Shared Priorities Across Sectors: Meeting Challenges Together

By Kenn Bicknell

It has been one year since I joined seventeen other library, archives, and museum professionals in the Collective Wisdom Conference Exchange Cohort. My mind is still reeling from the experience of attending three national professional conferences in one summer: American Alliance of Museums, American Library Association, and Society of American Archivists. I continue to digest all of the formal and informal information shared, and contemplate our charge to explore potential cross-sector cooperation or collaboration. Our capstone project—Collective Wisdom: An Exploration of Library, Archives and Museum Cultures, a white paper of our findings, is now available and would be of interest to all LAM professionals.

For all their contrasting characteristics, the most overarching similarity between libraries, archives and museums is their drive to increase user engagement with their resources. LAMs can exploit opportunities to learn from each other in how best to achieve larger audiences and consumption, especially since digital-era users likely do not concern themselves with whether resources come from a library, an archive or a museum. For me, that alone serves as an intriguing launch point for considering how three different information sectors can work together toward common goals.

Throughout our attendance at and discussions from this year’s conferences for the major professional organization for each LAM sector, I encountered several recurring themes, in particular, technology, sustainability and diversity/equity/inclusion.

Each of these themes is certainly multi-faceted in its own right, and are even more complex when considered across our three LAM sectors. LAM professionals may not be familiar with how their non-native sectors are dealing with challenges and opportunities, or even how similarly or differently these issues may manifest in other sectors.

Replicable models

The Cohort experience prompted me to consider how innovative responses to challenges in one sector could be closely replicated in another. I have been thinking about the widely-adopted “Learning 2.0: 23 Things” education project designed to help librarians understand and become facile with twenty-three different social media and emerging technology tools and platforms.

The 23 Things model features the added benefit of learners sharing their educational experience with others via their own blog posts, further helping them learn while also promoting the learning opportunity more broadly. The program, developed in 2006, was so successful that it has been replicated in hundreds of libraries around the world as well as by archival institutions, right down to the name and number of tech elements to be learned.

Same innovation – different purpose

In turn, this has inspired me to examine initiatives in one sector that are not replicated, but which can inform different activities in another sector. For instance, libraries are using proximity-based beacons as a “micro-location information service.” They serve as app-based “see also” references where the end user is alerted to library materials found physically elsewhere in the collection. Since library classification systems do not lend themselves to helping users find related material shelved elsewhere, the beacon pings the user’s mobile device when they are standing in a particular subject area, and therefore, likely interested in similar resources.

Some museums are using beacons, but for altogether different purposes. In one scenario, the beacon may alert the visitor to additional related information too voluminous or esoteric for the wall space next to a particular item or artefact. The ability to incorporate visitor comments, reviews or moderated questions enhances the user experience by broadening engagement over the traditional top-down curatorial view.

In these two examples, proximity beacons serve entirely different purposes. However, even if a particular application in one sector does not translate directly to another, issues encountered in its deployment (e.g. planning, managing, optimizing) may inform discussion and approaches to other challenges.

Cross-informing on shared issues

I am struck by how technology, sustainability and diversity/equity/inclusion issues emerged at AAM, ALA and SAA.  Furthermore, I have been inspired to consider how examination of cross-sector opportunities in each of those fields also cross-inform each other.

For example, many LAM organizations are engaged in crowdsourcing public participation in the description and transcription of their collections’ resources. Cultivating and sustaining public participation in these tasks are critical to keeping pace with the deluge of digitized and born-digital content. Crowdsourcing initiatives utilize technology to achieve goals for organization and findability, which naturally promote sustainability (if not stability) for resource access.

But to what extent do we need to consider diversity and inclusion to feel confident that we are being truly representative in which resources are benefitting from public participation? How can we be sure that metadata created by non-professionals is reflecting a diverse and inclusive perspective? To what extent can we maintain consistency as we broaden access to our collections beyond the professionals responsible for maintaining it? How can we best ensure that users remain engaged and acknowledged for their contributions and expertise over time, so that we optimize their advocacy and support for our LAM institutions down the road? And how might crowdsourcing lead to disintermediation of professional curation in the future, thereby negatively impacting the sustainability of our LAM professions?

Diversity and inclusion are important for both LAM knowledge workers and those we claim to serve. When we talk about organizational sustainability, we should explore how succession planning addresses diversity and inclusion issues essential for strengthening our professions.

However we approach aspects of contrast and commonality across sectors, we should at least assess the extent to which we are speaking about the same things across disciplines. The notion of responsible collection management, quality control in metadata, and “information literacy” are just a few concepts that vary wildly in libraries, archives and museums, and also within any particular information sector itself.

My Cohort experience has provided me with food for thought to last a few lifetimes. I will be carrying this experience forward as I prepare to deliver presentations in April at the National Library of Norway, the University of Oslo, and at the European Commission Directorate for Education in Brussels. I am considering how some of our findings may be useful to non-U.S. LAM professionals. I am questioning whether organizations that are less diverse and/or serve a more homogeneous audience find it easier or more difficult to work across sectors. And I am looking forward to discussions regarding how cross-sector opportunities will be available to us on an international level in the future.

And ultimately, I have been considering that the most overriding force in cross-sector cooperation or collaboration could be the potential for a far-reaching existential crisis.

What librarians, archivists and museum professionals may agree on more than anything is that catastrophic funding cuts, such as the proposed elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities and Institute of Museum and Library Services, are an unacceptable threat to our shared potential for working across sectors – not to mention our shared survival.