Online service to bring collaborative IT to Canadian museums

An interactive online space has been launched for museum professionals and volunteers that will allow them to collaborate and share information in a sector that is tight on resources.

It’s aimed at helping museums target their audience through the use of technology, such as blogs and podcasts.

Housed within the Canadian Heritage Information Network (CHIN) site, the Knowledge Exchange provides online courses on the creation, management and preservation of digital content. It also supports “communities of practice” where participants can exchange ideas, documents and references on Web-based tools, as well as information about wikis, blogs and podcasts. The Knowledge Exchange was officially launched in May and will eventually replace the CHIN site.

“This idea emerged more than a year ago as we started to look at how people were learning online,” said Wendy Thomas, CHIN’s project manager. New applications have become possible through the use of open source software, she said, and CHIN saw this as an opportunity to bring together museums that are geographically dispersed with varying levels of access, from dial-up to high-speed.

Museum professionals are already accustomed to working together, collaborating and using new technologies to communicate, she added. “Canada has set a real trend in terms of museums and use of new technologies to promote themselves, manage their collections and share information about their collections.” This is a natural step, she said, as new concepts – such as blogs and podcasts – increase in popularity.

One of the goals of the site is to help museum professionals and volunteers understand their audience and trends in the public’s use of new technologies, so they can take advantage of those on their Web sites. It’s looking at ways to explain wikis, blogs and podcasting, and demonstrating their relevance to museums, said Thomas.

The CHIN site is no longer a portal, but a repository that’s searchable, said Edward Krahn, manager for the museum’s unit with the Yukon Department of Tourism.

“In the past, CHIN was very good at developing evaluations of databases and software and hardware,” he said. “They were doing a good job of getting that information out, but there were suggestions by a number of the museums that there might be opportunities to establish peer assistance and communities of learning and that’s the new initiative.”

Because resources are limited and museums are spread across the country, this site will allow them to work on projects together and divvy up work, he said. “Right now we’ve got a group of museum types that are looking at contribution programs that we’re funding, and looking at ways we can start sharing this information,” he said.

Krahn is also part of a group called the Alliance of Natural History Museums of Canada, which includes 12 museums across the country. The group is looking at how it can use the Knowledge Exchange site to post its minutes and share information.

“I think that will be happening more and more as like-minded groups come together,” he said. “One area we worked on was ‘Friends Of’ and we’re looking at how we can share that. Our group is in discussions with CHIN about establishing one for the Alliance.”

Hundreds of museum professionals and volunteers have already contacted CHIN, said Daniel Feeny, CHIN’s business development and marketing manager, though CHIN doesn’t have any exact numbers on usage at this point.

“We have more than 1,200 members and institutions with us,” said Feeny, “so we are a strong network and we want to position our site as a place where heritage professionals and volunteers can overcome physical distance to learn, collaborate and share.”

CHIN is also working in partnership with Cornell University to come up with short-term strategies for long-term preservation issues and provide education on digital preservation to museum professionals.

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Vawn Himmelsbach
Vawn Himmelsbach
Is a Toronto-based journalist and regular contributor to IT World Canada's publications.

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