Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Polymaths, experts, and the new information hunter-gatherers

I chewed through more than a few metaphors to try to encapsulate a concept that's been occupying my thoughts a great deal lately. In the end, describing it simply was best.

Before the connectivity of the modern world, the learned elite gained information in isolation, with exacting slowness. What one person learned was very often confined to that one person. Reading something and committing it to memory, or writing it out in a personal reference/index system were ways to gain and retain knowledge. One person could be a deep, thorough expert in their field, calling to mind a host of examples and connections based on personal study and personal experience. Their knowledge was internalized and kept secure with themselves, and they could speak eloquently on their subject by drawing on their own store of expertise.

Now, a new expert is emerging, more along the model of a card catalog. Think of a person who may not be able to speak eloquently on, for example, the various dictates of the Second Lateran Council of 1139, but who has a broad grasp of the movement of history during the 12th century and can easily and quickly locate information about the canon law adopted during the council, articles that interpret particular aspects of that law, and is savvy enough to sort through junk information to find relevant details quickly.

Think of the first as a person who stores information, and the second as a person who stores pathways to information. The second person will be able to move more quickly, access a broader range of subjects, and use the tools of the modern world more effectively.

But the first person is our deep thinker, who can connect all the dots of a problem and can speak with authority. The first person knows the location, hours, and menu of a local Mexican restaurant because they have been there; the second person knows that the restaurant is down the street a ways, and can quickly narrow down to the correct restaurant on his iPhone.

Are we moving toward a culture where we value the latter over the former? Is the latter more uniquely suited to the world today, and the former is a dying breed? Does everyone need a bit of both? Which is the more useful in a museum environment - or do we need both? Are the experts our curators, and the indexes our visitor services managers?

Friday, December 21, 2012

Twas the Night Before Christmas

Just in case you haven't seen this hilarious re-writing from a registrar's perspective, here it is re-posted.

To the Top of the Case, To The Top of the Hall 
Now Pack Away, Box Away, Move Away All! A visit from St. Entropy, who,  like St. Bernard, comes to the rescue of those lost in the drifts. 

 ‘Twas the Night before Christmas, with nothing to prove—We were still reeling from the museum’s big move.There were boxes and boxes of…still more, smaller boxes,Full of papers and pictures and foxes and rockses.Huge jars stuffed with fish and enormous whale testiclesTeeny jars crammed with spiders and vesiclesThe movers had helped out by acting as sorters,Then submitted our names to the film crew of “Hoarders.”Not a creature was stirring—they were packed in too tight,Wrapped in paper and foam and unable to bite.We sat on wood crates and used boxes as tables,And discovered that…somehow…we’d lost all the labels.The boxes stretched out to the vanishing point,But not one helpful word could be found in the joint.Remember the last scene shown in “The Lost Ark?”This was seven times worse—and we sat in the dark.Not a thing had been copied, not a word databased,And our system collapsed due to very cheap paste.Without opening every box that we had,There was no way for us to move into our pad.  This called for a nightcap. Or several. Or many.Any solvents unpacked? Why, you guessed it—not any.So the director (with curses) and curators (with whining)Settled in for a night of unpacking and mining.When all of a sudden I heard such a droneI knew in an instant it must be my phoneI reached in my pocket, turned it on with a snap,And what should appear but the Dear Santa® app!It connected to Google and mapped our location,Then demanded a password for verification.My phone screen showed something all disjunct and frayedLike one of those paintings by Thomas Kinkade™.When, what to my wandering eyes should appear,But a miniature sleigh and eight androideerWith a jolly old driver, so lively and quick,I knew in a moment it must be St Nick.More rapid than banner ads his coursers they came,And he pulled out his Tablet and downloaded their names.“Now Cyber! now Ebook! on Dunder! and Twaddle!We must get there quick, we have no time to dawdle!”And then in a twinkling, as I watched on the screenNick arrived at the door looking fit, lean, and mean.A curator screamed, “My God!  It’s alive!”So I aimed for his head and threw an MRM5.Santa entered the room and got straight to unpackingWith ripping and tearing and general whacking.He filled all the shelves, crammed the drawers, stuffed the cases,Racked up the racks, leaving no empty spaces.In a flash he was finished, and all was unpackedAnd snugly assorted, complete and compact.But nothing made sense, there was no order at all.And what would not fit had been tossed in the hall.“But Santa!” I pleaded, “How will we be ableTo find the collections with nary a label?”Santa smiled like a man who’s pulled off a great featHe tapped on his phone and one box gave a tweet“I’ve equipped each “thing” with its own RFID tagThey’re findable even stuffed deep in my bag.”Sure enough every specimen, each object and box,Now bore that sign of electronic pox.Santa leaped in his sleigh, to his team gave a whistleAnd away they all flew like the down off a thistle.But I heard him exclaim, without missing a beat,“This system will work…until it’s obsolete.”
(Sally SheltonJohn Simmons and Elizabeth Merritt always find the holidays a moving experience.)

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Museum Offices

I love this old photo gallery from The Washington Post with a peek into the office of a senior curator at the National Gallery of Art. Look familiar to anyone?

Thursday, December 13, 2012

150th Anniversary of Fredericksburg

No battle is just one event, or one offensive, so technically the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Fredericksburg has been going on for a few days, and will continue into tomorrow.

But today, this morning, 150 years ago, my many-times-great-grandfather was leading his regiment toward Prospect Hill, where Confederate artillery and infantry were entrenched. They stepped off from Slaughter Pen Farm, marched through fields and across railroad tracks that are still there, and were part of General Meade's brigade, which pierced - for a few brief moments - the Confederate line. Richard Gustin's company, the Troy Guards, the company he raised and was voted captain of at the beginning of the war, suffered 50% casualties in the assault.

Slaughter Pen Farm, where the march began.

Stonewall Jackson's line.

Looking down Prospect Hill; the railroad tracks are about at the tree line.