B U L L E T I N
The Evolving Roles of Information Professionals in Museums
Paul F. Marty is assistant professor, School of Information Studies, Florida State University, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In December of 2003 the following post made its way around on the Museum-L mailing list:
"I am within a few credits of finishing my masters degree in Library and Information Science, but my true interest is in history and historic conservation, special collections, and archival work. I felt that an MLIS degree might give me flexibility with regard to geographic location and the duties of a job, which is why I did not originally pursue a degree in Museum Studies. I was also told by several LIS professors that I could possibly make the transition into museum work with an MLIS degree. I would like to ask for the opinion of museum professionals about this before I make any post-masters plans. Would someone holding an MLIS possibly be considered for a position in a museum?"
This question prompted many days worth of debate over the place of LIS professionals in museums, with a variety of people – researchers, academics and practitioners – weighing in on all sides. Does an MLIS qualify one to work in a museum? Does one need a museum studies degree to be a museum professional? Are MLIS degree recipients qualified to be curators, registrars, archivists or none of the above? Should one get a specialized degree in addition to the MLIS? Does one need experience interning in particular types of museums in order to get a job? (For details of the debate, please see the online archives of Museum-L at http://home.ease.lsoft.com/archives/museum-l.html.)
The fact that there was a debate at all was very interesting, especially since the importance of information science for museums has been long established; certainly most museum professionals understand the importance of museums caring for information about artifacts as well as the objects themselves (see "For Further Reading" for these references and others). The museum literature is full of examples of the nightmares that befall museums with poor information management skills; my personal favorite is the 2002 "rediscovery" of the bones of a Neanderthal child, physically scattered and informationally lost – the victim of poor record-keeping – which turned up in a French museum nearly 90 years after it was first discovered as detailed by Whitehouse.
For the past year I have been pursuing research to determine what the museum community believes to be the necessary responsibilities of information professionals working in museums. In the summer 2003 I conducted 21 semi-structured interviews with information professionals working in museums, asking them about the information resources, tools and technologies they use daily on the job. The study participants worked at 17 different museums, including cultural heritage, science and technology, art, natural history and children's museums. They varied widely in technical skills and expertise and ranged from one to 30 years worth of experience in the museum field. Each interview lasted approximately 60 to 90 minutes. The interviews were transcribed for qualitative data analysis and analyzed using grounded theory methodologies. The goal of the study was to develop a conceptual framework (to be published in a forthcoming article) for evaluating the role of information professionals in museums and the value of these individuals for information-oriented projects in museums.
The results of this study led me to believe that we are dealing with a seminal shift in the responsibilities of information professionals who work in museums, where individuals find themselves unexpectedly acquiring new skills as they face new information-oriented challenges. This appears to be an evolutionary process with its own form of "survival of the fittest," where information professionals with certain skills are more likely to cope with new and unexpected demands. Most recently, this evolutionary shift has occurred in the world of online museums, involving a change in emphasis from the technical skills of Web page creation to the ability to assess and meet the information needs of the users of museum data. The best place to see this process in action is by looking at the evolution of the museum Web master, which I have discussed in detail in a recent article.
Over the past few years, the skills and responsibilities of museum Web masters have changed dramatically as more museums seek to provide online access to organized, structured information about museum resources. In this new environment, the ability to do basic Web design has taken a backseat to the more complex problems of information organization, access and architecture. As one of the museum Web masters interviewed in this study put it, "Design is becoming less and less of the powerhouse it was in the early days of the Web . . . those skills are less important than the overall architecting of the website, which is the much harder skill." This shift in perception has led to many changes in the job of the museum Web master. We will explore these changes by looking at four key areas (illustrated with quotes from the above study) that highlight the evolving role of museum Web masters as information professionals working in museums:
New Skills and Responsibilities
"As Web master I have to manage the flow of information from server to workstation, managing and coordinating the review policies and review committees. I also have to do some development for our museum systems. I have to manage our collections information system as it relates to approved Web data from that system. I have to pay attention to administrative tasks, security rules set forth [by the IT office], and I have to do periodic system administration on servers. I have to test products, review products. I sit on several working groups for product assessment [including] digital asset management systems, Web content management systems, collections information systems and those sorts of things."
This quote demonstrates clearly the diverse skills and capabilities required of museum Web masters. The idea that the museum Web master can exist in an isolated office, constructing websites while partitioned off from the rest of the museum staff, is as anachronistic as the notion that all Web masters do is simple HTML coding. The world of the museum Web master today reflects the skills and responsibilities of the information professional in any information organization, where all aspects of museum work are integrated into the overall task of providing access to museum information resources throughout the museum's information systems. These increased responsibilities have brought new pressures on the museum Web master.
Changing Expectations and New Demands
"Five years ago, we [the museum Web staff] went around looking for people to put things on the website, now we have a list that reaches out almost a year [. . . back then] the time horizon for a new project was about two weeks. If you came to me with a brand new idea, and we thought it was a perfectly good idea, we might get to it in a year."
The above quote shows the increasing pressures and demands on museum Web masters, who have come a long way from the days when they had to actively seek out online projects and convince museum employees of the value of the Web. Museum Web masters now are so overwhelmed by the demand for online projects that they must find new ways to prioritize their responsibilities. New expectations have led many museum Web masters to rethink their roles in the museum hierarchy and the contributions they bring to the museums' staffs.
Changes in Attitude and Shifting Job Requirements
"You know we really thought in terms of HTML in the beginning, very simple Web pages that didn't involve any scripting. They weren't really relying on dynamic content. [Now] we've stretched that to the point where that same medium is behaving more like a set of applications. It's gotten far more complex. That was around before, but what needed to happen was an attitude shift. We needed to start thinking about how can we make this medium serve the needs of the entire staff."
This quote illustrates the importance of museum Web masters being able to cope with evolutionary changes on the job while simultaneously recognizing the importance of their role in the museum. More than a shift in technical capabilities, the move from static to dynamic content for museum websites reflected a changing attitude with respect to the users of museum resources. These users include not only online visitors, but internal museum staff, and museum Web masters must be prepared to meet the needs of all who access the museum's internet or intranet.
Meeting User Needs as Information Professionals
"You need to be able to receive the requirements given to you and be able to query and find out in more detail what the real requirements are. A lot of time people think they are telling you what they need, but you need to be able to probe it to find out really what's underneath that. I think the requirements gathering for specific needs is the most challenging part of any information job."
The above quote underscores the importance of requirements analysis as well as the inherent difficulties of assessing and meeting user needs. In recognizing this problem, the museum Web master is assuming some of the most important, underlying responsibilities of information professionals in the museum. This is not a new problem; museum professionals have long had to deal with changing expectations from their visitors and their employees as to the kinds of information museums should provide, whether on the gallery floor or online. Nevertheless, these changing expectations reflect the new needs and new demands brought to museum staff by increasingly information-savvy museum users. While dealing with these changes inside the museum can be hard enough, dealing with the changing needs, demands and expectations of online museum visitors is much harder. Why? Simply put, we do not as of yet have a suitably detailed understanding of our online visitors' needs – despite many excellent and worthwhile studies.
The magnitude of this problem becomes clear when one starts to compare what we know about face-to-face visitors to physical museums with what we know about online visitors to virtual museums. What we know of the needs, behaviors and characteristics of the face-to-face museum visitor would fill a room, thanks to years of excellent visitor studies. Our attempts to answer the same questions about online museum visitors pale in comparison. While this disparity may not have been as significant a problem five years ago, many museums have now crossed the threshold where they have more online visitors than face-to-face visitors; the Smithsonian Institution, for example, now has five times as many virtual visitors as physical visitors, nearly 100 million visitors last year alone.
This situation has the potential to have catastrophic consequences for online museums. All information professionals know that not knowing our users' needs means not meeting our users' needs. This seemingly simple statement has two profound implications for museums entering the online world. First, projects that do not meet user needs will ultimately reflect wasted time, money and effort. Second, users whose needs are not met will often become upset, alienated and angry at the museum. The following two examples are composite narratives that provide a representative picture of the problems many museums are facing today.
Example 1. A natural history museum invests heavily in a project to develop online materials for students. Since the majority of the museum's face-to-face student visitors are grade school students, the museum's curators and educators develop a series of online learning modules specifically geared for fourth graders. After a great deal of time, money and effort, museum staff members make the modules available online, only to discover that no one seems interested in them. Perplexed, the museum professionals commission a study of their online visitors, the first such study ever run by the museum. From this study, the museum staff discovers that the majority of their online visitors are college students.
Example 2. An art museum's website, while once cutting-edge, is now many years out-of-date. When asked for funds to redesign and improve the website, museum staff members are told that the museum's monies would be better spent improving the museum's physical resources. The museum's director, an infrequent viewer of the museum's website, believes that the quality of the museum's website should be a low priority for the museum's budget. From the server transaction logs, museum staff members learn that 10 times as many people view the museum's website each year as walk through the front door of the museum. For every individual impressed by the quality of the museum's physical facilities, 10 are left with the feeling that the museum does not care about meeting their needs.
There is a very simple solution to these problems, and it concerns user advocacy. Someone in the museum needs to stick up for the rights of the museum's online visitors. Someone needs the skills to assess the visitors' needs and evaluate the museum's online offerings to see if these needs are being met. The virtual visitor typically has no voice within the museum, and if the museum is truly to meet these users' needs, someone must argue from the users' perspectives. The museum Web master is the individual most ideally suited to evolve into the role of user-centered mediator between the museum and its online visitors.
Museum Web masters are already developing the user advocacy skills and responsibilities necessary to understand users' needs and argue for users' best interests. The skills museum Web masters have had to learn in order to survive the increasing responsibilities and changing demands already being thrust on them are ideally preparing them for this new role. They are acquiring the skills in this area that they need: from usability analysis to information needs assessment to online visitor studies. In acquiring these skills, they are making the evolutionary transformation into an information professional working in a museum with a unique perspective on the information needs of the museum's users, in house or online.
This transformation is a valuable, yet difficult, one, and the museum Web master needs support, encouragement and, above all, the authority necessary to ensure that users' needs are both identified and met, now and in the future. Perhaps the best way to provide this support is to encourage LIS students to pursue careers in museums and encourage museum studies students to learn more about LIS. If one needs a reason, look no further than the dedicated work already being done by museum Web masters worldwide. Their efforts, better than anything else, demonstrate the need for information professionals in the museum. Through their own initiative, museum Web masters, with their new skills and expertise in evaluation and user studies, are already rendering obsolete the debate which began this article. While the world debates whether LIS students have a place in museums, the future museum information professional is already emerging out of the constantly changing and challenging world of the online museum.
For Further Reading
Importance of Museum Information Systems
Role of the Museum Webmaster
Studies of Online Visitors
Usability of Museum Web Sites
Studies of Face-to-Face Visitors
Copyright © 2004, American Society for Information Science and Technology