Call it a rant, I call it a blog “posting”. Lately, I have become acutely aware that there exists a major hurdle to digital project success (specifically digital asset management) that we who work in institutions need to be aware of.
I recently had a colleague return from an Archives Conference abroad that focused on Digital Asset Management and to put it lightly her mind was blown. She’s not an archivist, she’s not a digital asset manager, but she is an administrative assistant in a cultural institution. Her reactions to what she learned further confirmed some of my own feelings I had after recently speaking at both a Digital Asset Management conference and an Archives conference. Which is that, technology has changed our work environments and roles more than most people are aware. It is no longer acceptable to operate in a silo and remain unaware of how other professions cross-over into your own. You might be saying “that’s great, but what do you mean by this?”.
One of the best examples is that Digital Asset Management, which is a product of the “corporate” world, now exists within libraries, archives and museums. However, many people involved in those projects at those institutions are unaware of the existence of the profession of digital asset managers or the world of digital asset management. From the start they are cut off from both those networks and the resources available to those working in the field of DAM. So, they are forced to reinvent the wheel when it comes to DAM within their institution and tend to only source other “like” institutions for help cause that’s all they know.
Also, many corporate digital asset managers and their years of experience do not work for cultural institutions. Therefore, the person who ends up being the digital asset manager, for all intents and purposes, at the institution is not trained in that profession. Yet they are being asked to take on that role as well as its responsibilities They then begin to apply their analog collections management practices to a digital process that already has rules and standards and often times do not understand the repercussions of certain decisions. This causes the inexperienced to use applications outside of their intended purpose and warp the scope of what certain applications are meant to do, creating a bastardized implementation. These types of technology implementations will never solve the problems they were intended to, because the products have been implemented outside their scope.
When I gave my talk to the New York Archives Conference, I spoke about interface design. Crazy topic to bring to a forum where most people don’t even think about design or just thought I was giving a talk on “websites”. However, it was relevant. The people in that room are the same people that are being tasked with choosing a digital asset management system and even designing the “look and feel” of websites used to expose their digital collections to the world. Yet, some of them don’t even know basic design heuristics or that such a thing even exists. Not to mention there is a whole profession of people out there doing usability and interface design specifically for information retrieval applications. They don’t understand the differences between applications, websites, software, webapps etc. They also miss the mark on understanding searching and how the semantic web plays an integral role in how they should structure information. There are fundamental concepts here that cannot be ignored.
These less savvy folks, working in their professional silos, are then forced to approach a project with little to no training and absolutely no scope on how giant of a task they are actually being asked to do. Sure, you can stay up to date and read blogs, but not having the years of experience that digital media and digital asset management professionals have behind in order to successfully execute those types of projects is a VERY tall order. Bravo to those that do it well, but have you visited a Library or archives website lately? There are so few elegantly executed ones to pick from. Aren’t librarians and archivists supposed to be information retrieval/representation professionals? It’s shocking how so many miss the mark completely. Blaming it on available resources is a cop-out. It’s the result of not staffing your institution appropriately and recognizing when some roles cease to be relevant, then making those hard decisions. Luckily, for some folks CMS systems came along (WordPress, Drupal etc) and some brave souls (probably operating alone and against much resistance) rescued their institutions websites from the world of geocitites-esque design and architecture.
Library Science Education isn’t doing much to lessen this professional divide. So often I’ve seen curriculum trapped in the “working in a library” scenario, when that barely even scrapes the surface at what Information Science covers and the applications of Library Science to the outside world. One exciting development is the addition of digital asset management and interface design courses to Library Science programs. However, this is not enough. Unless the christened “digital asset manager” sees beyond the professional silos the project will undoubtedly fail due to implementation issues and poorly specked out scopes. Harsh yes, but realistic.
One thing that will help them get there is EDUCATION. I can’t stress this enough. Education is needed in order to help people understand technology and its touch points within their professional realm and where those touch point cross over into other professions. Without this “awareness” the wrong solution will be implemented to solve a particular need. This is dangerous, as once something is implemented it is very hard to turn back the clock and do it properly.
Another repercussion to being unaware is this. Folks, the implementation of technology is not an opportunity to mirror that analog workflow or analog collections structure and replace it with an exact digital copy. You have to entirely revisit your workflows and collections and determine the new way to implement and represent them. “Going digital” isn’t just an intensive scanning project with some metadata in a database thrown in. “Going digital” requires an entire shift in thinking and a complete overhaul of institutional processes. There is no digital “paperclip” holding those relevant materials together. Nor do you need one, there are better tools for that now. Don’t approach your digital projects thinking its just a representation of the analog. Don’t implement technology just for the sake of doing so. You must have a really clear strategy and understand the relationship between the information and its digital representations as well as your users in order to execute a project well.
“Going digital” also requires a shift in business process and professional roles. You need to hire different people with skills sets you’ve never worked with before (professional photographers, digital technicians, usability and design people). Your programmer is not a designer, please don’t make him/her do it. Don’t ask your 20 year veteran archivist, to now completely shift and become a “digital archivist”. It just won’t work, they don’t have the time to catch up. That period is over. They may have vast institutional knowledge, but that does not make them the right fit for taking on a role that requires specific technical skill sets. Leverage this person in other ways, but don’t expect them to deliver you great digital content. The professionals that have resided in libraries, archives, cultural collections for years, now have completely different demands placed upon them and need to be able to perform tasks involving technology effectively, not just adequately. Last time I checked, the responsibility of the institution is not to create an oasis of job security, but deliver content to the public and their constituents. Otherwise, the burden is placed on that one lone staffer who “gets it” (if they even exist) to solve all the institutions digital woes.
The realm of Digital Asset Management is starting to look toward Library and Information Science for help (metadata/taxonomies being one of those areas), but Library Science is not looking enough to Digital Asset Management or any other professions for that matter (Usability, Design, Business Analytics, Information Architecture). What gets me is, many cultural collections are far more complicated to scope and manage than any corporate asset management project! The tools that librarians and archivists are now using are the tools that have been developed and in use for some time in other professions. Want to know who uses Digital Media well? Advertising/Marketing folks! Dearest Librarians, why not ask someone in advertising and marketing about “Tweeting” and what it can do for your institution? They know better than anyone else. I would caution taking advice from anyone about how to use social media (please stop calling it “web 2.0″, it’s beyond that now) who isn’t in touch with or came from those worlds.
Library Science as a profession has outgrown its original scope some time ago and its time we start catching up. Unfortunately, that’s easier said than done as there is a chasm of knowledge separating those in-the-know from those that are not. If you are working outside your scope, save time and just admit it. Give yourself the opportunity to learn, and concentrate on what you’re good at. Then hire someone to fill in the knowledge gaps, the reality is that it might require letting go of someone else. Technology costs real money, therefore every seat must be filled with skilled professionals or you are losing money. Spending money without accountability is irresponsible. Furthermore, give that skilled hire the freedom they need to do their job. Trust them and give your talent the space they need to make things great, not just good. Finally, my best advice, reach outside the walls of your profession and see the common threads that tie all of us together. You will find that thread looks remarkably familiar.
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Metadata and Taxonomies are my thing. I spend an awful lot of time drinking coffee and having existential dilemmas on how to categorize what the hell I do for a living.