Interview with Smithsonian’s Michael Edson at ALA techSource

MS: The connection between libraries and museums gets clearer and clearer to me, especially after my speaking trip to Germany. At our Stammtisch evening, I spent a long time chatting with a museum employee. Her take was this: “We have 30 seconds to grab a visitor’s attention. We can’t use a blog. We can’t create a social experience in that time…”  Then at UGUL, you said to the audience “We have competition from EVERYONE.” What can museums – and libraries – do in this time of great competition to meet the needs of users and non-users alike? How do we “grab” them?

ME: The “We’re competing with everyone” line I used at UGUL is from my “Imagining a Smithsonian Commons” paper [ starting around p 21]. I’m trying to build a case for greater Institutional focus on Web and new media by showing that many of our beloved Institutions just aren’t as relevant and useful as we think they are.

I think the issue of “how we grab them” is both practical and a philosophical. The degree to which we do and don’t need to “grab” our audiences is contingent on the individual missions of our organizations—the work we need to do in society.
I recall that there are something like 18,000 museums in the U.S., and I don’t know how many libraries, archives, history centers, and the like—each one of which has a different mission, audience, collection, staff, and board of directors. Some of these missions can be accomplished by sitting back and guarding vaults, while others require us to compete with Lady Ga Ga [? Gaga?]. I am content, as a U.S. taxpayer (who subsidizes the operations of many of many libraries, museums, and archives) and global citizen, with a spectrum of approaches as long as organizations pursue their missions with urgency and verve. I am not content when our public institutions posture about their own importance but neglect to use the tools, logic, and culture of digital technology when those tools could be profoundly helpful. No director should allow this: no board of directors should tolerate it.

Read the whole interview! I really appreciate Michael’s thinking.