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Switch-Tasking and Twittering Into the Future at Library and Museum Meeting

WASHINGTON, D.C.—If you’re used to the decorum of a big academic conference—the Modern Language Association’s annual confab, for instance—the atmosphere at last week’s WebWise Conference on Libraries and Museums in the Digital Age comes as a bit of a shock. No more furtive tapping away at your laptop in the dark corners of meeting rooms. Laptops are not only tolerated at WebWise, they’re practically mandatory.

At this year’s WebWise conference, held here Feb. 26-27, the organizers—the Institute of Museum and Library Services and the Wolfsonian museum at Florida International University—arranged for a designated conference wifi connection. They also set up a backchannel Twitter-style feed (via a service called Today’s Meet) where attendees kept up a lively running dialogue in short-message form during the presentations. Many were tweeting at the same time, tagging their posts to create a running Twitter stream of commentary and i-reports. (Twitter also turns out to be a handy way to solicit local restaurant recommendations.)

Don’t call it multitasking; “switch-tasking” was the term du jour. Welcome to the conference of the very, very near future.

“Digital Debates” was the theme this year, but one didn’t hear much debate among the 300 or so museum and library professionals who showed up and plugged in. (There were power strips on every table.) Most sounded eager to figure out how to use social networks—Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, etc.—to expand their audiences and draw on outside expertise. They seemed to agree with Michael Edson, director of digital media strategy at the Smithsonian Institution, who said in a presentation that “the future of knowledge creation is about putting it out there and building it collaboratively.” That’s how “tomorrow’s scholars” will operate, he said. Several presenters made similar points about today’s young people, the so-called digital natives who grew up with technology and use it as much to create content as to consume it.

Shelley Bernstein, chief of technology at the Brooklyn Museum, told a story about how social networking can benefit a cultural institution. The museum posted some images from its collection on The Commons, a space on the photo-sharing site Flickr dedicated to public photo collections. Not much happened at first, she said, and the museum was about to abandon the experiment until a group of devoted Flickr users began to make use of the material. One was so taken by the museum’s photos of the 1893 Chicago Exposition that he started adding tags to identify different buildings. Like a good curator or archivist, he even provided sources. “Now we see people who have a real investment in these materials looking at them and helping us,” Ms. Bernstein said. —Jennifer Howard

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