Museum Trophy Wives

Sorry to disappoint, but this is not a post about the dalliances of museum directors. I’ll admit that would be a great one and I’ll do some research, in the meantime you can do worse than read Holly Witchey’s excellent Cocktail at the Museum: A Museums Matter Mystery, for insight into the shenanigans that go on in museums.

As the lessons of the Getty Foundation’s five-year Online Scholarly Catalog Initiative (OSCI) come to bear, with a toolkit developed by IMALab and delivered online scholarly publications from AIC, LACMA, SAM, SFMOMA and Tate, the number one lesson institutions should learn is that print and digital are a marriage not a divorce. Unfortunately, this is a rocky marriage, it’s increasingly harder to see who the breadwinner is, and print is being raised (or lowered depending on your viewpoint) to trophy-wife status: costly and only trotted out for special occasions.

The odds of getting divorced in the U.S. are 50/50 and this seems rather appropriate as we think about the long-term survival of print. For the time being, print and digital have to co-exist in the most efficient way that they can, but external forces are at play: the nature of scholarly research is changing, the nature of scholarly consumption is changing, but most importantly the consumer expectation is changing – the expectation that anything one can get in the analogue world, one can get in the digital world.

Digital scholarly publishing is an irreversible trend, I don’t believe its something we are going to try out for a while, decide we don’t like and then return to print publishing. For print to survive, the converse expectation, that anything we can get in the digital world we can get in the analogue world, will have to be true too, making the survival of print a consumer choice.

We are entering a time of consumer choice across the board and museums will be tasked with providing choices. Consumers are picky, they will go to where there is choice, and scholars are no different, they will want to consume scholarly research as part of a museum’s online collection appended to individual works, as a complete, downloadable app or eBook, or as an online scholarly publication. A printed version of this publication will be a decision made by the consumer, not the producer. Don’t think you can charge for that online version however, because the additional expectation is that online access is free, irrespective of the fact that, done well, it often costs more to produce an online version.

Digital transition requires new thinking, skeuomorphism is not an option and applying traditional print principles and ideas to a digital world will not work, but opportunities to further research and discovery exist on an unprecedented scale in the digital world. The online publishing world is a place of information access not discrete product, collaboration and joint ownership not singular endeavour, real-time peer review, and exposure of the process and thinking that goes into research and publication. The process is messy but Otto von Bismarck’s quote about not watching sausages being made does not apply, exposing the process and not waiting for the final product is an adjustment that scholars will have to learn to live with.

Increasingly, the first entrée into the research process is the web, even if its just to find out where a book lives through World Cat or Google Scholar, the hyperlink that leads to the location of the book, increasingly leads to the book itself. The recent U.S. court decision on Google’s book-scanning project, that it meets all four legal tenets for fair use, was the removal of another stumbling block on the road to digital publishing and the consequence is that even if institutions do not make the switch to digital, like Google, someone will make it for them, so better for an institution to own that online manifestation and provide access under their own terms.

While the Authors Guild will obviously appeal the Google decision, judge Denny Chin elegantly summarised why the transition to digital is inevitable: digital provides access on an unprecedented scale, it offers preservation and new life for out-of-print books, and it offers speed – weeks researching in a library translates to minutes searching on Google:

“In my view, Google Books provides significant public benefits. It advances the progress of the arts and sciences, while maintaining respectful consideration for the rights of authors and other creative individuals, and without adversely impacting the rights of copyright holders. It has become an invaluable research tool that permits students, teachers, librarians, and others to more efficiently identify and locate books. It has given scholars the ability, for the first time, to conduct full-text searches of tens of millions of books. It preserves books, in particular out-of-print and old books that have been forgotten in the bowels of libraries, and it gives them new life. It facilitates access to books for print-disabled and remote or underserved populations. It generates new audiences and creates new sources of income for authors and publishers.”

One of the paradigm shifts for institutions and scholars is the notion of what a publication is, it is no longer a discrete product but a service, infinitely more useful. For the traditional scholar tasting the forbidden fruit of searching tens of millions of publications, it may be hard to return to traditional ways. Understandably, that scholar would still rather publish a book than “settle” for a digital publication which would contribute to that body of online research material, but while the caché of a book will linger for a long time, and scholar’s separation anxiety will persist, the decision will be increasingly out of their hands and the perception will shift as issues of online citations, demonstrably higher in the scientific research community, are satisfactorily resolved.

The thorny issue of image rights is slowing the transition to digital, but that is changing too. Rights holders are still fixated with units sold or viewed, so for them, downloadable eBooks or apps provide a security blanket as they navigate their way into digital. But that doesn’t help in the world of unfettered access that an online digital publication provides.

Authority is another issue that is of paramount concern and confusion in the digital world, which in addition to reputation and quality of scholarship, is also defined with established rules of citation. In the digital world authority is not redefined, it simply takes on some added dimensions such as ease of access, ubiquity and the provision of tools – elitism transformed into democratisation.

Most alarmingly, being first is a dimension of authority in the online world – look no further than the first-page results for a Google search. Pun intended. But probably the most objectionable dimension of digital authority is argumentum ad populum – if everybody believes something to be true, it must be true. Wikipedia is invariably ranked on the first page of a search result, a truth that museums cannot ignore and reason in itself for them to hire wikipedians.

Are we seeing the demise of print? It may be that we just have to redefine what we mean by print. Up until now, we have made no distinction between “book” and “print”, we use the words interchangeably, but we probably will have to start making a distinction as technologies such as Paper Logic’s PaperTab evolve – if I create something that has pages, albeit electronic, is that a book?

So, what is the life-expectancy for museum trophy wives? For museums with large egos and fat wallets, I think they will continue to be a status symbol for some time.


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