Oral History of Museum Computing: Mia Ridge
This oral history of museum computing is provided by Mia Ridge, and was recorded on the 9th of April, 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/o1t5C_qZRhw.
Okay, so my career began in Australia. I grew up in Melbourne, and I got into web design because I had a really boring office job at a startup that never really took off. And taught myself HTML because we were on the “Vice Chancellor’s Backbone,” which is basically high speed internet, so I had good internet in the mid ‘90s, early ‘90s. And then ended up freelancing, and then got a job at the State Library Victoria, working with a unit that built websites for community groups and voluntary groups, which I think was already kind of really keying into my values, because before that I’d been freelancing, and worked for companies whose products I wouldn’t buy, but I was making their websites, and I was kind of troubled by that.
So, that was probably 1998. And then, I had unsuccessfully interviewed at, for a design position at Melbourne Museum, and the person that I interviewed for remembered me and suggested me when another post came up. As I remember it – ooh — it’s one of those ridiculous public service titles, but it was basically manager of the web team, I think, Senior Digital Publishing Officer, or something like that. So, I moved over to Melbourne Museum, and about that time realized that it was that perfect mix of technical challenges, work that felt ethical and in line with my values, and that was basically about bringing delight and education to the public, really broadly defined. Um, so I was lucky I just kind of fell into it, I guess. Partly by looking for something that was, that did better with my values, like I said was important.
And that was a lot of back-end work. They were relaunching the Melbourne Museum, which had been in the center in the CBD (Central Business District), and was moving slightly out into a very nice, leafy suburbs, very inner suburb, and reopening. So, we’d launched … When I joined the museum, the museum was closed, which meant there was a big emphasis on outreach, but there’s an emphasis on outreach anyway, because Australia, being a very big country with not many people, has always thought a lot about how to bring education and culture to people remotely. So, things like School of The Air. We used to have a Museum In A Van that would go around to schools in regional parts of the state, and around to nursing homes, and they had reminiscence kits for nursing homes, and school kits. And the State Library Victoria had the same kind of thing, where they had a trainer who would go around to libraries and train people in local libraries how to use the internet and get local communities online as well. So, it’s always been that kind of ethos of bringing culture to people where they are, and that has probably quite informed how I think about things.
So, I launched… I worked there while we launched the new site, so we rebuilt, we made a website for them. I hired some of the team. We were… yeah, in an outreach department, so it was tech people and education, and learning. And we also did really early work of taking the museum’s catalog and putting parts of that online in what was called an “Info Zone,” which is a kind of zone where you could bring in things, and ask a museum specialist about them, but you could also sit down at a dedicated terminal and access the collections online. I suppose, with the idea that not everyone was online, and that you’d also be in a space that was dedicated to learning in a museum kind of setting. It had like, pull out drawers and all kinds of things. I guess, it was very much of its time, but what it meant was that we integrated different websites. I think two or three different websites with interpretive information, catalog information, and general information. Without thinking it was too hard, and then, when I moved to the U.K., I discovered that everyone thought was really hard. It was a kind of a good moment.
But Australia, again, had really participatory and collaborative projects. Things like the Biggest Family Album, which was people going around country towns and scanning family photographs that were historical in some way. And a really early bioinformatics collecting project where schoolchildren would identify butterflies and moths in, in their classrooms, and that was probably ‘99 or 2000, so that I think has also really informed my thinking. Like, people just getting on with the job, and not worrying so much about how it might go wrong. And then I moved to the U.K.
Oh no, in between I moved to Amsterdam, thinking that I might learn Dutch and work in a Dutch museum, because it had such, you know, classic museums, but while I was there, September 11 happened, and the Dutch software industry kind of just had a bit of a mini recession, so I ended up in the U.K. as a kind of like, it’s near. I speak the language, which is the advantage I didn’t have in the, in the Netherlands. I worked for a start-up again, just to get a work permit, and then spotted a job as a database development at the Museum of London, and was there for five years. And that was working with archaeological units, that I hadn’t really worked with archaeology before. I ended up going out to Turkey for three or four seasons over the summer to do archaeological database construction work on site, and a lot of requirements analysis and engineering around understanding what people wanted to record for all the different specialisms on… I think there’s 17 different specialisms on site. Everything from like, beads to human remains, formal remains, dentitian records, a lot of clay of very different forms. And also, trying to get the specialists to share their data in a central database, which meant actually a lot of organizational change, because they had zero interest in sharing, except that the director of the projects [said] that they had to.
And also introducing a mandate that we negotiated after three years, I think. Their data … that they could keep some really specialist data back until they published it, but then it would go into the general online site. So, that was interesting in terms of organizational change, and very intense requirements engineering, because there was no internet except through a dial up thing. So, if I had forgotten how to do something in ASP or Access, I had to wait until I could get online and check things. But so, that was partly through working for Museum of London, where a lot of database work, a lot of working with big Oracle databases that had the archaeological records of the unit that worked with the museum, but also the London Archaeological Archive and Research Center, which was an arm’s length group that any… any time an archaeological unit turned over a piece of soil in London, they were meant to record anything they found into a central database, so that there was like a unified view of the archaeology of London. That had the most complex search interface I’ve ever seen. With this spaghetti code underneath it to try and make it all work that I had to try and inherit. And I’m still never sure that anyone actually used that super intensive search interface, but one of the specialists was adamant that it was needed. These days, we would obviously just say, “download all the data. You construct your own information. You go to town.”
But that wasn’t quite the model that we had then, but maybe that’s why I got so into Open Data because like, it’s so complex, anticipating very specialist needs that you can’t possibly … the time that you would invest in meeting those very specialist needs means that you’re spending less time on general needs. So it’s better to let those people self serve in some way. If they can think in such a structured way about constructing your query, then they can probably run their own queries. We also did work with merging archaeological records with records from the museum’s catalog, so that we could take a terrible dug up piece of something from the archaeological records, and show a beautiful version from the museum, which meant sort of lots of linking and thinking through the different data structures.
There was a fair bit of… they updated the version of Mimsy that they were using while I was there, and we discovered that people were doing things like keeping secret spreadsheets because they didn’t like the Mimsy interface, so they would do their work in a spreadsheet, and then upload it. And so again, a lot of trying to understand the internal staff as users, and thinking ahead to the users of the end product, and understanding organizational resistance. And, partly as a result of that, I ended up doing a Master’s in Human Computer Interaction, because I was building software and sometimes it wouldn’t be used, and I was like, “I need to know why it’s not being used because we’re investing time.” And we didn’t have anything like requirements engineering or understanding user needs, it wasn’t on the radar. And also, I was sick of people saying things like, “My 12-year-old could make a website. Why is this taking so long?” Or thinking that their opinion was as valid as mine, and at that point, I probably had 10 years experience working in the web, and was like, maybe, maybe I but I didn’t have a piece of paper. I didn’t have a Ph.D. or anything to say I’ve been doing this for a long time. And having your opening phrase in Latin probably isn’t the most user friendly choice that you could make, but I’ve never forgotten “salve” for “hello” in Latin as a result of that conversation.
So that was uh, yeah, that job was a good mix of museum stuff, archaeology, making software. Probably 80 percent of my time I calculated at one point, though, was spent maintaining software, uploading giant data sets into it, helping people run queries and exports, doing big mergers across data sets, so really hands on kind of data work, and trying to fit in new development, supporting in-gallery interactives, online collection access, and various other kind of public outputs.
And I did things like consulting on some early participatory work. There was… they were building a new gallery at the [Museum of London] museum in Docklands, which became London, Sugar & Slavery, and it was the… must have been 2007, so as the 200th anniversary of the 1807 change, which I think was about trade in enslaved people, and I can’t remember the anniversary, but… Every organization was doing something for that anniversary, so the museum started a community consultation group, but late in the process, so they didn’t have that much say, and they were kind of sick of being consulted on their views of how to celebrate this anniversary of slavery as Afro-Caribbean people in the U.K. So, there was some good lessons there in terms of… they wanted a forum set up online, and it’s like, why would people spend their time on this forum? Like what user need is it meeting. And sort of developing the language to think about that, and encountering the idea that technology will solve your problems, where maybe what you really need to have is good relationships with these community groups rather than just setting up a forum.
And that was probably the high point of museum forums, because not long after that, social media, like Facebook, I guess, was coming along already at that point. So, that was a good learning experience. And while I was at Museum in London, I found the Museums Computer Group in the U.K. and I guess, MCN, at some point as well. And, and that was brilliant. It was like finding people that knew what problems I faced, who were familiar with all angles of the kinds of issues, in terms of the technology, the people, the institutions that museums are in terms of their resistance to change and innovation, but also their drive, their passion, and their under-resourcing, and all those kinds of common issues. So that was a really good moment. And then, I think I also at the same time, found people working in archaeology, and we formed Antiquist [http://www.antiquist.org/], which was sort of for a brief moment a good forum for discussing how we worked in archaeology with Open Data and digital technologies. And I think that met a need at the time. We formed good connections. But that need isn’t as present now because it’s not so specialist, or it’s so deeply specialist that it’s about recording really specific things, and they have their own debates.
And then, I think through my posts to the Museums Computer Group and on my blog, which I started after a Museums… an MCG event, I think in 2006, up at the University of Leicester, I was inspired on the train platform, waiting to go home and came up with the name for the blog, and started the blog [Open Objects]. And I was asked to interview for a role at the Science Museum, so that was a kind of interesting moment in terms of being … apparently, one of the things that attracted them was that I sort of managed to see all view points in my posts, so not indulging in some of the flame wars that people used to get into. But I said, I said, yeah, I’ve always focused on being constructive in conversation. And so I did the Science Museum, worked with my manager to hire a team, because he’d sort of been waiting until I got into the post, where we ran the website, the shop, and worked with the teams at Bradford and Leeds, also York in their Media Museum in Bradford and the Railway Museum in York, and the Science Museum grew just before I left. I think they got the Manchester Museum of Science and Industry.
So, I was there three years, I think, and then I left to do a Ph.D., partly because I panicked, because the U.K. government had changed, and they were cutting a lot of the Ph.D. funding and I thought if I don’t do it now, I don’t know how I’ll get to do it.
And while I was at the Science Museum, I worked with external developers to release an API to a very, a subset about collections, based on work that we’re doing with a new gallery. And just before I left, I did an Open Data release from the catalog as CSV, and immediately, people sent me back like improved versions of the records, which is amazing, and really proved the value to people in the museum, and I think also, just helped them realize that the world doesn’t end if you can see a CSV, and that, you know, that people realize there are errors in your catalogs. But also, was my first real intimation of the need for round tripping, so as soon as you release data, or if you put on a Wikidata, you enter into a really complex area of negotiation around who can update records, what correctness means in different contexts, the value of neat and tidy data visualization versus just having something you can consult as a curator.
And I also did my Master’s project on making museum metadata games while I was there, so I used Science Museum data, and data from the Powerhouse, from their API to make crowdsourcing games to tag difficult objects, building on the work of Steve.Museum and other projects that had already shown that people respond really well to art objects. And I wanted to know how they respond to less charismatic, more boring or more technical objects, so I compared social history photographs with objects from the history of astronomy to see what people, how, how people responded to those different objects and how I could use interface elements, including design interactivity and content to make them more or less accessible, and lower the barriers to participation in that space.
And then I left to do a Ph.D., and then I came back, where I now work at the British Library, as a Digital Curator for Western Heritage Collections. And, in some ways, I feel, on the other side of the fence, both because I have “curator” in my title, where previously, I was very much a technologist with a strong interest in user experience and outreach. And being in a library, rather than, than in a museum, but all the museums I’ve worked in have had significant libraries and archives, that either theirs, or they hold for other institutions. So, I was kind of familiar with the mix of standards and cataloging approaches that you get between those different institutions.
[Marty]: Can I, can I jump back? I want to connect this all back to the very first thing you said about the ethics of museum computing, and how so much of your choices were driven by those ethical, those ethical concerns. You hit upon so many philosophies, as you as you talk about your history, they, they, the user experience philosophy, the audience outreach, the importance of Open Data, and letting people do what, what the data what they want, the APIs. And we had a similar conversation with Seb Chan, for example, right, with a lot of that philosophy. How much do you think you, you shape those philosophies with your starting ethics?
I think it must be sort of fundamental this. I think in some ways, Australians have an outsize presence in the museum technology, or cultural heritage technology world, and it might be because we’ve inherited a worldview that is very much about prioritizing remote access, and knowing that remote access might be the only form of access that some people have for most of their lives, bolstered by occasional visits to a central state library or state museum. And I guess, the strange choices that I didn’t make… like, I did work for three startups over time, but none were the kind of rapacious venture capital bit that that whole like growth-hack mindset thing, and each time, I would generally be quite unhappy in the mix, I think I do need to feel that when I wake up and go to work, I’m actually contributing something better in the world.
[Marty]: Well, I mean, this connection in my mind to some of the conversations we’ve had where people talked about the difficulty of keeping the tech workers in the museum, and what is it that… What is it that that keeps you there, when you could you know triple your salary going, working someplace else? And, and I think your comment about the ethics really plays a huge role in that. I, I don’t know if, for me, I would think about it as, you know, not having to sell your soul to go work somewhere else but, does that resonate with you?
Yeah. I think there’s, there’s two aspects: one is the soullessness of, particularly when I worked in London, it was at a new media agency. It was in Shoreditch. It was sort of in “wanker central” at a time where like, being in a new media agency was it and a bit, and they just were not brilliant people. So yeah, and I think they… I’ve just, because I’ve just been writing this other book, and the way val– thinking about values all the way through, and that was a very conscious decision to say, “You can’t separate choices about public engagement, about technology from your values. All the choices that you make are design choices, and they embody values in some way.” So I guess I’m very tapped into that thinking at the moment, but in my career, it has always been a factor. When I was freelancing the first time, I was making a website for IVECO, which are like a giant international truck company, and for Kleenex, and I was boycotting Kleenex, because they’re using rainforest timbers to make tissues, and it was like, that is a ridiculous use of hundreds of years’ worth of growth of trees. So, I guess it has always been really present in my thinking. And when, hiring in this sector is really hard, because you’re competing with London salaries, or now both The British Library has an office in … officially it’s in the Leeds postcode. It’s between Leeds and York. It’s really hard to hire there because Leeds is a big finance center. So Fintech is a thing. You have to give into that you have really interesting problems to solve, and also that you’re not, though they won’t be working in an environment where they can’t be creative, yeah, it is a really hard thing, and I think, because I was lucky in terms of like generations where I’ve been able to make my own choices in some ways. So I haven’t been too constrained by… sort of I haven’t had a soulless job in a museum, but that could just be partly luck about when I entered the sector.
[Marty]: Well, I mean that’s an interesting question too. Because you mentioned, I think you, I think when you’re talking about your time in the Melbourne Museum, you talked about how the, the audience outreach work was the tech people working side by side with the education people, am I, remembering that correctly?
Yeah, we didn’t work on the same projects. We did, we supported when we wanted to put things online, but it was just the choice of us being in the same department, that very much positioned web, as it was then mostly, and in-gallery outreach as being an in-gallery work as being part of outreach. So, and they had they had an I.T. department that did more back-end stuff, but we ran our own web service, and our own database service, and so we were sort of serving a separate… I.T. served internal users, and we served public users.
[Marty]: Great. That’s actually what I was wondering about, because we’ve heard this story from other people as well, sometimes in terms of this transition from, “Well, first off, I was in charge of plugging all the computers in, but then suddenly I’m in charge of audience outreach,” right. It’s, it’s a big shift in the technology world and you were right there at the start of it.
I think that, if I, and I love working in technology. I love the problem solving aspects of it, but I can’t do it, like seven days a week. It’s just, it has to be for something other than just noodling around. But I think, also when you work in a museum, depending where you work, when I joined Melbourne Museum, they were in a random office building, but when I started the State Library, it was in the big iconic building, and you look out onto the lawn, and it’s full of people meeting and going into do their research. And at Melbourne Museum was a kind of ant farm design, where the front facade was all glass, you can see the museum workers, which look, just like anyone else sitting at a desk, but the architect was super into it. But it meant that we could see the public as well, and we were constantly encountering people’s experiences as you move around the building. And the Science Museum, because it was I think the South Ken space was actually five buildings, joined together at different times, in different areas, so you’re constantly sort of weaving in and out of public spaces to get to meetings. And the Science Museum, also because of their science communication ethos had a kind of accompanied visit idea, which was more or less present at different times, where museum staff would actually go through a visit with them, with a visitor or their family, and sort of experience what they were experiencing.
But I think that being in the same space has always kept me really grounded as well, and reminded me why I was there. Although kids at the Science Museum what often more excited about the giant lift [laughs] than they were about the exhibition that you’ve spent like six months of late nights working on.
[Marty]: Isn’t that always the way? I wanted to also get back to the crowdsourcing stuff, because I always been so impressed by the work that you’ve done in crowdsourcing, and, by the way, may I should point out that I still assign usually one of the chapters from your “Crowdsourcing Our Cultural Heritage” book to my museum informatics students.
[Marty]: It’s just such a, such a great book there. I really, really like it. How do, I mean, I don’t know, I was gonna ask how did you get started with this whole Open Data for crowdsourcing? Or what are some, what are some good stories about some of the projects you worked on there?
Yeah, I… A while ago I was looking back through my… the small amount of files that I have from when I was at the State Library, and there must have been a state election in 1998. We did a forum for people to have this kind of like civic discourse around the election issues, and I found a post where I’m like, “I really love chatting online and discussing intense things,” and it’s like, well, well at least I knew early what I liked doing. Because I was also on IRC and on discussion lists from the early ‘90s, I did an arts undergraduate degree that I dropped out of to go and work at the first startup, and I was the only art student with an email account in ’92, I think, because I made friends with people in science, and they were all like, “We’ve got this thing called email.” Just like, “What? Okay!” and then, I went along to the computing department and asked them for an account and they said yes. And I didn’t send an email for like two years. But, I forgot where I was going with that.
Oh yes, I was really into the… I was making friends on the Internet, I guess, at that point, sitting in my boring office for the company that never got any work, so I was really into the idea that you can have really fruitful relationships online. And you know, again that might have been somehow in the ethos of like distributed communication across Australia, which could be synchronous or asynchronous. It’s hard to know. I fell into it. Yeah, so right back in ‘98 I think, I made the first participatory website that I can remember, which was, I think a ColdFusion-based forum somehow, like, ridiculously so of the — it was might have actually been in Perl. It was very of its time anyway, um.
So I guess I’d never been into the idea that museums are places of authority that exist as islands. They always have to be in dialogue with people. And somehow very aware of the fact that there’s a lot of knowledge out there in the community, either experiential knowledge, which is something that one of the Science Museum Wikis had explored and, you know, what is it… as technology changes, there’ll be people who don’t know what a lawn mower smells like. They don’t know what it sounds like, you know, the idea of a two stroke engine is a very specific experience, the smell of petroleum or gasoline or whatever. So, very aware of the fact that there’s knowledge in the community that speaks to very specific experiences, but also that people develop their own expertise. Through, like the specialist groups, and in a way, that might have been influenced by the fact that my dad, who worked for the telecom provider, was a member of the APICUG which is Australia Post and Infrastructure [Australia Post-Tel Institute], like back when it was the post and the telephone were in the same company, computer users group. And they would have these super nerdy meetings, and we’d be dragged along sometimes. So, I guess I had exposure to the idea that like, there are these communities of passion who are really deeply knowledgeable about things, and they meet and they discuss and they, they generate knowledge and learning through their dialogue. So seeing how that worked online is probably always seemed to me like a natural progression. I think I was on like early Usenet and those kind of like discussion lists, and they were pretty nerdy because they were, you had to be in a nerdy institution to have access to them because it was like ARPA and whatever. And the university networks. So, I suppose, yeah, I’d always seen that there were not only levels of engagement that were possible through asking people to be in dialogue, but also that hosting… probably maybe looking at things like Usenet made me realize the value in hosting a conversation where you could — not consciously at that time, thinking about it – but the tone could be more constructive than even what you saw in early internet dialog, like flame wars and things that people would get into, and even early trolling, which was around right from the start.
And I think at the Museum of London, we explored some forms of dialog and there was a community archaeology group as well in the same building, so they very much had a sense of archaeology, something that can be done with communities. Communities have a right to know what’s happening, when a dig happens, they would set up digs so that people could learn how it went, and I think the first museum blog I set up was, in part, to encourage greater diversity in people thinking about museum careers, so curatorship tends to be quite white, quite middle class, but, if you look at roles that can be done in a museum or anywhere else, you could work in finance or HR or I.T. or lots of different roles, and have some museum experiences without having to take on a life of penury and do three Ph.D.s. So, the first… I think I started the blog at Museum in London in 2004 or ‘05, and that was partly to break down stereotypes and barriers about what working in a museum meant.
And I found one enthusiastic, I think a curator of glass, who was quite keen on posting, but not many other people were. So, had to sort of be quite proactive in maintaining it, and getting posts through. And they didn’t have a social media marketing team, obviously, at that point. One of the gallery assistants was on “Big Brother,” so we had like one YouTube video of him coming through the galleries, for his 15 minutes of fame… Sorry, that was a big digression, but yeah, I think that, that sense of museums can’t possibly know everything, I think, as long as I’ve been working in museums, have been restructuring and losing specialists as well. And thinking about it now, museum… when the Melbourne Museum opened, the state government changed about that time, and they decided that, because it was open, you obviously don’t need as many people, and I think the workforce was 700 and they wanted to cut it to 300. So that meant like a lot of jobs are going, and then with all the museums open now like, why do you need all these people? So I think that sense of … even, there’s not as much knowledge as they could be in museums because we keep cutting staff, and we keep cutting specialists and asking people to cover whole regions or whole areas, or you know you lose your numismatics person, and then who’s going to know about your coins and metals? So maybe that was a formative experience as well, now I think about it.
[Marty]: How receptive do you think, I mean I know you’ve engaged in these kinds of projects in a number of institutions now. I’m getting the sense from the from the way you’re explaining that that most of the institutions were receptive to, to making this a two-way conversation with the museum visitors, right? That’s it’s not the curatorial voice telling the visitor what, what to know, right. Am I getting the correct sense there?
I think it is, because it happens online, it, for a long time wasn’t something they thought they needed to worry about. So, it’s easy to be generous in a space that you’re not occupying might be one way of thinking about it. So, when the pandemic happened, and yeah, it’s not as threatening, it doesn’t challenge them. It’s easy for them to dismiss. It’s just online stuff. They, I mean, the curators know because they get emails or inquiries through reference services about collections, and they’ll know… like Museum of London opened an Open Access gallery or storage space for its ceramics and glass collection. We made a database to support queries about that as well. So, in a way that was like the Info Zone 2.0, but on a different scale and much more specialist.
Yes, I think I got away with a lot of things because I… people who, I was always very careful to explain what it might mean to people and the people, because I understood that I couldn’t threaten their jobs, but also had to be sensitive to them feeling that there might be more work coming their way as a result of it, so, when we did the ceramics and glass website I think they got a lot more queries as a result, and sometimes really specialist queries, because I noticed that search terms were often for accession numbers. So, collectors were aware of the collections from other catalogs and exhibitions, were looking for that specialist information and then they would email the curators to ask about things, so that increased their workload, and they were a bit grumpy about it, but it also it presumably meant that they could make a case for how valuable their curatorial services were.
And then, I think working with collections people, they were generally amenable, but probably not to go to your round tripping. That’s that was where they would draw the line. But I think you’re noticing with the pandemic, marketing at the British Library… We always found it difficult to get them to engage with our digital scholarship stuff because they were, they do exhibitions, they do the shop, they do, cafés, school visits, and they thought we were a bit too nerdy, and then, when the pandemic happened and everything was online they were like, “Hey! Nerdy stuff. That sounds great.” And they really wanted to promote all the crowdsourcing things that we were doing, but I was, on the second of March, or third of March, I had two weeks off for surgery, and then I was having chemotherapy, and all kinds of things, so it was like this is not a brilliant time for you to suddenly be interested in promoting the crowdsourcing stuff on all your main channels, because we kept running out of material to crowdsource, so I was quickly like, throwing new volumes of things online or launching projects that were in alpha, and then, but we just kept running out of material.
But now, they really understand why digital participation is as valuable as online, as sort of in person. I think, but I think what I’m trying to do now is draw parallels with volunteering, because museums and libraries and archives tend to understand that. And tend to rely on volunteer workers for contributions to specialist projects, if not to core projects, so the library has a lot of volunteers who work on specialist things, like really specific catalogues of particular significant collectors. Sometimes those volunteers are ex-staff members who’ve been there, volunteering for almost longer than they were actually working for the institution. So that’s what I’m looking to do now, is to draw parallels between the expertise that they allow volunteers to have and input they have in the institution with online participation, but online, it’s often still limited to micro tasks, and to things that aid discoverability, actually bringing knowledge in is a more complex process.
[Marty]: Funny you, you say that, that… I have, in my museum informatics class, we spend a week on crowdsourcing, and that’s actually one of the themes of the discussion that we have is how do you move from the those micro tasks to actually getting the, the real inside the real conversations going?
I think that’s… I mean, just off the top of my head, I think it’s partly about the fact that if you do a Wiki-like structure, you need to be there to make sure it doesn’t turn into a spam fest. And you need a community organizer in a very broad sense who encourages and integrates the conversations. So it requires resources that most institutions aren’t that willing to invest in. But with the book that we’ve just been writing, it’s all about crowdsourcing is productive, but it is also about it’s a mode of public engagement. So you invest in it, because of the public engagement.
[Marty]: And you know, I can’t remember where I got this line from… I hope I didn’t steal it from you, but I, but I always tell the students it’s, it’s about the intangibles right, because what the tangible outcome you get from crowdsourcing is, is nowhere near as big as that intangible of getting the public engaged in what the museum is doing.
Yeah, yeah, um. So, it’s interesting in writing the book, because some people still very much thinking terms of like quantifiable and non-quantifiable outputs and, so in negotiating that…
[Marty]: No, I’m sorry, go ahead.
… negotiating that through the writing process where me, as P.I., and my two co-P.I.s, Meghan [Ferriter] and Sam [Samantha Blickhan], very much of the same mind about that form of value, so, but we do, like, at the moment I’m working a lot with computational linguists on a big data science project, where I’m a Co-I, and they’re used to crowd workers as like, “This is a really boring task, let’s MTurk it. And then they publish a six page paper, and that’s like another line in their C.V., where I’m like, “Actually, we write this whole entire bit around the idea that crowdsourcing is public engagement,” so we have to take our time and it’s much slower, and the research design process is much more iterative, and we’re really pushing the idea of micro tasks as the kind of beginning point for engagement, and micro tasks that contribute to not just better discoverability, but also to research questions, and looking ahead to things like machine, like human in the loop and human computation methods, but also ways that we can use that to provide insight into data science. So, not just historical research processes, but also emerging forms of research in digital history.
[Marty]: I was just going to comment that in many ways, that sounds like the same philosophical shift that museums had to go through when they realized that the value of the online museum is not because it brings people through the doors, but because you can connect with people in their own worlds, in their own lives.
Yeah, and I think there’s a missing… there are some things that we never articulated when we were doing a lot of this Open Data work in the 2000s, and some of it is the primary users of your Open Data and not going to be, you know, your person sitting on the sofa, watching GoggleBox. Like, it’s going to be the person who’s going to interpret it for you in some way, the main maker, it’s the academic, or the researcher, it’s the journalist, it’s the person making cool T-shirt designs, like, it’s, it’s a mediated form of access, where you provide tools for other people to do interesting things with, and then their outputs are the ones that reach people, but they need your material to make those outputs. And we never kind of really made that case, and I think it’s hard to demonstrate the ROI on Open Access material because it’s arm’s length, and the access and the output could be years apart. And, and because it’s open. Like, you can’t track people who don’t need to register to use your material unless they choose to tell you about it. Which is where things like the B.L. [British Library] Labs Awards are really valuable because they encourage people to tell the library what they’ve done with the collections, under three to four different headings of teaching, commercial, creative, and research, I think.
I think the other mistake that we made was… oh my goodness, all these debates about linked open data, and none of it was about the people, or about the difference that it made. It was about the acronyms. And that was a kind of… if we could go back in time… you know, apply all the principles of the UX, like: What need does this meet? Why are we doing it this way? Are there better ways to do it? Are there more creative ways to do it? But if all you have is technologists talking about it, then they’re going to take a technology-focused view on achieving these goals.
[Marty]: Well, and this connects back to what you said a minute ago, that it’s hard to demonstrate the ROI. If you’re only focused on those micro transactions, and did they make you any money, right, you miss the big picture issue.
Yeah, and I think to me, that’s partly why I guess thinking about values and thinking about public engagement, I found a post I wrote in 2015 around the time I finished my Ph.D. where it was like, “Machine learning is coming. The robots are coming for micro tasks.” You know… “Transcribers does amazing things with handwritten text recognition.” Where in my Ph.D., that that indexical trace was so important to people’s connection to collections, they could see the handwriting of someone else that represented a moment when that person was creating that document. And if all the handwriting recognition, all the text recognition, all the classification and tagging can be done by machines, then, how do we provide those ways into collections that are, you know, something, because otherwise it’s like, you either go to a gallery and you look at things, or you get a reader’s card, or you get credentials and you go to the stores, or you go into the closed stacks and have things called up, there’s nothing in between. So for me, crowdsourcing really fit that creative people who are curious and had a sense of agency about collections, and about research and understanding, and just being, yeah, I think for me curiosity and indulging that, finding ways forward from a moment of curiosity.
[Marty]: Yeah, and it’s all wrapped up in this philosophical shift that we see happening over the past few decades. What I tell our library science students is that this is like saying that if, if all you do is count the number of books that circulate from a library, you’re missing 90% of the ways that the community engages with the library. And, it’s been really hard to get people to understand that over the past 20 or 30 years.
Yeah, I think that’s why I always really value front of house people, so you know, the docents, the security guards, the reference staff, the people who actually see all the explainers in the Science Museum. Like, they’re the ones who know what makes people go, “wow!” They know what they get wrong, they know what parents tell their kids that is wrong, and they know what makes parents feel nostalgic, and you know, they really want to explain a moment to their kids through the things in the exhibition, so I think we administrators and technologists all forget how much expertise there is in human connection in the people who are in the galleries.