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"Imagining a Smithsonian Commons" CIL 2009 Michael Edson (text version)

Text version of keynote presentation to 2009 Computers in Libraries conference. 4/1/09. See also supporting PowerPoint slides. This text is in the Public Domain. Video of me giving this presentation is at

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"Imagining a Smithsonian Commons" CIL 2009 Michael Edson (text version)

  1. 1. Imagining the Smithsonian Commons 3/19/2009 Computers in Libraries 2009 Michael Edson Director, Web and New Media Strategy Smithsonian Institution Office of the CIO
  2. 2. Edson: Imagining a Smithsonian Commons 2
  3. 3. Table of Contents Relevance ...................................................................................................................1 A Return to the Commons .........................................................................................3 So, what exactly is a commons ..................................................................................4 A Fundamental Institution for the 21st Century .......................................................10 An Un-Common Institution......................................................................................18 Unexpected Rivals ...................................................................................................21 The Smithsonian Commons .....................................................................................27 The Smithsonian Commons…coming soon? ..........................................................32 References ................................................................................................................34 h Note: streaming video of this talk is at Slides are at
  4. 4. (Slide: preamble) Note: The opinions in this presentation are mine, not the official policy/strategy of the Smithsonian… Relevance (Slide: national mall) I grew up in Washington, D.C. I was into Art and science, and the Smithsonian was pretty much the coolest thing around. I could walk downtown or take a bus and just wander in and out of the free museums letting my curiosity take me wherever it wanted to go. In some ways you could say that I came of age at the Smithsonian—that as I became an independent young adult, the bricks-and-mortar Smithsonian—the world‟s largest museum and research complex—modeled my understanding of what it was to be an adult and explore the world. The Smithsonian did things that demonstrated the values I came to care about as agrown up: it‟s good to learn, to research and inquire, to be curious, to draw people into discussion, to provoke and even disrupt when necessary, to think across disciplines, to create—In short, to engage as an active participant inthe world of Edson: Imagining a Smithsonian Commons 1
  5. 5. ideas. I grew up in a city—in a country—that valued these things, and that chose to build on its most prestigious real estate, possibly the most valuable real estate in the world—a kind of commons… …aknowledge commons… (Slide: NMNH Ocean Hall) A public institution dedicated—literally—to “the increase and diffusion of knowledge,”free to everyone, every day. That spoke very clearly to me about what‟simportant in a democracy. But… I grew up before the World Wide Web. Now, deep in the heart of this wonderful rich disruptive digital age, the Smithsonian has been slow out of the blocks. We have not yetcommitted to a digital direction. (Slide: Smithsonian celebration on the mall {multiple}) And the question is: How should the Smithsonian Institution increase and diffuse knowledge now, in a world with 1.5 billion internet users1 and 3.5 billion mobile phone subscribers2 —a world in which free and ubiquitous technology enablesall of these people tobe our visitors, customers, collaborators, contributors, Edson: Imagining a Smithsonian Commons 2
  6. 6. champions, critics, and competitors…Sometimes all at the same time. (Slide: What Example…) What example shall we provide? A Return to the Commons In this brief talk I‟ll describe to you the vision of a Smithsonian Commons—a unique and priceless collection of content, services, and tools that we give to the world, for free. This is the 21st century successor to the knowledge commons imagined into being by James Smithson 182 years ago.3 (Slide: Relevance) Fundamentally and foundationally, I‟ll argue that in this century, the Smithsonian will be relevant onlyif it returns to its roots and champions the democratization of knowledge and innovation;only if it uses technology to create a free and open commons; and only if it steps up to the plate and applies its resources and energy to this purpose with urgency and verve. A Smithsonian Commons is good civics, good mission, and good business. (Slide: Transition) Edson: Imagining a Smithsonian Commons 3
  7. 7. So, what exactly is a commons So, let‟s unpack this idea of a commons a little bit: what exactly is a commons? (Slide: What is a commons?) Abstractly, it‟s a set of resources maintained in the public sphere for the use and benefit of everyone. Usually, commons are created because a property owner decides that a given set of resources—grass for grazing sheep, forests for parkland, software code, or intellectual property—will be more valuable if freely shared than if restricted. In the law, and in our understanding of the way the world works, we recognize that no idea stands alone, and that all innovation is built on the ideas and innovations of others. When creators are allowed free and unrestricted access to the work of others, through the public domain, fair use, a commons, or other means, innovation flourishes.4 (Slide: The anti-commons) Conversely, unnecessarily restricted content is a barrier to innovation. This is the anti-commons, a thicket of difficulties. If you can‟t find an idea, can‟t understand its context, can‟t leverage communities to share and add value to it, and if you Edson: Imagining a Smithsonian Commons 4
  8. 8. can‟t get legal permission to use, re-use, or make it into something new, then knowledge and innovation suffer.5Unnecessarily restricted content is like a virus that spreads through the internet, making the intellectual property provenance of each generation of new ideas less and less clear. (Slide: workshop) The framers of our copyright lawsrecognized this and established the notions offair use and the public domainso scientists, inventors, educators, artists, researchers, business people, and everyone can have access to the raw materials of knowledge. A commons can be thought of as a kind of organized workshop where these raw materials can be found and assembled into new things. (And let‟s get something straight here—something it took me a long time to figure out: this workshop was not intended to be the exception: it was intended to be the rule. The original framers of our intellectual property laws, including Thomas Jefferson, saw the commons as the natural state of intellectual property—and private ownership its cautiously and temporarily granted exception. The public domain is not, as James Boyle writes, (Slide: Boyle quote) Edson: Imagining a Smithsonian Commons 5
  9. 9. “some gummy residue left behind when all the good stuff has been covered by property law. The public domain is the place where we quarry the building blocks of our culture.”6) Libraries are a kind of commons. The work of the Federal government is, by law, put into the public domain—an intellectual property commons. (Slide: Licensing) Licensing and labeling facilitate the creation of commons by telling users, in advance, how the property in the commons can be used, without making them guess or negotiate.7The GNU Public License (GPL)enables collaborative commons to be formed around open-source software. (Linux is distributed under the GPL.) The Creative Commons is known and loved by millions for the way it makes it easy for rights holders to keep their copyright but share their works with others, without intermediaries, or to withhold some rights if they so choose. (Slide: CC Attribution-Noncommercial license) Even a child can understand a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial license. If your kid is online, they‟ve probably already used one too.8 (Slide: Lessig quote) Edson: Imagining a Smithsonian Commons 6
  10. 10. “Free resources are crucial to innovation and creativity”says Creative Commons founder Lawrence Lessig,9and“free” can be surprisingly profitable. (Slide: Doctrow quote {two parts}) In addition to selling his books through normal outlets, Author Corey Doctow gives his books away via free download on his Web site. His fans even translate them, for free, into different languages and file formats. Says Doctrow, “I‟ve been giving away my books online ever since my first novel, and boy has it ever made me a bunch of money.”10 (Slide: Commerce and the commons) The relationship between free content commons and commerce often produces this kind of up-is-down, left-is-right freakonomics. It‟s because of the power of crowds—and the “network effect” in which the activity and contributions of users creates a virtuous cycle:the freer a commons is, the more it is used; the more it is used the better it becomes, and the better it becomes the more people will use it Edson: Imagining a Smithsonian Commons 7
  11. 11. and the more value it can create. (Slide: Crazy…?) In 2005, a technology company put 500 of its Information Technology patents into a free and open “patent commons.” This company felt that their best interests would be served if the open-source software community, on their own, developed the unrealized potential of these privately-owned ideas so that they, the patent owners, could reap the rewards too. Cynically, one might say: Well…that must have made them feel good, but what kind of a fool would give away active patents in a free commons? That’s crazy talk! (Slide: IBM) Well, crazy like a fox. The fool was IBM in 2005, and the combined value of the patents was $10M. In 2006 it was estimated that IBM donated $100M worth of effort and intellectual property into the open source software commons for the Linux operating system, and reaped a 500% profit on that investment through the free contributions of others.By investing in the commons, IBM gets a top-of-the-line operating system Edson: Imagining a Smithsonian Commons 8
  12. 12. for 20% of the price of building it themselves.11 And, institutional leaders take note: these efforts have transformed the company. Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams write in Wikinomics, (Slide: “IBM provides…”) “IBM provides a surprising example of how a large, mature company with an engrained proprietary culture can embrace openness and self-organization as catalysts for reinvention.”12 (Slide: Shirky quote) The kind of distributed collaboration a digital commons allows would have been impossible even ten years ago. Clay Shirky, in Here Comes Everybody writes, “we are living in the middle of a remarkable increase in our ability to share, to cooperate with one another, and to take collective action, all outside the framework of traditional institutions and organization…Getting the free and ready participation of a large, distributed group with a variety of skills has gone from impossible to simple.” 13 You used to need an Institution to collaborate: now you can do it, better and cheaper, in your PJ‟s from home. Edson: Imagining a Smithsonian Commons 9
  13. 13. (Slide: What is a commons—list) Everywhere I‟ve looked in the last year, I‟ve seen the ascendance of free commons models and the erosion of proprietary content models. For a lot of reasons, spelled out at length in Wikinomics and the writings of Chris Anderson, Clay Shirky, Tim O‟Reilly, David Weinberger, and others, free and open beat closed and proprietary every time. Not only do I think that commons models are outperforming proprietary models in most circumstances, not only do I think the commons models is more appropriate for the Smithsonian‟s mission and civic function, but they really do constitute a unique new way of organizing.14 A Fundamental Institution for the 21st Century Let‟s look at some other examples of commons. (Slide: D.C. data catalog) The government of Washington, D.C. has created an astounding catalog of government information, all available to citizens and for-profit companies, in real time, to use and reuse for free. Washington‟s former CTO VivekKundra(now Barak Obama‟s CTO) says “we want to democratize data, and move into an era of participatory democracy where citizens can hold the government accountable intelligently.”15 Edson: Imagining a Smithsonian Commons 10
  14. 14. (Slide: NIH) The National Institutes of Health requires all research grant awardees to publish their results in a free content commons, rather than through exclusive and expensive subscription journals. Publicly funded science goes into the public domain.16 In a recent NPR story, Library of Congress spokesman Matt Raymond called attention to the more than one million digital images available on their Web site for free, no questions asked: (Slide: Library of Congress quote) “We were established by congress as a universal repository of human creativity and knowledge, and that includes vast amounts of items that are in the public domain. It is our mission to make those freely available, whether in the 21 reading rooms of the Library of Congress, or online.”17 The Smithsonian took a very different stance in the same story. (Slide: Flickr Commons) Edson: Imagining a Smithsonian Commons 11
  15. 15. The Flickr Commonsisapartnership between Yahoo/Flickr and public photography collections across the globe. The idea is to increase access to museumcollections and experiment with the effect of Flickr‟s social platform. The Smithsonian joined the Flickr Commons in June, 2008. (Slide: Old exhibit) We‟re only allowed to upload photographs with that have “no known copyright restrictions.” The fact that we‟re not asserting rights encourages use and re-use of the content and is what makes this a commons. (Slide: Fish Sequence) Almost immediately after we upload photostheyare harvested into the Wikimedia commons so they can enrich Wikipedia articles. (Slide: End-user survey data) Edson: Imagining a Smithsonian Commons 12
  16. 16. 84% of our Flickr Commons users say they are likely to use or re-use our Flickr images. (35% for school/academic use, 16% for professional/commercial use.) 41% of users say they‟ll reference our content from a blog or Web site. 97% of users say they‟re more likely to visit Smithsonian Web sites as a result of seeing our content on the Flickr. All respondents report that they have a more positive overall opinion of the Smithsonian because of our contributions to the Flickr Commons—67% with the most emphatic positive rating possible.18 (Slide: 8 vs 2,000) Some of our photos get many more views on Flickr thanour own sites. One particular photo that was averaging 8 views/month on a Smithsonian site gets over 2,000 views a month on the Flickr Commons. Which site is doing a better job increasing and diffusing “our” knowledge? Ours? Or Flickr‟s? (Slide: Public tagging) Edson: Imagining a Smithsonian Commons 13
  17. 17. Public tagging and comments have improved access to and knowledge about these collections. It‟s not uncommon for users to identify people and locations in photographs or correct our mistakes. People love it. …But my favorite commons is the MIT Open Courseware project19. (Slide: OCW, TriatnoYudoHarjoko) OCW started in the late 1990‟s as a faculty-driven strategic planning exercise: How could MIT be relevant and have global impact in the coming digital age? The answer was not, it felt, to create a for-profit, online, degree-granting university (though that must have been a very difficult impulse to resist). But what if it made the lectures and instruction of its professors available on the Internet, for free? Audacious! Arguably the most valuable and exclusive asset of the university, the time and expertise of its staff, formerly reserved for tuition-paying students, put online for anybody to use? But that‟s exactly what they‟ve done. And it‟s a gas! (Slide: OCW Atmospheric Physics and Chemistry) Edson: Imagining a Smithsonian Commons 14
  18. 18. Sometimes, depending on the lecture, quite literally. (Slide: OCW Physics I) The OCW project licenses content from the faculty (who own the intellectual property of their courses, and who participate on a voluntary basis), re-licenses or recreates supporting materials from 3rd party copyright holders, films and edits the lectures, and puts it all online. The project has made genuine superstars of many of the professors, has opened up research, publishing, and collaboration opportunities for them, and has projected the quality and worth of the institution out into the world. (Slide: Harjoko quote) I think one of the surprises for them was the extent to which OCW is used overseas. A quote on their home page from TriatnoYudoHarjoko, head of the Edson: Imagining a Smithsonian Commons 15
  19. 19. Architecture department at the University of Indonesia reads: “I was amazed that a university such as MIT would freely give access to its educational information.” He‟s using OCW to remake the curriculum at the University of Indonesia from one “in which professors are assumed to be knowledge-bearers, and students are expected to master a predetermined knowledge base” to one in which they are “encouraging students to learn by themselves, and to be both critical and creative.” How beautiful is that? Free content in an open commons at MIT used to teach innovative thinking in a university half a world away. And MIT‟s faculty just pushed the envelope farther. Two weeks ago they voted unanimously to mandate open access distribution of their scholarly articles. MIT Faculty Chair BishSanyal is quoted as saying that the vote is “a signal to the world that we speak in a unified voice; that what we value is the free flow of ideas.”20 How perfect it would be if content from a Smithsonian Commons—free, findable and clearly licensed for reuse—was incorporated into instructional materials for MIT Open Courseware? Or if OCW teaching was incorporated into Smithsonian exhibitions or educational materials. (Slide: More effective) The concept of a Commons makes this kind of institution-to-institution collaboration possible, and even likely, because it makes clear our desire for others to use and reuse what we have, it clarifies the intellectual property status of derivative works, and it aggregates content into a usable, valuable critical mass, without the necessity of proprietary contracts. If MIT had chosen to develop a Edson: Imagining a Smithsonian Commons 16
  20. 20. formal contract with the University of Indonesia to accomplish the same ends, it never would have happened. And some people, particularly in the developing world, have an exquisite need collaborative models that scale easily. (Slide: SubbiahArunachalam) I recently met this gentleman, SubbiahArunachalam, of the Centre for Internet and Society in Bangladore. India‟s National Knowledge Commission (on which he serves) has recommended building 1,100 new universities—universities!—to meet thegrowing the educational needs of its 1.1 billion citizens.21 It is not an accident that SubbiahArunachalam is an open-content evangelist: what other system of collaboration can potentially scale to this degree? (Slide: OCW tag line) The tag on the OCW home page says “Unlocking Knowledge, Empowering Minds.” No Registration Required. That‟s a great tag line. It should be ours. (Slide: Shared characteristics) Edson: Imagining a Smithsonian Commons 17
  21. 21. What are the common characteristics of these commons? They all freely share information that, in 1.0 or pre-Internet paradigms, would have been cloistered, restricted, enclosed, or directly monetized. They all use some kind of licensing, labeling, or permissions structure to tell users what they can, and can‟t, do with information in the commons. They rarely, if ever, assert rigid institutional boundaries around “their” content. Information flows in, and out, across organizational and cultural boundaries. They all take advantage of network effects and the power of crowds: the more the commons is used the better it gets and the more people use it. An Un-Common Institution Now that we‟ve taken a look a commons, let‟s get a little background about the uncommonSmithsonian Institution itself. (Slide: Hirshhorn, NASM, NMAI) We are a vast, decentralized, enterprise. We‟ve got 28 museums and research centers, plus the National Zoo—we call them Business Units, or just units for short. Edson: Imagining a Smithsonian Commons 18
  22. 22. (Slide: Diversity and depth) The diversity and depth of our endeavors and physical collections is astounding. We run a satellite x-ray telescope in outer space. We have databasesofanimalDNA. We‟re preserving extinct languages. We‟re conserving the original Star Spangled Banner.We have 137 millionthingsin our official museum collections, and our domain is the entire universe and all that happens in it. And we have thetalented, independent, and opinionated workforce you‟d expect with a mission like that.(There‟s a joke I like to tell about this: We hire a consultant who, in their first meeting, asks how many employees we have. 6,000 we say. Then he or she asks “How many volunteers?” About 6,000, we answer. Then they ask “How many top-level decision-makers?” With a straight face we answer, honestly, 12,000.) (Slide: 99% decentralized) But among our staff there is not a single person whose job is knowledge management.The Office of the CIO is funded to provide the Institution with a basic Web infrastructure and a handful of support staff, but practically everything else on the Web is done by the business units. 99% of our digital production is funded and executed by the units. And the unit-based Web teams can be very small, sometimes Edson: Imagining a Smithsonian Commons 19
  23. 23. consisting of just a single part-time content-coordinator. (Slide: Thousand wildflowers) We call this the “thousand wildflowers blooming in the wilderness” model, and it is the result of the Institution‟s cash-strapped operations and early ambivalence toward the Web. Back in the late 1990‟s, given uncertainty about the future of the Internet, the latent tension between central control and unit autonomy, risk aversion, and budget pressure, there were few incentives to establish a strong, central organization or unifying vision. There are a lot of great things about the thousand wildflowers in the wilderness model, and there is a lot of visionary, award-winning work going on in the units. (Slide: Innovative sites) Web magic truly happens when collections (or research data), experts, and the public are in close proximity. And it certainly beats what, from the unit perspective, is presumed to be the alternative: dictatorial standardization from a central authority. But with those 137 million objects, a dynamicand increasingly Web 2.0-savvy workforce, and the mission to increase and diffuse knowledge, we‟re leaving a lot Edson: Imagining a Smithsonian Commons 20
  24. 24. of value on the table by working in silos. (Slide: Enumerating weaknesses) Search and findability22 across the Web properties is poor. Usability and branding are incoherent.Web 2.0 patternsunderutilized. And the units can‟t afford to establish, maintain, and refine the platforms they want on their own, never mind that if they could, the repetition of effort or the devastating effect on end-users would be calamitous: Imagine 30 separate e-commerce, event ticketing, or personalization system. Nobody would rationally design the online operations of a world-class Institution this way. The sum of the individual parts—the individual wildflowers—don‟t add up to more than the whole, and they should. And it‟s hurting us. How much? (Slide: Vexatious phenomenon) Unexpected Rivals Unexpected Rivals in Search Edson: Imagining a Smithsonian Commons 21
  25. 25. High profile SI projects don’t project their might online Let‟s say you did a Google search on something we here know and care quite a bit about: the oceans. (Slide: “Ocean” search on Google.) You get six results above the fold: Google Images, Wikipedia,,, a site hosted by NASA (which, ironically, the Smithsonian and a NASA researcher created in 1995 and which we don‟t host on our own site), and something called The first Smithsonian domain shows up five pages later: result number 55. Now this is a little unfair: we all know it‟s easy to play “gotcha” with Google search engine results, so what can we find out about relative traffic and usepatterns among these sites? Unexpected Rivals: Reach (Slide: relative online reach of top 4 search winners) Edson: Imagining a Smithsonian Commons 22
  26. 26. A search on “ocean” reveals a Web According to Alexa23 three of our Google search competitors, Google Images, Wikipedia, and NASA, are so much more popular than we are that our traffic doesn‟t even show up on the graph with them. Note that we‟re measuring the Daily Reach of the whole domain and all its sub domains, not just those relevant to oceans. (Slide: Alexa reach without top three) beats in terms of Alexa‟s Daily Reach measurement. I‟ll repeat that,, a two person operation —a site for elementary-school kids!—challenges and beats the Smithsonian, the world‟s largest museum and research complex, in online reach.24 James Smithson would be horrified. Or maybe he‟d be funding (This, actually, wouldn‟t surprise me. Smithson was known as a shrewd investor.25) Unexpected Rivals: Traffic Trending Down First ever quarterly drop in SI Web traffic while use of social sites increases (Slide: Alexa stats for Edson: Imagining a Smithsonian Commons 23
  27. 27. Another thing to notice from Alexa is that our traffic is trending down. Alexa says we‟re down 13% over the last three months, and our own log data tells us that our traffic was down last quarter for the first time ever. So where is our audience going? Maybe. Social sites? Probably.26 Unexpected Rivals: Brand Identity We might not be as prominent as we thought (Slide: Battlebrands) And what about our overall “Smithsonian Brand?” The clever and surprising (though not scientific) Battlebrands Web site, using the results from thousands of head-to-head votes between random brands, ranks the Smithsonian as the 371st most impressive of almost 800 brands, a little above Fritos and a little below TGI Fridays. I‟m not sure whether this is good or bad, but we‟re definitely not up there on hallowed ground where we thought we‟d be.27 We’re Competing With…Everybody Edson: Imagining a Smithsonian Commons 24
  28. 28. User-contributed content dwarfs what the Institution can accomplish on its own. (Slide: Spaceshipone on National Air and Space Museum site) Let‟s say you‟re as fascinated by Spaceshipone as I am. (Spaceshipone is the first privately funded craft to carry a person into space: it won the X Prize and was designed and built by Burt Rutan and funded by Paul Allen.) It‟s hanging—a monument to outside-the-box thinking— in the National Air and Space Museum a block from my office. I go. I see it. If I want to know more I can go to NASM‟s site and find a picture, a QTVR of the cockpit (which is very cool), and some authoritative text. (Slide: Spaceshipone on Wikipedia) Now look what happens when I search on Wikipedia. Hyperlinks! (Slide: Spaceshipone on YouTube) And on YouTube—a cornucopia of footage!28 Edson: Imagining a Smithsonian Commons 25
  29. 29. (Slide: Spaceshipone on Flickr) Or Flickr: over two-thousand images tagged, by users, with exactly Spaceshipone: launch pictures, cockpit pictures, fan photos, spaceshipone tattoos —it‟s predictably amazing. So if you‟re John or Sally Q. Public and you want to know about the things in your world, where are you going to go? Which Web sites gives you what you‟re looking for? How can our small Web teams, or even the whole Institution, compete…with everybody? Should we fight them, or join them? The Demographic Tsunami Today’s digital natives are tomorrow’s core audiences The habits, ideas, and perceptions of “everyone” is changing.This is fundamentally a different world than the one I grew up in, and a tsunami of demographic changes is about to hit us. (slide: Pew research chart) Edson: Imagining a Smithsonian Commons 26
  30. 30. This is a chart of the percent of people engaged in online content creation graphed against their age. Younger people on the left-hand side of this chart tend to have radically different assumptions about information, brands, and the relationship between online vs. offline, butwe tend to cater to the constituencies for our traditional offerings, which tend to skew older. One day, we‟re going to wake up and that line (on the graph) will have lifted up and flattened—social networks, mobile access, and commons patterns will be part of everyday life for our core demographic.29If they‟re not already. (Slide: Lee Rainie quote) Lee Rainie, Director of the Pew Internet in American Life Project says “Everything we hear from people we interview is that today‟s consumers draw no distinctions between an organization‟s Web site and their traditional bricks-and-mortar presence: both must be excellent for either to be excellent.”30 And Mr. Rainie says that “the real fun will come with the next generation AFTER the Millennials [our current „digital natives‟] comes of age.”31 Memo to the Smithsonian: The Tsunami is coming. The Smithsonian Commons (Slide: How shall we…?) Edson: Imagining a Smithsonian Commons 27
  31. 31. So I ask again: How shall the Smithsonian advance the increase and diffusion of knowledge, now? Hopefully, as I‟ve been talking, you‟ve been able to draw crisp lines between the challenges and opportunities I‟ve described and a way forward for an institution like mine. (Slide: Givens… {sequence}) Given that we‟re a publicly funded institution with a civic mission. Given the nature of that mission. Given the enormous scope of our endeavors and our siloed operations. Given the model of the commons…the rise of social media, the rise of distributed collaboration, the rise of crowdsourcing, the rise of “free” business models, and shifting attitudes about content and brands… (Slide: Game changer) Edson: Imagining a Smithsonian Commons 28
  32. 32. …I assert that reshaping our digital identity around the concept of a Smithsonian Commons is the way to move forward—it‟s thegame changer: a low risk, high reward proposition that addresses the fundamental challenges of the Institution in terms of brand, audience, operations, speed, governance, integrity, education, research, revenue generation, leadership, and legacy. (Slides: challenge-by-challenge) Brand The simple concept of a commons brings cohesion and clarity to the Smithsonian‟s vast online offerings. A preeminent and rising brand can attract users, subscribers, sponsors and philanthropic dollars. Audience erosion Bricks-and-mortar audiences are not capable of growing as fast, as large, or as efficiently as online audiences. Through the commons model we can seed the Internet with high-value content and use social networks to increase the relevance and value of our work.People—especially people under the age of 30—are going to immediately understand and respond to the idea of a free Smithsonian Commons. Operation in silos A voluntary commons model built on transparency and trust—and supporting (rather than competing with) the work of the units, provides an excellent alternative to working in silos. Speed Bricks-and-mortar initiatives can take a long time to get off the ground. The Edson: Imagining a Smithsonian Commons 29
  33. 33. commons model can be prototyped and made genuinely useful in a short period of time. In the time it‟s taken to give this talk we could have used free consumer technologies to create a terrific Smithsonian Commons social network site. Maybe somebody has. Doing more with less In this economic climate, and facing an unfunded backlog of building maintenance projects, it‟s more important than ever to be able to do more with less. The beauty of the commons is that it scales: by involving the public we can amplify the reach and impact of the Institution‟s baseline activities. There are only a few of us: there are billions of Internet users a click or two away. We probably have things they‟re interested in and they‟ll love us if we share. Governance and integrity To be successful, a commons must be inherently trusted and transparent. These are excellent reflexes to cultivate and highlight within the Institution. This is the right model to perpetuate. Education Planning next-generation education programs is a top-priority at the Smithsonian.A content commons can serve both as a collaborative workspace used to create programs and a clearinghouse used to distribute and improve them. Research Smithsonian researchers need private, semi-private, and public collaboration and information-access platforms to advance and share their work. Aggregating these services into a commons provides a stable base and opens the door to new kinds of cross-disciplinary investigation. When we first started putting collections online in the 1990‟s we were able to see our Edson: Imagining a Smithsonian Commons 30
  34. 34. holdings in brand new ways: imaging now being to see across collections, and across institutions, with the same clarity. Revenue generation in harmony with mission Attempting to monetize access to, and use of, media and ideas is not a sustainable business model. Through these low-margin business practices we alienate users, perpetuate the practice of institutions charging each other, discourage research and publication,and undermine our civic mission. The commons presents a win-win alternative: gradually reduce our dependence on revenue from access and use fees by aggregating visitors under a strong brand and offering sponsorships and other value-added products and services. (NPR has an exemplary business model in this regard.) We‟re going to make much more money with “free” and a large audience than by charging for transactions with a small audience, and it‟s a much better fit with our mission. Leadership Position Championing free and open content and asserting the critical role of public institutions in stimulating innovating and knowledge creation would define the Smithsonian as a leader. Science, education, creativity, and civic discourse are all headed towards a participatory commons model. Being out front now will heighten our influence and stature, and funders are often willing to help institutions take risks if it‟s likely they can succeed and lead. Institutional legacy The Smithsonian Commons can leave a lasting legacy for the Institution. It is truly a return to the roots of our mission, a gift to the world, and a vote of confidence in participatory culture and innovation. The Smithsonian Commons marries James Smithson‟s vision of what a knowledge institution can and should be to how knowledge can and will be created in this century. Edson: Imagining a Smithsonian Commons 31
  35. 35. It‟s also a vote of confidence in the transcendent creativity and imagination of the people, and I think James Smithson would approve. (Slide: Transition) (Slide: “I want to be a commons”) (Slide: “Don‟t forget about us”) The Smithsonian Commons…coming soon? (Slide: …Coming soon?) This has been a big download—a lot of information to unpack and digest. I want to leave you, as a last impression, with a more emotional perspective… (Play trailer movie) [Note: trailer available upon request] Edson: Imagining a Smithsonian Commons 32
  36. 36. Edson: Imagining a Smithsonian Commons 33
  37. 37. References Alexa. Alexa. (accessed 11 13, 2008). Anderson, Chris. Free! Why $0.00 is the future of business. 2 25, 2008. (accessed 11 24, 2008). Battlebrands. (accessed 11 13, 2008). Blonder, Greg. Business Week: Cutting Through the Patent Thicket. 12 20, 2005. m (accessed 11 24, 2008). Bollier, David. A Rennissance of the Science Commons. 10 14, 2005. (accessed 11 24, 2008). Boyle, James. The Public Domain: Enclosing the Commons of the Mind. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2008. Christensen, Clayton. The Inventor's Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail. Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 1997. Creative Commons. CC Learn. (accessed 11 18, 2008). —. Science Commons. (accessed 11 18, 2008). Foray, Dominique. The Economics of Knowledge. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2004. Free! Why $0.00 Is the Future of Business. Wired. 2 25, 2008. (accessed 11 13, 2008). "Global Mobile Phone Users Top 3.3 Billion By End-2007." ICT Statistics Newslog. 5 26, 2007. Edson: Imagining a Smithsonian Commons 34
  38. 38. (accessed 11 11, 2008). Green, David L. Ed. IQuote: Brilliance and Banter from the Internet Age. CT: Lyons Press, 2008. Hess and Ostrom, Ed. Understand Knowedge as a Commons. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2007. Hotle, Matthew. "'Just Enough' Process for Applications (Document ID G00145561)." 3 7, 2007. (accessed 11 14, 2008). Internet World Stats. (accessed 11 18, 2008). Kundra, Vivek. "Creating the Digital Public Square." 9 9, 2008. (accessed 11 11, 2008). Lenhart, Amanda. Pew Internet & American Life Project: Adults and Social Network Websites. 1 14, 2009. (accessed 03 31, 2009). Lessig, Lawrence. The Future of Ideas: The Fate of the Commons in a Connected World. New York: Random House, 2001. Malamud, Carl. "Memo re:" 5 19, 2007. (accessed 11 11, 2008). Massachusetts Institute of Technology . MIT Open Courseware . (accessed 11 14, 2008). McCracken, Harry. PC World: Google's Eric Schmidt at D (sic). 5 31, 2007. Edson: Imagining a Smithsonian Commons 35
  39. 39. (accessed 11 14, 2008). Meet the experts: Robert Sutor on the IBM patent commons initiative, IBM Developerworks. 5 23, 2005. (accessed 11 11, 2008). Morville, Peter. Ambient Findability: What We Find Changes Who We Become. O'Reilly Media, 2005. National Institutes of Health. PubMed Central (PMC). (accessed 11 14, 2880). National Knowledge Commission. Recommendations for Higher Education . November 29, 2006. (accessed 3 30, 2009). New York Times: Disney Retreats at Bull Run . 9 30, 1994. A962958260&scp=5&sq=disney%20eisner%20manassas&st=cse (accessed 11 14, 2008). NPR. NPR: Protest Puts Smithsonian Images on Flickr Site. 5 27, 2007. (accessed 11 14, 2008). O'Reilly, Tim. "Web 2.0: Design Patterns and Business Models for the Next Generation of Software." O' 9 30, 2005. (accessed 4 24, 2008). Edson: Imagining a Smithsonian Commons 36
  40. 40. Porn passed over as Web users become social. Reuters. 9 16, 2008. mber=2&virtualBrandChannel=10112&sp=true (accessed 11 13, 2008). Salleh, Anna. ABC Science: "Old Boys" club holding back science. 10 3, 2008. (accessed 11 18, 2008). Shirky, Clay. Here Comes Everybody. New York: Hyperion, 2008. Smithsonian Institution. "Smithsonian Institution FY 2007 Annual Report." Smithsonian Institution. (accessed 11 11, 2008). Sydney Jones and Susannah Fox. Pew Internet & American Life Project: Generations Online in 2009. 1 28, 2009. (accessed 3 31, 2009). Tancer, Bill. Click: What Millions of People are Doing Online and Why it Matters. New York: Hyperion, 2008. Tapscott, Don and Williams, Anthony D. Wikinomics. USA: Penguin, 2006. Thompson, Clive. Clive Thompson on Social Networks and the Wrath of Moms. Wired. 10 20, 2008. (accessed 11 13, 2008). von Hipple, Eric. Democratizing Innovation. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2005. Edson: Imagining a Smithsonian Commons 37
  41. 41. 1 Internet World Stats, November, 2007 statistics from International Telecommunications Union, 3 James Smithson set the wheels in motion in his will, which was drafted in 1826. 4 Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, Judge Alex Kozinski, emphasized the role of free content and the public domain in an influential 1988 intellectual property decision involving, of all people, game show icon Vanna White. Judge Kozinski wrote: “Nothing today, likely nothing since we tamed fire, is genuinely new: Culture, like science and technology, grows by accretion, each new creator building on the works of those who came before. Overprotection stifles the very creative forces it‟s supposed to nurture.” (Lessig 2001) p 203 5 This is an almost universal idea. I picked up on the idea of rights “thickets” from Hess and Ostrom (2007) and also Blonder (2005), though I believe it‟s origin is elsewhere. 6 Boyle, 2008, p 40 7 Bollier, 2005 8 See for a description of the Attribution-Noncommercial license 9 Lessig, 2001, p 14 10 Green, 2008 11 Tapscott, 2006, p 81. On Meet the experts: Robert Sutor on the IBM patent commons initiative (IBM Developerworks, 2005) Robert Sutor, Vice President of Standards at IBM says about their patent commons: “This is all about increasing innovation. This is all about understanding that open and collaborative work is becoming increasingly important, and that when balanced with the traditional proprietary model, open and collaborative work can drive new and wonderful things for the industry.” 12 Tapscott 2006, p 83 13 Shirky, p 21 14 As Nancy Kranich, former head of the American Library Association, puts it, “Understanding knowledge as a commons offers a way not only of countering the challenges of access posed by enclosure [of resources], but of building a fundamental institution for the twenty-first century.” (Hess and Ostrom, 2007, p92) 15 Kundra, 2008 16 National Institutes of Health, see References for URL 17 The NPR story, Protest Puts Smithsonian Images on Flickr Site, contrasts the Smithsonian‟s public domain policies with those of the Library of Congress. The context of the Matt Raymond quote is: “Like the Smithsonian, the Library of Congress gets the majority of its funding from the Federal Government, but the library is taking a very different approach to the prints and photographs it makes available online. Spokesman Matt Raymond says that more than 1 Million digital images are available for free, no questions asked. „We were established by congress as a universal repository of human creativity and knowledge, and that includes vast amounts of items that are in the public domain. It is our mission to make those freely available, whether in the 21 reading rooms of the Library of Congress, or online.‟ (NPR 2007) 18 From an ongoing end-user survey of our Flickr Commons users. Official/final results have not yet been released. 19 Massachusetts Institute of Technology OCW, see Works Cited for URL 20 Sourced from both Open Access News ( and the MIT Web site ( (Both accessed 3/30/2009.) 21 SubbiahArunachalam‟s presentation at the 2009 TELDAP conference, Taiwan. Accessed at, 3/30/2009. Also see the National Knowledge Commission‟s Recommendations for Higher Education at (accessed 3/31/2009). 22 My first contact with the word “findability” was through reading Peter Morville‟sAmbient Findability: What We Find Changes Who We Become (O‟Reilly, 2005). I use the word to escape the traps of talking about search, information architecture, design, and labeling in isolation. Findability is all of those things interacting together. 23 A web-traffic measurement tool that uses online panels of users to measure traffic. 2 Edson: Imagining a Smithsonian Commons 38
  42. 42. 24 The “about” page says: “Enchanted Learning, LLC produces children's educational web sites and games which are designed to capture the imagination while maximizing creativity, learning, and enjoyment. We believe that children learn the most (and retain it the longest) when they are actively involved in educational pursuits that are clear, logical, stimulating, and fun. Ease of use is a hallmark of our material. Children need the clearest, simplest computer interface, and our material is created so that the navigation and controls are intuitive. Our mission is to produce educational materials that emphasize creativity and the pure enjoyment of learning. The underlying message is that curiosity and exploration lead to delightful learning experiences. WEB SITES DEVELOPED by Jeananda Col and Mitchell Spector” accessed 11/12/2008 25 Wikipedia: 26 Even pornography may be losing to social sites. In a widely reported story, Bill Tancer of Hitwise says in his book Click that “surfing for porn” has dropped in half over the last ten years. “My theory is that young users spend so much time on social networks that they don't have time to look at adult sites,” says Tancer. (Porn passed over as Web users become social, 2008. 0112&sp=true ) 27 28 For example, 29 I asked Lee Rainie, Director of the Pew Internet and American Life Project, if they had updated this graph since 2007. He said they had not because they‟re starting to incorporate new elements into their definition of “social networking,” such as participation in virtual worlds. But the project‟s recent Adults and Social Networking Sites report (1/14/2009, seems to back up the assertion that the adoption rate of social and participatory software tools is rising among older Americans: “Back in February of 2005, just 8% of adult internet users had used a social network site. That percentage had risen to 16% by August of 2006, and as of December 2008 stands at 35% of online adults.” (Page 3.) Mr. Rainie also said “I would bet a bunch that the lines would move up and eventually flatten a bit. In other words, the disproportionate tilt towards the young will abate over time and lots more people will be content creators.” (Email to author, 3/25/09.) Another point of reference is Pew‟s Generations Online in 2009 report (January 28, 2009,, accessed 3/29/2009) which says “The biggest increase in internet use since 2005 can be seen in the 70-75 year-old age group.While just over one-fourth (26%) of 70-75 year olds were online in 2005, 45% of that age group is currently online. Much as we watch demographic and age groups move up in „degrees of access‟ on our „thermometers.‟” 30 Email to the author, 21 April, 2008. Author Bruce Sterling puts it another way: “If you‟re under 21 you don‟t likely care about any supposed difference between virtual and actual, online and off. That‟s because the realms are penetrating each other. Google Earth mingles with Google Maps and daily life shows up on Flickr.” (Green, 2008) 31 Email to author, 3/25/09 Edson: Imagining a Smithsonian Commons 39

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  • ghardin

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Text version of keynote presentation to 2009 Computers in Libraries conference. 4/1/09. See also supporting PowerPoint slides. This text is in the Public Domain. Video of me giving this presentation is at


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