Smithsonian boosts online sharing with Web 2.0

Wikis and blogs in place, next step is an online "commons"

The Smithsonian Institution is building its community by improving its ability to share knowledge online.

Over the last two years, the Smithsonian's Web and new media strategy director, Michael Edson, has brought Smithsonian managers together in a series of events, organized a wiki and blog and collaborated with Web sites such as Flickr in a campaign to share the Smithsonian’s massive resources more broadly online.

“In the past, we provided services to passive audiences,” Edson said at the Gov. 2.0 Expo on May 26. “Now, every user is a hero in his own journey.”

In the wiki, Edson and others helped develop the Smithsonian Web and New Media Strategy, which includes the themes of updating visitors’ digital experience, developing a new learning model for how knowledge is presented and shared, and balancing the needs for both autonomy and control in sharing the museum's collection with the public.

Edson said he has been building support for an online Smithsonian Commons, in which content, such as photographs, would be offered and accessible to the public and could be linked and mashed up with non-Smithsonian resources, such as blogs.

For example, because a third of the Smithsonian’s regular Web visitors are amateur scientists, their expertise could be leveraged by linking from the Smithsonian Commons to their blogs and Web pages. The scientists would be encouraged to use Smithsonian content as a resource. For example, an amateur astronomer could be encouraged to publish Smithsonian photographs of the Crab Nebula on a blog.

Edson said he has created a prototype commons Web site, but formal approvals for the real thing are working their way through the system. It’s taking time for Smithsonian managers to feel comfortable with sharing resources online, he said. Some managers are concerned that expanding to 24/7 online availability may increase expectations among people that they can get answers to all inquiries day and night, he added. Edson emphasized that he is not an official spokesman for the Smithsonian and does not make policy for the institution.

Also, the scope of the Smithsonian Commons would vary depending on how many resources are devoted to it, and there is some discussion about budget availability for it, Edson said.

However, if the museum system does not expand its resources available online, Edson is worried it may not stay relevant as the world goes increasingly digital.

“I want to build a sense of urgency about the pain of possible failure, and a fear that others may be doing a better job than us,” Edson said.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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Reader comments

Thu, May 27, 2010 Jeannie Chen

Thanks Michael for your further input. The very fact that you are paying attention to the conversations about your institution demonstrate a commitment to linking "real-life" to your web resources. Thanks for sharing your vision for enhancing visitors digital experiences. Great ideas to think about.

Thu, May 27, 2010 Michael Edson Washington, D.C.

I don't want to leave readers thinking that building a sense of urgency is solely about avoiding negative consequences! Quite the contrary!!! There is an enormous sense of enthusiasm and urgency around moving forward with digital initiatives at the Smithsonian. We can all see the positive impact that digital outreach, collaboration, and participation are having every day. It's important to be aware that we're not the only fish in the sea, but we're moving forward smartly and with purpose ;)

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