Sep 052012
 

This post consists of edited remarks I gave to the 17th Brazilian Conference of Archival Science/XVII Congresso Brasileiro de Arquivologia held in Rio de Janeiro in June of this year.  These remarks will be published in Portuguese as part of the conference proceedings.  My original presentation was given using a set of slides, a copy of which is available on Slideshare.

Libraries, archives and museums should take advantage of social media to promote their mission in general and digital preservation in particular. While there are fundamental variances among these organizations, current trends are driving them closer together, particularly with regard to how they manage digital content.

Each type of institution manages different kinds of content for different reasons, but they share the same challenge in keeping that content accessible over time. They also face a common need to raise public awareness about what is at stake for our culture in terms of preserving significant digital material. The danger of loss is growing along with the volume and complexity of digital information. There is still much work to do in making that risk clear to people. Most critically, all cultural heritage institutions must assert their relevance in an era of profound change in how people seek and use information.

I work at the U.S. Library of Congress as part of the National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation program. I manage our social media activities, and I think we do a fairly good job. We maintain an active Facebook page and have an extensive website, digitalpreservation.gov. For the last year, we have been blogging vigorously. I also have worked for a number of years at the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, where I helped to preserve electronic records. I am taking a perspective beyond any one institution, and am offering only my personal opinions in this paper.

Libraries, archives and museums are collectively concerned about the future, as the titles of recent professional publications indicate. Examples include The Future of Archives in a Digital AgeConfronting the Future: Strategic Visions for the 21st Century Public LibraryThe museum of the future is…; and A National Archives of the Future. This concern is well placed: our world is in the midst of an information revolution that forces us to seriously rethink how cultural heritage institutions meet their missions. Perhaps the most significant aspect of this revolution is that it is evolving so fast that we face a future that surely will transform all aspects of our work. A big part of this is that information itself is changing. The Pew Internet and American Life Project suggests that information used to be scarce, now it’s everywhere. It used to be controlled by an elite, now it is in the hands of everyone. Information used to be designed for one-way use but now it’s designed for sharing, participation and feedback.

Another way in which information has changed is that it has moved from paper and other analog media to digital formats. This change has been sudden, dramatic and risky. Information on paper is stable and can last for a long time without extensive maintenance. We have centuries of experience working with paper, and we are good at keeping it in archives. Digital information is notoriously different. The technology is rapidly evolving. Some of us know what a 5.25” floppy disk is; we might even still own some. But there are already plenty of younger people who have no idea what a floppy disk is or that it has anything to do with computers. As time passes, most varieties of computer media—and the information they contain—will fade into oblivion.

Every cultural heritage institution must accept basic facts about digital content. First, most institutions will be responsible for managing lots of data. Second, there is no simple way to preserve that data over time. And third, the best way to move ahead is to seek and share information about digital preservation standards, policies and best practices. Partially in response to this, institutions will shift along several key dimensions of their operations. The American Library Association presents the model shown in Figure 1 as a way to think about the strategic choices that institutions will have to make as they adapt to the needs of their communities.

Figure 1

Figure 1

We can see some familiar issues here, such as a movement away from physical space to virtual experiences and shifting focus from working with individual users to working with many users as the same time. The bottom dimension is particularly interesting. It represents a shift away from libraries as a portal to information to serving what is called an archival role. In other words, libraries will start collecting and preserving unique materials that are relevant to their area, such as neighborhood histories, photographs of local people and places, as well as other multimedia sources. This is an excellent way for libraries to connect in a meaningful way with users, and all cultural heritage institutions should consider the same approach.

Figure 2 is from the Institute of Museum and Library Services report Museums, Libraries and 21st Century Skills and outlines the major changes that cultural heritage organizations face. The adjustment centers around how institutions work with users. Most institutions, for example, traditionally serve as centers of authority in delivering their content to users. In the new era, people expect less filtering of information. Users certainly continue to value the expertise of institutions and staff. But users also want the ability to influence how information is presented, accessed and understood. A big part of this is a push for closer relationships between archival staff and users with a “focus on audience engagement, experiences.”

Figure 2

Figure 2

Archivists have traditionally spent much of their time working to make collections ready for research. They focus on arranging, describing and understanding provenance. In the traditional custodial model, users are expected to come through archivists to get to content. This is a model that has worked well for generations. But it is challenged by new forces. Consider the concept of “Web 2.0.” Wikipedia describes the term as “web-based services that facilitate participatory information sharing, interoperability and user-centered design.” “Archive 2.0” (or library 2.0 or museum 2.0) is shorthand for defining an approach that permits more direct access to collections and that regards users as equal partners in terms of determining the usefulness of those collections. This means that institutions have to be more transparent and collaborative about what they collect and how they make it available, especially when it comes to the digital content users seek.

Today many people—particularly those that have grown up immersed in digital technology—have firm expectations about the availability of information, and also firm expectations of freedom to use that information as they wish to learn something new. There are competing ideas about what cultural heritage institutions need to do to adapt to these expectations, but there are some common themes, including:

  • Institutions must work harder to understand the needs of their communities to build stronger relations and relationships.
  • Institutions should be less inward-looking and imagine their boundaries in more porous ways.
  • Staff need expertise to communicate directly with a broad spectrum of users and facilitate discussions focusing on topics the community cares about.
  • Organizations need to be flexible, responsive and agile in embracing new technologies and new ways of working.

Perhaps the most important theme relating to institutional change is the need to justify relevance in modern terms to modern audiences. A great deal of the pressure on institutions comes from the community they serve. In a wired world where a teenager with a smart phone has more information at their fingertips than a U.S. president did a few years, users have transformed from passive recipients to demanding consumers. This isn’t a new story—Time magazine declared “You” as the person of the year in 2007 because “You control the information age.” But there can be no doubt that people—particularly younger people—have different expectations about how to use information and how to value the institutions that provide information. This calls for discussing cultural heritage—and the work of cultural heritage organizations—in a way that fits into how people live their lives and that makes sense as part of their personal story. As Nick Poole from the UK Collections Trust says, “meeting the needs of future audiences demands new technologies and new ways of thinking.” To paraphrase Poole, today and tomorrow’s generations have grown up in a world designed around them. There is a basic expectation of being empowered to do what they want to do. Any aspect of life that doesn’t fit that model will be ignored.

Mind the “be ignored” part. There is plenty of competition for people’s attention, commitment and passion. Even the notion of cultural heritage and who should collect it is up for grabs. Any person or group can set up a social media account and declare it to be “an archive” of something or another. And many people will consider this to be culture heritage information, even though no formally trained curator is involved. This is an empowering turn of events, but it also demonstrates the competition for community attention, participation and commitment that institutions face. The fact that this competition exists should come as no surprise to cultural heritage organizations. In 2002, a report based on a survey of registered voters in Cromaine, MI, declared that “With the heavy competition for attention from all forms of media, libraries must work to market their value and services as much as any organization.”

Institutions of all types need to think about what the future holds in terms of expanded engagement with the community, particularly in connection with social media tools. The U.S. National Archives, for example, recently hosted a “Forum on Communications, Technology, and Government,” during which a panel explored “new opportunities and ideas for social media affecting the private, government, and public sectors and the average citizen.” The National Archives clearly sees its future as closely involved with social media. The agency made this point clearly with this suggested Facebook post: “For a change, the National Archives will focus on the future, not the past!” It is fascinating that the agency drew such as sharp contrast to its “focus on the past” by saying they have a “focus on the future” “for a change.” That’s a big message packed into a few words.

Thinking about the future is sensible. There’s just one thing—the future is here right now. There is precious little time to contemplate future audiences or think up future strategies. There are demands to undertake change now. The risk in waiting is that the larger culture will pass cultural heritage institutions by as a relic from a pre-wired world. Users expect relevant aspects of culture to come to them and to resonate with their needs. Now, many cultural heritage professionals are aware of the need to embrace technology and to engage with users in novel ways. There are some great efforts around the world to do just that, and some institutions are actively embracing the future with social media. William Gibson famously said “The future is already here–it’s just unevenly distributed.” These are still early days for libraries, archives and museums in using these tools, but the outlines of a strategy are emerging.

Social media is not, of course, an end to itself. It is a tool to help institutions interact with and build communities. Unless the tool is used correctly, it will accomplish little. If an institution is looking to social media to promote change some immediate questions arise. What should a strategy consider? Which specific tools can be used? What is the best way to measure the usefulness of those tools? A formal social media strategy is rare at this point for most institutions. An exception is the U.S. National Archives, which is explicit about its strategy and what it hopes to accomplish. “At the National Archives and Records Administration, social media tools have the potential to transform our agency and the way we serve our customers and American citizens,” states the agency website. “Social media tools will help us accomplish our mission as the nation’s record keeper to preserve government records and make them more accessible to you.”

In devising a social media strategy, it is useful to think of four basic goals (inform, engage, influence and activate) and four ways to measure success in meeting those goals (numbers, trends, mentions, shares). The goals focus on an institution connecting with its audience. At the most basic level, the intent is for people to know what your mission is and why it is important. Beyond that, the hope is to engage with people on topics in which they have a direct interest. engage means that people respond to what an institution communicates. The clearest indication of that are blog comments or other kinds of direct feedback. The influence and activate goals mean that what we do helps people learn and causes them to expand their awareness. In the case of digital preservation, this means helping people understand what is at stake in keeping digital information accessible. Measures are important to understand how effective the strategy is in terms of audience, reach and impact. There are different ways to think about measurements, and they include “hard” metrics, like numbers of viewers or followers, as well as “soft” indicators such as mentions by influential people.

Communication and engagement should be at heart of why preserving institutions use social media. Institutions have to propose ideas, accept feedback and facilitate an ongoing conversation among a diverse set of people with different priorities and perspectives. The ultimate goal is that the larger community supports the mission to preserve and make available digital content. One way to promote this is to share information about digital preservation standards and best practices. Many people apart from information professionals are interested in the “how to” aspect and are eager to learn about the skills, tools and infrastructures needed to bring digital content under stewardship. It is crucial to raise awareness among the general public about what is at stake for our collective digital heritage. The public has long valued the role of archives in keeping traditional materials, but the idea of preserving digital content is new. Very new, in fact.

Engaging with the public has a related purpose: many individuals and families are looking for advice for keeping their own growing collections of digital photographs and other personal materials. This offers a unique and potentially very effective way for institutions to connect their preservation mission with the personal concerns of citizens. The key to successful public engagement is effective social media content. Kate Brodock in Content Production and Your Communications Program sums up how to do this in two simple ways: 1) create content that people want to read and to share; and 2) create content that will work well after its shared. Content is defined in a broad sense—it includes blog posts, tweets and Facebook posts. It also includes all other information generated and distributed, including videos, podcasts and graphics. The idea is to design content to lose control of it, have others repost it, see it spread on social networks. The more it spreads the further it reaches. Sharable in this context means content that is interesting, is clear and addresses issues that people care about. Brodock notes that people are consuming information in different ways and that “you need to keep up with them.” Skimming is a fact of life these days, and that means headlines that grab attention and messages that people care about. Bradock also encourages non-textual communication. Videos and graphics are important to tell the right story. Both also need to have good production values; the typical internet user has little patience for cluttered images or long, dull videos.

Jim Richardson talks about social commerce for the cultural sector as a way to frame what people are looking for on the internet and via social media. He says that content should meet four values—it should be educational, social, entertaining, and it should lend itself to some kind of emotional reaction or connection with the viewer. Related to this is the idea of brand. A brand is what a company or institution means to people in terms of personal expectations. Boiled down to its essence, a brand makes people feel a certain way about something. Brands are usually associated with business, but the concept applies equally well to cultural heritage institutions. People usually already have positive feelings about archives, an we can leverage that to build audiences an promote the value of preserving digital cultural heritage.

The question of audiences for digital preservation is important. There are three basic audiences: information professionals; students and researchers; and the general public. As noted earlier, details about standards, tools and best practices are popular among information professionals. Any institution doing digital preservation should actively discuss that work using social media with the practitioner community. This community is very receptive to questions, which is another avenue for an institution to extend its reach, share information and acquire new knowledge about digital preservation.

Students and researchers are the most traditional audiences for many cultural heritage organizations. Even so, there is still much to be done in terms of engaging with them about digital preservation. Teachers tend to be interested in digital preservation in the context of learning about modern culture. The Library of Congress does quite a bit of outreach in connection with schools. NDIIPP has produced YouTube videos on this topic, including Digital Natives Explore Digital Preservation and America’s Young Archivists. Both videos aim to provide insights into how children think about issues relating to digital preservation, particularly the types of materials they think are worth collecting and preserving. The term “researcher” has always been a bit vague, and it certainly can apply to a broad cross section of users today. Institutions also have much to gain by engaging with users about how to improve collections, as well as access to them.

Members of the public—and information professionals who interact with public—are interested in personal digital archiving. NDIIPP has generated extensive guidance for personal digital archiving, and that information is very popular. An online webinar sponsored by the American Library Association featured information from NDIIPP on preserving personal digital photographs. This presentation was part of Preservation Week, held in April 2012, and discussed simple steps people could take to select, organize, describe and preserve personal collections. The webinar attracted over 500 people, which ALA said was a record for such an event. The intent was for people to come away with a new appreciation for digital preservation, both for themselves and for our culture. Providing advice and assistance with personal digital archiving is a promising and worthwhile approach for cultural heritage organizations to reach and to influence the larger community. One reason is professional: personal digital content will come into institutional collections, and it is helpful to have it well organized beforehand. Another reason is that helping people manage their digital photographs builds community support. The need for personal digital archiving advice is going to keep growing and many, many people are going to want it. Librarians, archivists and museum curators are the right people to give this advice.

Once an institution has identified the audiences for its social media communication, the next step is to plan for maximum visibility. This comes back to a an earlier point: create content that the target audience wants. This principle applies to all varieties of communication, and goes beyond social media. Institutions need to have some idea where their audience looks for information and engagement. A worthy investment of time is to identify specific social media authors, both individuals or institutions. Observing their patterns of communication can help refine institutional practices, including how to push information out in a way that audiences are likely to notice. It is also important to find out how best to cross-promote information among different channels. Blog posts are usually well-promoted on Twitter, and YouTube videos can be embedded on Facebook pages. People are accustomed to looking for information in different places, and the steady flow of social media information means that users will need multiple chances to view content.

Advertisers and economists talk about a concept known as “the value proposition.” In a cultural heritage context, the term begs some pointed questions. Why should anyone care about what an institution has to offer? What makes its product, service, or message valuable? Why should people care about a preservation mission? At the most basic level, addressing these questions comes down to getting and holding public attention. Capturing even fleeting attention can be a challenge in today’s information-soaked environment. Does an institutional Tweet, blog post or video look remotely interesting to an audience? Will they pause even for a second when they see the title? Will they click over to investigate further? If they do, will they care enough to read (or watch) the complete message? Affirmative answers to these questions depend on reaching people on an emotional level. The true goal is to get people to care so much that they will engage (leave a comment, say), or be influenced (by thinking, perhaps, something like “digital preservation really is important”). Ultimately an institution aims to activate community members to recognize and support its mission, including the need for digital preservation.

This raises the issue of selecting social media channels. There are, of course, many choices. The NDIIPP program has significant experience with three social media tools. One is YouTube, for which the program has produced a dozen short videos to promote digital preservation. Examples include Why Digital Preservation is important to You, and Preserving Digital Photographs. Both are aimed at a general audience and are meant to convey practical information under the Library of Congress brand. DigitalPreservationEurope has put out an excellent video series modeled on children’s cartoon shows. The videos feature the adventure of Digiman as he fights evil characters representing threats to digital content. These videos are extremely popular and quite effective. The Archipelproject in Belgium has also put out a series of great videos that present digital preservation issues in an entertaining and informative manner. The project does well in offering information geared to different audiences, with videos that are aimed at the public and other videos that discuss technical details of interest to digital preservation practitioners.

Twitter is a very compelling tool for a cultural heritage institution to distribute and consume information. NDIIPP is active on Twitter, and has well over 10,000 followers. The account has sent out over 2,200 individual tweets about topics such as digital preservation partnerships, new tools the we have developed and meetings and events that we host. We also distribute information about what other institutions are doing around the world. In addition, we publicize important meetings as well as other topics that people care deeply about, including jobs and professional educational opportunities. The depth and variety of information available on Twitter is awe-inspiring. Even casual use will yield rich details including links to major initiatives, new tools, sessions at professional conferences and more. Blogs offer a longer form of communication than Twitter. The NDIIPP program pushes out a great deal of information through its blog, The Signal. There are also many other worthwhile blogs that promote digital preservation in the context of cultural heritage organizations, including the UK National Archives and the European Open Planets Foundation, as well as Chris Prom’s personal blog, Practical E-Records, which is especially strong in reviewing a variety of tools and services for archives.

Many institutions use multiple social media tools. This is a good strategy because it allows for cross channel communication and broadens the reach of distributed information. An excellent example of using social media to promote digital preservation is the State Archives and State Library of North Carolina, which have a project to engage citizens using a blog, twitter and Flickr. This project is also an great example of connecting the personal concerns of individuals to the larger societal need for increased attention to digital preservation. These blog and twitter streams often talk about issues related to keeping digital photographs and other personal materials, which helps people become more aware of the larger cultural concern for preserving digital content.

After undertaking a social media strategy, it is important to measure its reach and effectiveness. There are many potential metrics; individual institutions will have to decide which kinds of measures are most helpful. Another way to gauge results is through soft or qualitative measures. These are measures that do not involve numbers—they include tracking comments and other engagements from users, testimonials and other mentions.

For blogs, its is useful to determine which individual posts are most popular over time. The titles of the five blog posts from The Signal blog over the past year, ranked by total views, are as follows.

  1. Four Easy Tips for Preserving your Digital Photographs
  2. What Skills Does a Digital Archivist or Librarian Need?
  3. Digital Preservation File Formats for Scanned Images
  4. Mission Possible: Add Descriptions to Digital Photos
  5. When I Go Away: Getting Your Digital Affairs in Order

Note that topics relating to personal digital archiving predominate. NDIIPP is pleased with the reach of these messages, as it is clear that they have gone well beyond the archives and library community and out to the general public. It is hard to tell at the moment if getting people engaged on personal digital archiving will elevate overall public awareness about digital preservation. But, at the least, there are some positive indicators.

Qualitative measures are just as important as numbers in terms of determining effectiveness of social media implementations. Here are some examples of qualitative measures for The Signal blog over the past year.

  • Blog mentioned on high-traffic sites
    • Huffingtonpost.com
    • Grammy.com
    • Federal Computer Week (noted as one of the “best in the federal blogosphere”)
    • Several appearances in daily count of “Top U.S. Government Links”
  • Blog mentioned on diversity of sites
    • Genealogy and family history
    • Art and museums
    • Theatrical
    • Photography
    • Estate planning
    • Public, academic and special libraries
    • State legislature
    • Many, many personal blogs

The reach is extensive in terms of different domains and areas of interest. The NDIIPP program is especially pleased to see that lots of personal bloggers—people blogging on their own rather than for an institution—are mentioning the work of the program. That is more evidence the program is making connections outside the practitioner community, and hopefully raising general awareness about digital preservation. The reach is diverse in terms of geography as well. Most websites that mentioned The Signal were in North America or Europe, but many other countries also are represented.

Cultural heritage organizations collect qualitative and quantitative measures with the intent to analyze and improve a social media strategy. At this point, it is too soon to know exactly how effectively cultural heritage institutions can make use of social media. The cultural heritage sector might well draw from the experience of commercial advertisers and draw on focus groups, opinion surveys and other methods to understand how to refine our message and better engage with our communities. Effective engagement is crucial for cultural heritage organizations to build community support. And community support is the bedrock upon which sustainable operation is built.

Links valid as of 8/4/2012