museum4punkt0: At the Smithsonian Institution Archives, who is your target audience and what new forms of interaction would you like to encourage?
Effie Kapsalis: The Smithsonian Archives keeps the history of the Smithsonian and also science in America and museum development in America, because we were one of the first. So, typically, our audience has been researchers. But when I was brought on in about 2011, I realized – because of the scope of the Archives and the scope of us as a research complex and museum complex – that there were so many other facets to it, that we were not identifying their relevance well enough. So, I went through a strategic process with our management and identified kind of three key audiences: We do have to collect records from people across the Smithsonian that is distributed across three different states and also we have people working internationally. So making sure that the people, who create the knowledge bring it back here is our primary audience. And then we also have researchers. But I also was able to add in crowd sourcers and people who could carry our message wide and far. They are people who have a particular, very often specific interest in your collections. And they sometimes can add a lot to what you have and what you have written about your collections.
museum4punkt0: How do you address people interested in participating, for instance via crowd sourcing?
E.K.: I have been working on crowd sourcing projects since the mid-2000s. We have experimented in lots of different ways. So the early days were really about very small numbers of people, very specific tasks. In an archive there is never the goal to digitize and describe everything – that is just fairly impossible given the scope of archives. But there were pockets of material that we knew that if there is more data around them we would have a really rich resource. One of those pockets of material is our women in science, because of our science history collections.
As you would imagine in the early days of science in the US a lot of the women in these collections were unidentified or had very scarce information about them. So we involved the public in research missions. At the time it was enabled by Flickr comments. We would post these photos and ask people to help us identify them and they would do this in amazing ways. Again, the scope was about 20 things each year, or 20 to 50 things. A small number. Fast forward to today, we have a platform called the Smithsonian Transcription Center. We have 10.000 volunteers worldwide who are coming to the site to help transcribe primary source materials in the collections.
So we had these scientific field books that scientists wrote while out in the field and these field books contained information about a place, at a particular time and the species that were located there. That is really important information to current conservators of the environment, because they can use this as data to baseline the changes that have happened in recent years. So we have the public transcribing that and – you know – many of our scientists are using that in our current research and scientists all over the world are using that. And we sent that to our Biodiversity Heritage Library which is a consortium of many institutions, not just the Smithsonian. It is on the Internet Archive, so it is an open literature project and researchers worldwide can access this. If they think they have discovered a new species, they have the literature online to be able to confirm what they have found.
museum4punkt0: What is the motivation of the people that transcribe these materials?
E.K.: Some of the volunteers we get to know quite well and in fact we have brought them here to have parties, to celebrate their accomplishments and what they have done. I think there are a couple of threads that run through their motivation for why they spent hours, countless hours volunteering online with us. One is that they feel part of our mission and that they are helping a greater cause. That cause is knowing about the world and helping our current researchers. The second reason that we see people doing this is because they have a specific interest that is in a collection that we are offering up for crowd sourcing. So we have people who study disability history, who will go into a project because it has to do with a notable disabled person in history or is not notable but just touches on that topic. Or we have someone from New Zealand who is really interested in the species there and she will come and not only to our transcription center, but she will crowd source on other platforms – anything that has to do with the flora and fauna of New Zealand. So, lifelong learners and people who want to contribute to a greater cause are the types of people that we tend to get.
museum4punkt0: Can you describe the level of dedication that you encounter?
E.K.: These are people who have committed hundreds of hours to us – either doing transcriptions at our science museums, citizen science, like it’s our volunteers. We have 6000 in person volunteers, which equals-, actually outnumbers our staff, and we have 10.000 volunteers online. So those people are very giving with their time to us.
museum4punkt0: And on the other end of the spectrum? How do you regard a simple “like”?
E.K.: So we try to enable a range of participation levels with our digital projects at the Smithsonian. And there is often the skeptical perception: Oh, you know, participation is liking or sharing something. But I actually think that is a completely valid way of participation and we have to enable these different levels.
museum4punkt0: What is in your eyes the biggest potential of digital outreach in museums?
E.K.: Some of the most powerful experiences for me – either in visiting a cultural heritage organization or in engaging with one online – is when they see me as a person and they are able to give me something that makes me have some insight into what that organization does or why it’s meaningful. I think that, you know, it’s a big mistake we make to look at digital as one mass of people. There is a lot of different variety within that mass, of how people want to engage with you and what they want to see. So, that is the trick. It’s making priorities sometimes about those audiences because I know when you have big national organizations you are supposed to reach out to everyone, you are supposed to be relevant to everyone. But that would likely-, you probably cannot do that with a small team. You do have to make some choices and serve probably a more specific group better. But, you know, you can also-, the part I feel good about in serving that wider-, all of the world, which is who the Smithsonian is supposed to serve, is putting digital trails about things. So, even it is a minimal metadata collection item online. That is something that will be a point of discovery for someone. And it does not have to be extensive. It just has to be there. And we have gone from that – especially with some of our women in science programs, where there were very minimal descriptions of a woman: Where she went to school perhaps, where she worked. And people will come and add to that information. It is people in your organization, outside your organization, but you have to have that first trail there. That is why the work of digitization and description is so critical to everything that I do in my public facing role as I need that starting point.
museum4punkt0: What have you gained by opening up your collections?
So, the Archives has focused on releasing things more openly since about 2009, I want to say, whether it is through storytelling on the blog or through putting up high resolution images of some of our collections. As we have experimented with this across the Smithsonian, I think the best way-, the best outcome for us has been you developed these lifelong fans and make connections. One tiny example of what happens is we had found these photographs in our Archive – we are always discovering new things – and this research fellow found a file that was very miscellaneous, but it had these photographs of a very significant event in US history which was a somewhat constructed trial of evolution and whether or not it should be taught in US schools. So it is called the Scopes Monkey Trial. So, these were photos that were previously unpublished of this extraordinary moment in US history and we were able to put them out online in high resolution. We put them on our own website, on Flickr comments, again, that was of the time…but, and also, they got migrated to Wikipedia by the crowd. A couple of years later we had a woman contact us who had-, her father had been at the same trial and she had ten photograph negatives of the trial that she wanted to give to us specifically because we shared our own images openly. Her photographs showed this key moment in the trial that we had an image from one side. Her photograph had the perspective from exactly the other side. Our fellow saw that sign in the picture that said “read your bible”. It just demonstrated that this trial was part propaganda and marketing and part a real trial, but our researcher was able to learn more information about this event. We gained a wonderful donation that we were able to share. This kind of thing reminds me of a quote that I have heard from another institution when they talked about releasing things openly. That was: You get nothing but good will. So, if you share, you are likely to get it back. It is such a simple kind of kindergarten lesson of sharing. But you really do get a tremendous amount back as an institution. But I think we have only just started to really take advantage of and we really see that people want to spend more time with us. They want to give more to us. How can we really be strategic about building an open initiative and harnessing all of that good will.