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Tuesday, 22 April 2008


LXIII Windows, Pt. I
By minusbaby

Last week I had a lovely time in Montreal, where I attended Museums & The Web, a ten-year-old conference started by the remarkably forward-thinking team of Jennifer Trant and David Bearman.

Reading back over this blog, I realised that I'd neglected to write a note about releasing The Commons on Flickr. We went live back in January, with a pilot launch in partnership with The Library of Congress, which released about 3,000 photos into the wilds of Flickr. There was a rather overwhelming amount of press and general attention, which was a wonderful affirmation of the idea in general, and specifically the work that the Library's team and Flickr had done to try something new and (hopefully) refreshing in the global cultural sector.

Given the success of the pilot, I've been working out what the program might look like over the next year or so, and frankly fantasising about what it might be like in 20 years. Part of this year's plan is getting out into the world and telling people what The Commons is all about. What better place to go that Museums & The Web? I wrote a "paper" for the "Beyond Single Repositories" panel I was on, and was very pleased to talk about all this stuff moderated with Ross Parry, and alongside Dan and Jim from the Peabody Essex Museum. (Mum? You'll be pleased to know I resisted the urge to joke about suppositories until I was behind closed doors.)

I'm thoroughly enjoying my immersion into this new world, this industry. The more I talk to people, the more I realise that everyone that works within it is both interested and interesting, and that the spectrum of classification which swings from libraries through archives and on to museums is both artistic and extremely diverse. I am happy in my designer-y, problem-solver-y naïveté. It allows me ask silly (verboten) questions, and poke into questions of authority and so-called truth without restraint.

One of the sessions I particularly enjoyed at the conference was Semantic Dissonance: Do We Need (And Do We Understand) The Semantic Web? run by my new favourite academic (Ross Parry). The wonderful irony of most of the conversations I participate in about "the semantic web" are inevitably tied up by the semantics of what we're actually talking about. Ross was all over this problem, and drew us (me?) toward the idea that ontologies created to organize things are artistic, individual, cultural and even poetic representations of the information that collectors and archivists are organising. This seems to me to be the breaking point. Joining even two such creative endeavours together in a way that computers understand seems to me to be Herculean task that only the most indefatigable nerdy nerds would pursue. Indeed, Ross mentioned that the minutes from a meeting held in the early 1900s recorded that even back then museums were wondering how they might be able to blend or share their collections. The question becomes, how can we appreciate each esoteric collection and its very organisation as something that deserves to be different and special?

We have a real opportunity here. "Web 2.0" isn't about being social. The web has always been a social place. The thing that differentiates what's happening now is that you can borrow infrastructure (and data) from web services other than your own. You can take the original "golden copy" of say, an archival photograph, and put a copy of it somewhere else on the web. You can collect information added to that second copy and feed it back in to your dataset, wherever it's useful. (The Library of Congress has updated about 100 of its catalogue records as a result of direct feedback offered freely by Flickr members then gathered in The Commons! AWESOME!) It's possible to place an object in many different places online, have it accessible to many people, and hyperlinked to both the Official Record and any other resources on the web. Each jot added to an object gives it more context, more description.

I've been playing with the idea that objects can gain a certain buoyancy or surface tension from this additional context; that objects can begin to float in this enormous, ever-increasing ocean of data that we find ourselves swimming in.

Can't wait until you can see all the photos that are part of The Commons and tagged with say, "carriage", for example.
Posted at 7:27 am

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