After announcing Omnia’s database management services in my last blog post, I now offer a broader reflection on the role of digital products for small cultural organizations. Specifically, I want to assert that digital services and platforms are not ends in and of themselves, but merely tools to advance an organization’s mission. This is certainly not a new sentiment in the digital humanities world, but it bears repeating especially for small organizations with precious limited resources. It can be all too easy for institutions to spend money on digital tools or produce digital products that do not meaningfully engage audiences or advance an institutional mission; on the other end of the spectrum, some organizations are understandably wary of engaging with digital services because of the initial cost of change. I believe there is a middle ground where cultural institutions can responsibly approach digital services by asking how the tool will help the organization accomplish its work. To that end, here are three critical questions for cultural organizations to ask before adopting a digital tool, whether for social media, digital collections, database management, and beyond:
What are your organization’s mission and strategic goals?
This question ideally guides all important changes in an organization, and advancing a mission or strategic goal may not have anything to do with the digital world. However, here is a non-comprehensive list of strategic goals that may warrant an investigation into digital tools:
- Engage younger/online/non-geographic-specific audiences
- Increase membership/donations/contributions
- Increase accessibility to collections/historical content
- Collaborate with stakeholders to produce history
Who are your audiences/stakeholders/collaborators?
Where and how do your existing and potential publics spend time online, if at all? Do you want to engage audiences that use the internet to research, sign up for events, or make donations? If you want to collaborate on producing history, are your stakeholders invested in digital content? How might a digital form shape the accessibility of historical material for online audiences? Note that these questions resist viewing online space as a place to replicate analog processes and instead ask how digital tools might uniquely help an organization engage with stakeholders. (For more on what this means for digital exhibits, check out this post.)
What digital tools are available and do you have the resources to maintain them?
Only after asking the previous two questions does it make sense to start considering specific software. And while this question is technically two questions in one, it only makes sense to select tools that an organization can reasonably sustain over the long term. This means assessing existing financial and personnel resources, but don’t be afraid to reorient processes around digital tools if it will ultimately advance the mission. In fact, reframing digital transitions as mission-driven work better justifies the tangible and intangible costs of change. If it can benefit the efficacy of an organization in advancing its mission, it is well worth spending time and money to select and maintain the right digital tool.