so, those were the… and so those were really the early, in museum publishing, I think those were the things that we thought earliest. We saw the OSCI cataloging initiative that was looking to publish things online directly, and then you, and then people use… museums trying to get onto the iPad specifically, and often using iBooks Author and Adobe Digital Publishing Suite.
So, with those two last tools for the iPad, one of the big problems that museums ran into within the first few years was that they A, only those, they were putting the content out in a proprietary way, like in proprietary platforms, and, and that were either Apple or Adobe or both were really controlling the distribution point there. That they were the only way to get there, so, if you spend a lot of time doing the iBooks Author thing, and it didn’t work, or, you know, or whatever, you were kind of beholden to whatever Apple would or wouldn’t do for you. And, of course, then, anyone who didn’t have an iPad, couldn’t read that book, or had no access to that content, so as a publisher, that starts to rankle a little bit because you want, as a publisher, you want to be something that you’re, you’re putting the content out there for as long as possible, and, in a way that’s as, you know, as permanent and as accessible as possible to as many people as possible. So, then, so, spending a lot of time just to get onto one device by this, owned by this mega corporation is not maybe a great long-term plan. Same thing with Adobe. They can change the rules in a moment’s notice about how things are published. And Adobe’s program, actually you were required, you’re required to have a paid monthly fee for hosting, so as soon as they change that fee, or you couldn’t pay it anymore, whatever, your book was going to disappear from the app store.
And museums, I think, after experimenting, they liked the results, but they didn’t like, they liked the results sort of as a, as an individual publication, but they didn’t like those sort of distribution issues. And then these control issues about how we’re, you know, serving these larger corporations, and being sort of at the whims of these corporations. So, I think they, after a few years, everyone… the Getty definitely did some of those projects, projects as well. Others museums did. I know the MFA in Boston had done some, but everyone’s largely at this point, moved away from those tools, and I think now actually, they both may be shuttered. I don’t even think they’re an option anymore for museums.
That left a gap, because there was still not, there’s still this question of: Where do we publish? How do we… how do we do really rich, illustrated, visually sort of driven, books in a digital space? And I think you know… And so, I think we turn back to at that point, looking at the online. Looking at sort of what, what our online… what can we do on the web that would make sense? Because that was going to give us the most control, the most, you know, we can… the widest district possible distribution, the most design control…
Everything about that seemed good. The one problem, of course, is that, or maybe not, of course, the one problem was the sort of money issue, in this sort of we can’t… how do we monetize the book? If we can’t afford to give it away for free, how do you monetize a website, essentially if you’re, if you’re publishing to the web? Which is still an open question, I don’t think we figured out. But… yeah? Marty? Oh, you’re on mute.
[Marty]: Sorry, let me jump in with as a quick historical question. The… what about publishing these catalogs on, say, CD-ROM or something like that? There was there a time period where people were promoting that?
You know, that’s an excellent question, and I think there probably was… what I think, we look back, there was some CD-ROM publishing. I think we, I know the Getty, again prior to me and prior to even my start in digital publishing at all, had published some CD-ROMs as part of print books, but I think they were mostly… it was less about the whole book. It was more like supplements. So, I don’t think that, I don’t know that anyone did anything that was like, “This is the whole book on a CD-ROM. There’s nothing else going with it.” It tended to be more like an additional thing on top of a print book. Yeah, it’s a good question. Yeah, and actually I’d be… you know, in sort of preparing for this interview, I started thinking about it, and I was like, “I should actually go back and look at the history.” Like because I know there are things earlier than what I know of that were probably, you know, being looked at, and practiced, and I don’t even know all of them, so…
[Marty]: One of the reasons it popped into my head, Greg, is that a common theme we’ve heard with a lot of people talking, telling stories about going on to the web, for the first time is that, for a lot of museum computing folks, it almost felt like a step backwards. They could do so much richer stuff on CD-ROM or an in-gallery kiosk, right? Going to the web was, “Well, we’ve got limits. We have tiny little pictures, and it’s slow,” right? So, I’m just wondering if there was similar pushback there.
Yeah, yeah. That’s interesting. And yeah, I think, by the time that we… like that, that, like, the time I’m thinking, like, talking about, I think, by then, the web had caught up, and was like, as you could do a lot, I think I could certainly see that that would… you know, sort of a similar, I can see a sort of similar parallel to like this idea of doing these iBooks Author, or the Digital Publishing Suite, and then thinking about having to do, e-ink or Kindle or something like that, and like, kind of like downgrading a little bit for sure. And there’s that same question with CD-ROM is like well, then you need, you need the right operating system to be able to operate that, and eventually those things, you know, as we all know, those things disappear. And it’s that same thing about thinking through longevity and like, how do we, what are we doing now, and do we want it to last, and if so, how, what are we doing to make it last, and in what format right is it going to be? Do we want just like… is it Okay if just the sort of content, the sort of core content of something lasts? do we need the whole experience to last? Do we want the assets to, to be available, or are those are going to go away? And kind of planning for that. And that’s actually one of the things I could talk about.
So the Online Scholarly Catalog Initiative, it wrapped up in sort of 2015-ish. At that point, all of the museums involved had published online successfully. Many of them have gone on since to publish even more, and, or are still planning on to… on, on wanting to publish again, and in that format online, but, at the very end, we published a report on that initiative, and one of the, sort of the couple of main findings, and sort of the remaining challenges that came out of that, despite that, I mean, you have successes, you have people publishing these books, but they, they identified a few remaining challenges that they said. One was discoverability, so once we published these catalogs, how do we, how do people continue to find them? One was around longevity. And there were sort of two aspects to longevity that they attacked, that the group, sort of that cohort, that initiative cohort identified. One was the longevity of how do we sustain the practice of digital publishing within our museum? So when the Getty’s grant money goes away, how do we make sure that we can continue to publish books like this, when we don’t, when we can’t continue to make this, like tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of dollars of investment to publish these, these catalogs? And then, longevity. Also, how do we again, get back to that question of format and CD-ROMs, and the web and all that, is how do we make these publications last a long time, more like a book time… a print book timescale, rather than a website or microsite timescale, which are much different, obviously much different things? And then the third thing was around the sense of understanding the boundaries of these catalogs.
So, you know, on the, on the one of the great features of the web, of course, is that you can, you can surf it. That you can go from thing to thing to thing very easily. That you can follow a path of kind of links and ideas across sites, across institutions, through you know, into totally different areas very, very easily and quickly. We’ve all gotten lost down those rabbit holes, but when it comes to digital publishing, and publishing a scholarly book especially, something that you want to be seen as an authoritative kind of object out in the world, how do we, how do we as sort of developers and engineers and designers, UX designers, how do we indicate the boundaries of that publication? That, that where, you know, especially if you imagine a publication that we’ve put out online as a website, let’s say it’s been peer reviewed, how do we make sure that the reader knows that they haven’t left some area, and wandered off into some other part of our site that’s not peer reviewed, or that’s not part of the publication. How do we make sure that they’re, they understand those boundaries, and that they’re comfortable with those boundaries as well, because we want scholars to cite, to feel comfortable citing the books, knowing that the books are going to be there for a while, and they’re gonna last a long time? So that, all of these issues were still things that we were trying to tackle at the end of the OSCI program.
[Marty]: I just wanted to jump in and say I love that example, right, because that notion of boundaries as defining, as defining something AS authoritative, right? It’s authoritative because it HAS boundaries, to the knowledge. It’s such a really interesting issue and it’s funny, you reminded me of some conversations I was having with people in the late ‘90s, I think it was, at maybe at Museums and the Web conference early on, where people, explaining that this is one of the big problems that they have in their museum, going online, it’s this idea of where will the boundary be once we’re online? Somebody could jump from our museum to this museum to this museum, and nobody would know!
Yes, yeah. It’s definitely a thing. And like, that’s actually in many ways, that desirable effect. That you like, now museum websites, especially at least within their own museum, they want people bouncing around. They want people to continue to find new resources and continue to sort of explore. But certainly there’s that, you know, you want, in some cases, you want a limit to that, or you want to at least signpost for people and make it clear what, so they know where they are, and they know they’ve left. And we want to be able to feel that we’re providing a sort of authority, like that authority to the traditional publishing.
So, so… yeah, so I started, I guess, I started at the Getty late 2013, sort of as OSCI was kind of nearing its final couple years there. And I was brought in, sort of charged with figuring out what was next. The museum, the Getty had done some of those experiments with iBooks Author, and using an app platform, not Adobe’s, but someone else, a different kind, trying to figure out what digital publishing would look like at the Getty. And so, I was brought in to kind of help figure that out, and early on, and one of the things was, of course, was, “Well, we want to do collection catalogs as well.” Getty Museum proper was not actually part of the OSCI cohort formally. They kind of, because they can’t… Getty can’t grant its own museum money to participate in a grant like that, but we kind of… the Getty museum followed along. They did do an initial publication, online publication, as a sort of trial, but there was a sort of remaining question of what we were going to do next, and how we were going to do it.
So, we really looked at, at that point, we had these collection catalogs, we knew we wanted to do them digitally, we knew we wanted to do other kinds of publishing, and kind of push forward the boundaries of what digital publishing could be, and so we looked at those, those remaining challenges of, that the OSCI cohort kind of identified, of discoverability, and longevity, objectness, that sort of containerness of a book, digital book, and really tried to, to build off of those things.
So, we’ve been working since then, on what we now call “Quire,” which is Q-U-I-R-E, which is a piece of software that is a multiformat software, that publishes online, but also in PDF and e-book as well, and it’s really geared towards the kind of rich, visual scholarly publishing, so citations and deep zooming images and videos and audios, and we wanted to be able to handle all of that stuff. And so, we’ve been working on that and sort of using our own books as prototypes in building out that software, and identifying what a digital publication, a QUIRE publication is, and where are the boundaries for that, and, and how do we manage that, and what do they look like, and all that kind of thing, so we’ve been using all of our publications to kind of work toward understand, like building QUIRE out with the idea that we’re going to now work on open sourcing into the to the community so that others can also sort of take advantage.
Again, getting back to that, trying to answer that question of sustaining a digital publishing practice inside a museum, we felt like if we could provide software that was relatively easy to use, and that we could provide a certain level of support for that software, that we could help other institutions continue digital publishing digitally pushing forward that practice.
Because we knew that the more, and this goes back to my own history of sort of independent publisher, looking for community, and looking for other people to be doing this kind of work, so I, you know, we know that the more people we can get doing this, the better we’re all going to be at it, the more, the richer the experience is going to be, the new idea, and the more new ideas are going to come out, and all of that. So, we’ve really been working towards that, and we’re hoping to be able to sort of get that QUIRE out as open source sometime in the next year or so. And this has all coincided very nicely, this move to like, to the web for publishing. And I brought up that question of, you know, or the issue of monetization before, and like, how do you pay for this? How you do this? How do you make this, you know pay, you know monetize a website, if you need to sell it to it sort of just to just to make financial sense, just to break even?
But all of this activity that’s moved towards the web for digital publishing has coincided with, I think, a big push in the museum sphere of moving toward Open Access, open source. Like, really thinking of the museum, you know, generally the museum’s public mission, a mission of public good, and trying to make their assets and their knowledge as open and accessible as possible, and we’ve really been able to ride on that wave… So the Getty has certainly supported us and continues to do Open Access publishing, so not having to move away, being able to move away a little bit from the issue, the sort of financial issues, which is a real privilege, of course. And it doesn’t work for, for every museum but we’re hoping that, by providing tools like QUIRE and in other ways, we can help answer some of those financial questions, and bring the cost lower and lower so that it becomes more of a question of staff time, and drive, and being, than actually having to make a major investment in doing the publication.
So that’s kind of what we’re after there, I guess.
[Marty]: I’ll jump in and say it’s… I think back to some of the conversations that I have way back in the day with Ken Hamma at the Getty about sort of the underlying philosophical shifts that were going to have to be made for museums to become more accepting of Open Access. I haven’t talked to Ken Hamma in ages, but I like to think he’s, he’s thinking about these changes over the past 20 years in a really positive way. We’ve, we’ve really come a long way.
Yeah, we really have. And just in the last five, seven years that I’ve been in the Getty — or yeah, seven, eight — almost eight now, gosh. It’s definitely, I mean, when we first came in, there was… we weren’t talking about Creative Commons licensing. It wasn’t even an option at that point, it really was, “Let’s just, let’s talk. Let’s figure that out down…” We know we need to tackle this question of what do we, how do we sort of distribute these digital publications, but then, so it’s just shifted. I think that the museum leadership got really very positive feedback from, you know, every time you, you released collection images, and that kind of thing, the positive feedback loop that came from users in the community, out in the world, in the world at large, from doing those kinds of, those kinds of things, really I think helped museum leaders, like leadership, sort of understand the value of that, and how well that sort of, that kind of approach, that open approach, really blended well with the museum’s sort of overall mission. I think that’s a big part of it for sure.
One of the things actually… so, along with doing this sort of digital publishing, you know, tackling this sort of rich digital publishing online that we’ve been doing, another aspect of the work and that actually that started, right after I got there at the Getty was the, the open delivery and distribution of our backlist of titles. So our backlist, publishers’ backlists are all of those books that a publisher has made, and that may be, are out of print, or that are very old and hard to come by, maybe only available in a library, you know, not, not readily accessible, and that kind of thing, that, the in the things in the publishers catalog that they don’t really actively promote any more, for whatever reason.
So, publishers end up with a rich backlist. We have, I think Getty has now 1,200 different titles of, that we’ve published in the years… I think our first book was in 1954. And we’ve been publishing ever since. And that’s a lot of books that are, that are now of course not readily available in stores because they’re out of print, or they’re, you know, for whatever reason. So we, along with a number of other institutions, I think the Walters was one of the early ones, Met public — the Met did this as well — we started digitizing that, our backlist, and putting them avail– making them available online for free, for free download as PDFs mostly, for, for individuals and institutions to use as they like. So there was a real push, I think, right now, our what we call our Virtual Library is where we have these downloads available, at the Getty, there’s 300-some titles in there now, all available in PDF and free to use.
Getty… the Met has even more. It’s really, there are some rich resources. So, there was a sort of movement towards this opening our backlist and these sort of past things that was happening, like, simultaneously with other museums opening their collections images, and really offering high resolution images for download for free, and doing that kind of work as well. So that kind of, again that sort of the history of the move toward this open… openness to, to the assets that we used to, like images, is a great example, where we used to… museums often would charge for the rights to reproduce an image. To, A, get a copy of an image, and B, reproduce it in in some form. And museums use that as a kind of… many museums saw that as a kind of money making opportunity in a way of like helping the bottom line, and sustaining their own practices in other areas of their institutions, which was sometimes valid, but oftentimes museums found that those… the cost of managing that process, of, of having someone write in and ask for, request an image, and then get it back, actually was costing them more than they were getting back in the fees, so now no one’s winning. You know, like the museum’s losing money, the people who are paying for the fees are losing money, so eventually, started figuring out that it was better just to like just put them out the open, it’s goodwill, the images go much further, you get, you know, you have much better coverage of where your, your images are, and, they’re, you know, better … you’re better able to put out good quality images as well. So, they better represent your institution and the artwork that they are of, so I think, you know, that this sort of movement towards Open is really… we benefit in digital publishing for sure, yeah.
What else can I talk about?
[Marty]: Well, I just wanted to pick up on what you just said right there. About how… I often felt that that is one of the big factors that led to the philosophical shift to, to encourage museums, to support Open Access. Because they saw how many poor quality images of their art were on the open internet, right?
Yeah, for sure. Yeah. When you show, when you show a curator, a director, an image, Google image search for one of the star, their star artworks, and there’s just all kinds of stuff in there, they get, yeah… They… it’s a, it’s a good motivator, for sure, definitely, yeah. Um, what else? Oh, and so, well, like, I guess, I made some notes earlier.
The other thing I could speak a little bit about in terms of that, the kind of other institutions working on digital publishing too, and kind of the community of people doing digital publishing. One thing… so, after, following the end of OSCI, and sort of building off of our own work with QUIRE, excuse me, a number of other institutions have continued publishing collection catalogs as well. And we got together with Getty, National Gallery of Art in D.C., Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Art Institute of Chicago. We did a sort of very in-depth catalog study report, like a study on our collection catalogs, to see, “Okay, after OSCI, after we’ve been producing these things, are they being received in the way that we intended them to be? How can we improve them? What can we do from that?” And, that sort of, that sort of cross-institutional study, we published the results of that, but we also used the opportunity to coalesce a group, what we called the Museum Publishing… Digital Interest Group, Museum Publishing Digital Interest Group, or “MuPuDig,” is what we called it. But it’s kind of, just as a way of like having a community of people together. It’s something like… there’s 400 people registered for it, we have calls every other month, and we kind of share ideas, or have a speaker kind of present what they’re doing to try to continue to build this idea of the community around digital publishing in the… and how specific digital publishing is in the museum sector versus other publishing arenas, where, you know, for a major publisher that’s publishing books out into the trade, like that you see at Barnes & Noble or whatever, the Kindle is a great option, you know, like moving to an e-book is a perfectly good thing, but with museums, we have all of this other stuff that we want to do. We want to kind of really push forward what an e-book can be, that it doesn’t have to be something that you’re just reading in black and white, and that does it can be something more or do more than what, what typically e-books are doing now, or you can do now.
So, that’s also been great. I think the museum working within the museums’ sort of space has let us as publishers explore new avenues, much more than we would be able to if we were in sort of traditional publishing spheres. And it’s nice too that there’s this community of people who are trying to figure that out, trying to see what, what can be done, and how far we can we can go with it. So, that’s been good too.
[Marty]: Is there an overlap between that community and the community that’s building this QUIRE open-source project?
Definitely, yeah, I mean, definitely. You know, the QUIRE… one of the reasons we started, and I can say that. One of the reasons we, when we started building QUIRE, it was because we looked around and didn’t find the tool already that already existed. We didn’t, I didn’t come into the Getty thinking I’m going to build a tool. It was more like I’m I want to, you know, we identified how we want publications, how we wanted to address some of the challenges digital publications were facing. And then we went looking for a tool to help us with that. There was one out in the world that was sort of a nascent tool, but right as we were about to try it out, it kind of shut down, and it was from outside of the sector. It wasn’t a museum thing. And so, we were kind of faced with, well, “If we want to build the kind of publications we want, we better build the tool to help us do that, and move in that direction,” and then we start realizing, “Oh, well, others could benefit from this tool as well.”
So, it is… so QUIRE is, at this point, it’s one of the few things that does, that addresses our sector, museum publishing, so specifically, so I think, by default, it becomes… there’s a number of the sort of in the museum publishing, that digital interest group. There are a number of people who are actively using QUIRE or who are talking about using QUIRE or have questions about QUIRE, so we actually try to in many cases, I try to downplay QUIRE a little bit when I’m talking to that group because they hear enough about it. I don’t want them getting sick of us, so I’m very conscious of that, of being the sort of the one… I didn’t want to be the only game in town, it’s just, it’s just the… it happens to be at this time, the game that, that addresses the issues most directly for people.
So, we’ll see. I’m hoping other people will start to do it. In fact, actually, at the — which museum is it now? – oh, it’s the R.I.S.D. Museum in Rhode Island. They have been, they’ve done a couple of digital publications. One was the sort of they, it was called Altered States, I believe, and it was built by hand, and it was very… the design’s great. It’s really interesting and unique. They went to do another publication called Raid the Icebox, and started thinking about, sort of similarly to what we did at the Getty, was, “Oh. How, how can we build off of what we learned with our first publication and what was… on what we’re doing now? How can we possibly package in the future for others to use?” So, they’re thinking also like, “How can we build a tool, or how can we take the work we’re doing here at our institution and let others take advantage of that labor as well in some way?” And thinking about as an open-source option so, so there are some nascent other little things going on in the sphere and the sector that I think, I’m hopeful, will, will produce some, some new and different kinds of options for people too.
[Marty]: It reminds me in many ways of like the history of Omeka or similar tools. I remember people were building things like that, like they were at George Mason, and saying, “Hey. We should release this the back end for other people to use and do something similar.”
[Marty]: You know, on the one hand, I’m like, Okay. This is a, this is a natural extension of all the work that the Getty has done, with Getty vocabularies and everything, being that resource. On the other hand, I mean, it seems like an unusual role for a museum to play to be developing open-source software. I don’t know what that says about the future of the museum world.
Yeah, yeah. No, that’s an excellent point. In fact, it’s… we had to do some thinking about that, and we’re still sort of trying to address that: What does it mean to be a software publisher? And like, should museums be software publishers? I did a survey of open-source work in general in museums, a few years ago. It’s sort of a side project I was just interested in. I presented it at MCN, and I found that, you know, more than… well over 100 museums are on GitHub, which is this sort of currently the primary source or primary sort of home base for open-source software. So there’s tons of museums there, there are tons of museums… there’s something like 1,600 different projects being represented on GitHub in some areas that were public, to some degree, but there wasn’t a lot of, there wasn’t a lot of like active publishing of open-source software, which which takes another level. Like, there’s one… it’s one thing to put something out on GitHub and make it available, but not really, not with not a lot of instruction or support or like not trying to build a community around that thing. But it’s a whole another thing to like actually want to publish open-source software in a way that’s sustainable and it sustains itself and will bring in new contributors and new participants into that community.
It’s a, it’s a major task into itself, and one of the, that’s one of the questions we’ve been trying to answer at the Getty with QUIRE, and with a few other projects is: What does that look like in our space? How can we… is it sustainable? Is it something we want to do and that’s useful to the field? And in fact, we hired… oh, last year we hired a community manager for QUIRE. We got some funding from within the Getty. Some sort of internal funding to hire a couple of people dedicated to this idea of like, what would it look like to support QUIRE as an open-source project to a bigger community?
So, we’re trying to, we’re trying to put some resources behind it, and see how that plays out, because it’s, it’s an open question. I think there’s the sort of dream of open source and have this the notion of, you know, can museums do work that other museums can capitalize on? But how, you know… is that actually… is that a dream? Is it actually, you know achievable? What does that achievement, what does it look like to make that happen? I think are all pretty open questions, but then I, you know, when I look at that sort of, when I was mapping out that open-source community and trying to see what museums were doing, and you look at someone… you can look at an individual contributor and see that they’ve done, they maybe made, you know, a couple dozen commits to some software projects somewhere, and then you see that that software project is being used by three or four institutions, and all of a sudden that’s, that was code work that doesn’t need to happen in those three or four institutions, but it happened by this one person in that one institution. And like, if we can find tools and software that makes sense to distribute that way, and make sense that like, are reusable across museums, I think the opportunity there is really great, so… and tantalizing, so I’m certainly hopeful, but we’ll see. It’s… I think you’re right, that it’s, you know, is this something we can be, a museum can be?
[Marty]: I’m just loving this, the scope of the stories that you’re telling, Greg, are really powerful, because talk about a behind the scenes look at digital publishing in museums, right. You’ve taken us from e-pub for art to online scholarly catalogs to open source, open-source software for museum publishing, right? I mean we’ve only covered about — what is that, 15 years?
Yeah, something like that. That’s exactly right, yeah.
[Marty]: That’s a tremendous achievement.
Well, and it’s, it’s remarkable that yeah, when you say that… when you, it’s it, is it’s like yeah, the Kindle came out in 2007, and I said that’s when I started with saying that that was the sort of starting point, so yeah, that’s 14 years. And so, it’s both remarkable how far things have come, and how much we’ve moved, and how much we’ve changed the way we’ve been thinking about digital publishing, but also the fact that we’re really just in the beginning stages. Like, what? We’ve only been doing this for 14 years. Like, what will we achieve 14 years from now? Or, you know, 44 years from now? I think that we’re just… it’s good to remember that we really are still just in the sort of nascent stages of it, for sure.
[Marty]: Yeah, and I think the other thing I really like too is that you’ve really hit upon the philosophical changes that have had to come along with the technology changes to make this… acceptable is not the right word, I don’t know what the word is I should be saying, but when you talk about issues of authority, for example, right, there could be a lot of people that lock down and say, “Well, if it’s not in print, it doesn’t count,” right? We certainly hear those too in academia. But, um…
Yeah, I think that’s right, I mean I think, yeah, that… that you know, it’s museum technology doesn’t happen in a bubble. Like it’s technical work. It requires special skill. I think that, you know, that that is not, you know, but that the underlying drivers of that work are these bigger strategies and stances and tactics and ideas that float around the community that are really driving the work we do. Yeah, it’s important to remember, for sure.