Live blog: Museums, Libraries and Archives in contemporary life

conf1Live blogging from the conference held in Florence on January 22 2010 at Teatro della Pergola. The title of the conference is "Essere stati e' ancora una condizione per essere?" a quote from F. Braudel - a rather philosophical question translated roughly as "Is being there sufficient as a condition of being?". Below are my LIVE blog notes, while first up here (after the fact) I'll attempt to summarize some of the most important points raised. **The opinions expressed in this post are MINE and do not represent those of the Regione Toscana or any other official involved party ;-). 1) The philosophical question of being and experience guided the morning's discussion which was interesting but not sufficiently concrete to encourage audience participation.  A number of interesting points, however, can be extracted from what was said, and I have put them in my notes below. 2) The theme of how museums, archives, and libraries (three "old style" institutions) should deal with the needs of the contemporary user is the real topic of the day. The morning's philosophy was superceeded by some concrete examples in the afternoon, and saw comments (mini papers, almost) by the public. 3) A recurring theme is that of fragmentation. Many of the speakers brought up the lack of conversation between cultural managers and the problem of narrow focus that means that the websites of libraries are not connected to those of museums or to archives. This is an interesting problem - one i posed to Luca de Biase in an interview after the conference (we'll post the video clip on monday). For each fragmented blog or website, someone is trying to make a larger portal to englobe it all. But in the end, that's what google does for us. When it comes to repositories of text, I don't really feel the need to have my websites linked to each other (although I do appreciate library catalogues like Harvard's Hollis that provide links to Google books). On the other hand, museums (at least those in one geographical area) do need some kind of web to make available to the public, all in one place, information about collections and events. 4) There was an interesting mix of attitudes amongst the speakers. I liked what Paola Pacetti said: that we cannot look for people upon which to lay the blame for the fact that Italy is in the dark ages in this field. Yet it's really hard not to blame the country's outdated laws listed by Juan Carlos de Martin of creative commons or outdated managers mentioned by Prof. Prosperi. What I found most interesting about today was hearing the directors of Florence's museums and libraries talk knowledgeably about new media and admit that their own online offerings are sub-par; I wonder why, then, not much - other than talk - seems to be being done about it. Those of us who follow the world of museum marketing know well that it doesn't just take a twitter account to be web 2.0, but it is not that difficult, nor that costly, to hire experts in the field (like H-Art) to customize a social media strategy for an institution. While the Regione Toscana has already opened up to social media (this blog is an example of that), I sincerely hope that the institutions of Florence will follow suit; making information accessible to the public via new media is a major part of what is needed to save not only tourism but scholarship in this country.

Live blog notes

Introduction: Chiara Silla (Dirigente del Settore Biblioteche, Regione Toscana) The title and theme of the conference came out of a discussion that first came up in the libraries of Florence who questioned how they might best "valorize" their historic collections. Museums and blockbuster shows measure success in ticket sales... but is this truly success? (If the public doesn't walk away enriched and happy, ticket sales in my opinion mean very little in the general scheme of cultural enrichment.) This conference will question what role these institutions - libraries, archives, and museums - can have now in the world of the "contemporary", with a strong focus on the role but also influence of multimedia and internet. As "digital natives" live in this world of zapping, how can we make the past, represented by the content of these institutions, encounter the present and most importantly, the future. Director of the BNCF, Antonio Ida Fontana Where do our young people live? perhaps more in the virtual world than the real. Those (of us) who blog or tweet communicate with the outer world without knowing who is on the other end of the screen.  The first mission of cultural institutes is to organize knowledge (knowledge management), while, according to the speaker, an approach like wikipedia is simply a business. Europe has chosen culture as its locus for development. Given this new need for a future that is conscious of the present and is building on culture, what can libraries and other institutions do? There is a European portal that attempts to bring together all the information about a given topic (like Galileo) [the url of said site was not mentioned]. The speaker expresses her desire to see libraries transfer information and 2.0 material to a "virtual piazza". She seems highly informed - she even refered to web 3.0 - and this surprised me because she runs a library that I frequent, but with which I have a big beef. The BNCF does not have free, open wifi. There is a wifi network to which you can connect only via a proxy server that you have to set up on your browser and into which you must login with your library password; this server limits the websites that you can use only to the BNCF and the rest of the italian and european library resources. Dr. Fontana seems fully aware that the library goes well beyond physical walls - she's negotiating with Google books after all - so why can I not access google books from within the BNCF, in order to compare the 16th-century book in my hand to the version I have studied online? On the topic of the agreement with Google, Dr. Fontana emphasizes that agreeing to have material scanned is not a giving up of Italy's cultural heritage as some might fear (but is there really someone out there who fears this?) - it's simply important to be conscious of copyright. Luca de Biase (journalist-philosopher) coordinates the day's "workshop"
De Biase's reflections for today are posted on his blog. He starts off by telling a funny story of the day he met Braudel in Paris as a student; the great philospher started off by talking about the weather - chatting. De Biase says that chatting is what today is all about; there is a tweet wall and live streaming here, although the room itself, with its stage and a rectangular table up front is hardly adapted to the concept of "round table". We here should be talking about the relationship between past and present, because the way that we're living this relationship right now, on the institutional level, is off kilter, not quite right. Our personal experience involves a way of connecting what we see in any moment - like a series of photographs - with what we know in order to interpret it (someone here has read his Panofsky!). But today will be about a collective society, about a collective intelligence or awareness of what internet does, what culture is, what memory is... We are living in a moment of great opening up of interpretations thanks to new tools, but it's not easy to understand it all. The usefulness of internet and social tools cannot be argued - google ranking helps us find the most useful; on facebook we share interesting news, wikipedia in the end has useful information on it. These are the new institutions ! Let's turn to the question "essere stati" - If I understand correctly, De Biase says that the new institutions are more about the "essere"; the old ones more "essere stati" - the more past tense - and so I guess what he means is how to create a proper dialogue between the two. The new institutions run into a certain difficulty because they run at different speeds than the old ones - and yet - this is my interjection - the new ones have to depend on the old. Paolo Cocchi - Assessore turismo regione toscana Time, thanks to consumerism, is contracted - essere, to be, is dependant on the past, present, and future. The assessore mentions his 98 year old father in law who had an amazing ability to sit quietly in the dark. If you went into his room and asked him "what are you doing", he'd say "i'm here". Isn't this a wonderful way of living the present? (I wonder what he was thinking about - is he always really "there" or perhaps he is "elsewhere" while he thinks...). It's nice to see this forward-thinking assessore who realizes that in politics and institutions there needs to be a new vision of the questions raised today; the need to work faster to keep up with the times, and also, the need to invest money into these new ways of communication. He says "Money will be found once people agree that the project is a priority", or a necessity. People involved just have to have a common vision. Oh Cocchi, how much I hope you are right. ---- the conference is now supposed to open up to the panel and the public --- I sit in the front row and I do not dare ask why Italy is so far behind other countries - i think of the excellent online community and website created by the British Library, of which I feel part despite having only been there physically once, and I wonder why the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale of Florence cannot do something similarly engaging, given its stunning collection, the presence even of an exhibition space, and its central location. The BL's community is, by today's terms, even rather low-tech in that it is primarily located on the website and not on facebook or other 2.0 places, but their digital projects started a long time ago, and with appropriate funding - so that the BL can call itself "The world's library". Why do they get this honour, and not us?
-Guido Guerzoni* (historian and curator) notes that many museums nowadays don't even call themselves museums! It's difficult for them to readapt themselves when their founding visions are terribly out of date (this could explain the static nature of so many Italian museums in fact!). We are seeing the demise of the "permanent collection" - why? because people need to be entertained to return, and there's competition for this attention. Other countries have already worked out the encounter between past and future - institutions from Holland to the USA have opened museums dedicated to media itself (but Guido - is this the answer? isn't what we need simply a greater convergence between old museum collections and new media?). He fears the lack of resources in Italy to make it work - the first being of course money. He correctly notes that the greatest part of library and museum budgets is dedicated to maintenance (indeed last time I was at the BNCF there was no heat because a pipe had burst, and apparently this is common!). We need public funds to relaunch cultural institutions, just as has been the case in the rest of Europe. The second category is human resources - it would be very difficult to retrain those currently in institutions, who might not be even capable of taking on these new methods and skills. [*Guerzoni has a blog that looks like it could be really interesting - too bad he hasn't updated it recently]
At this point there was an interesting talk by Juan Carlos de Martin of creative commons, an engineer who talked about problems of preserving digital media versus the old piece of paper. Impossible to summarize it all here, but given the many Italian laws limiting access to materials via digital means, it's hard to have any hope that Italy will be able to make a quick escape from the dark ages in which we currently sit, even with all the good will and even all the money in the world. -meanwhile the tweet wall contains various citations from the public, but not questions - it's hard to formulate questions while following the rather complex material presented on stage, and I get the feeling that the general public would be afraid to stick its neck out in a discussion of this level. -Paola Pacetti (organizer) refers to the controversial and recent ad campaign by the Ministero dei Beni Culturali that shows works of art being taken away, with the slogan "if you don't visit it, we'll take it away". This is nicely related to today's question. It's an interesting choice of words - to visit it. Like the collection of ticket money problem cited above by Prof. Silla; they don't say "if you don't KNOW it" - if you don't take the time to learn about it, which really is more important. But whose RESPONSIBILITY is it (to learn or to teach) - this falls on every single person. We are so capable of placing the blame on what other people should have done in the past; we need to skip that part in order to move ahead. -Prof. Prosperi - says he's a little too old for this, and thus he feels somewhat perplexed by the issues. The emotion of physical research cannot be reproduced even if it's rather handy that some institutions provide digital material. The problem in his eyes is related to those who produce material - there has even been an interesting suggestion to finish the famously unfinished biographical dictionary of italians (hey i didn't know that!). A post-war art historian, Bandinelli, expected a social (communist) revolution, and was concerned with how to conserve the objects of the past (such as artisans tools and abilities). His prophesies didn't fully come true. We do live in different times though - the role of teacher or archivist used to be fixed, used to have a place - the library or the university. The good prof says that schools and institutions now are, essentially no good - is he trying to place blame in the way that the previous speaker, Paola Pacetti, warned us not to? He says it's important to train (we don't quite know where or how) those who will in the future take care of Italy's cultural patrimony. I cannot agree more that there needs to be a turnover; however I doubt that it is possible for this to happen, as it is extremely difficult to enter into public service in this field as a young person, and those in charge will staunchly defend their positions. -Elena Farinelli (blogger, ioamofirenze) makes an appreciable attempt at shaking things up with a little audience participation and talks about the way that information is organized (using tags) in the era of web 2.0. (She mentions aNobii, a network for books that also involves real books!). People love to share (she gave us a summary of the data, locations, and advantages of social media). "People use google multiple times a day - as if it were a medicine." Given the importance of google to redirect users to websites, it's important that institutions make their websites user-friendly, google-friendly, and generally accessible. Sadly, most of the institutions in Tuscany do not have the basic criteria to be found by google and thus by users (very interesting problem). If you search "biblioteca firenze" the only one that shows up on the map is the BNCF - that's a problem. -the president of fondazione sistema toscana has just pointed out that this conference is being transmitted live on the internet and also being live blogged (that's me!). The importance of web 2.0 is that current history is not already written, but is being constantly re-written; the social media team has in fact re-written a number of the posts about Tuscany on wikipedia in order to keep information correct and up to date. ---- after a large and sleep-inducing buffet lunch i'm back taking notes...-----
@pandemia (luca conti, blogger) is going to show us the best of museum web 2.0 communication, and i'm pretty excited about this. He's set up this for us: - a document with all the links that he's going to show us... tere's @nelli on the computer showing us the sites on the big screen. This is news even to me, someone who follows the museum marketing world on twitter and blogs! Particularly cute is the site - too bad it is only for a small section of England. He asks "Could we do something like this for Tuscany?" In some ways there already is, in that the APT of Florence provides lists like that; neither is really very web 2.0 as far as sites go, nor do they provide much information, just lists. He talks about how English museums (ie the UK) are probably the most active on twitter. Take a look at that document, it's a good list! -Now it's time to open up to the public and twitter for questions... i have a few myself! The biggest one is the one i'll ask you, the reader, if you're still with me at the bottom of the page: What happens to quality if we open culture to web 2.0?