Should We Still Create Digital and Virtual Content?
It’s been over two years since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in America. When schools first closed, families quarantined together, and people complained of boredom at home, public history institutions rallied to create innovative digital content and virtual programming even as they dealt with their own organizational challenges and closings. A lot of us felt frustrated by the online transition. We work in the humanities, after all, not STEM! We barely knew how to work Zoom ourselves, much less use it to host a virtual family workshop. Many are exhausted by the rapid transformation of becoming overnight tech experts and just want things to go back to normal. Yet, is this our new normal, or should it be our new normal? As museums, historic sites, archives, and other institutions begin to open their doors once again, public historians must decide if they will bring digital and virtual content with them into their new normal. While each institution’s situation is different, here are five points to consider as you assess past efforts and consider future endeavors.
1. Define success
All activities facilitated by or spearheaded by your institution must have a purpose. That goes for digital content in addition to physical content. This concept may seem basic, but in the early stages of the pandemic, many of us were racing to create digital content with less regard for whether or not that content supported ongoing projects, long-term strategic plans, and ultimately the institution’s mission. We worked with what we had to try to meet new needs. Now, two years into the pandemic, we can take a step back to evaluate how our online efforts have panned out and how to effectively define success for future projects. Determining what success means (whether that is refining purpose or establishing a measurable goal) can help your institution plan better, attract support, and find funding.
2. Evaluate your growth
Don’t judge current and future projects by past standards. Consider your growth: new skill sets, new ideas, new perspectives. Two years later, it takes you half the time to set up a catalog entry for public viewing. You may even know how to code a little bit now. Your volunteers are more open to the idea of assisting with digital projects. In fact, everyone has developed a little more patience with technology. As you are scheduling content production, asses your personal and institutional growth in terms of affecting project timing and skilled labor resourcing (i.e. contractual work, volunteer involvement).
3. New audiences
New audiences are created when accessibility expands. Many have likely noticed an increase in long-distance ‘visitors’ and students who can utilize kid-friendly language and activities. Many may not have considered, however, how intentional digital content can benefit those with disabilities. A person using a mobility device may find a historic site physically inaccessible, but digitizing collections provides them with the opportunity to ‘visit’ the historic house museum, perhaps for the first time or the first time in a long time. A special tour group going behind-the-scenes at the archives may be inaccessible to a person with a hearing-impairment, but uploading videos of a similar tour with closed captions opens that experience up. Before totally writing off digital content, or when discussing potential improvements to existing content, consider how those resources could benefit these special audiences.
4. New relationships
You and your institution likely built new partnerships in the course of discovering new audiences. Fostering sustainable relationships with community members and organizations can help both parties promote their respective missions and reach mutually beneficial goals. For example, you may have built a partnership with a large university a few counties over for a virtual lecture series the past two years. You may have created relationships with school systems that are too far away to make a field trip to your museum through your Google classroom. If you divested from online content, would you effectively divest from these relationships? Alternatively, should you prioritize digital programming that builds upon these partnerships?
5. Is the pandemic really over? and other nightmare-ish scenarios made less so
Let’s face it. We have no real way of accurately predicting when the pandemic will come to an end. It can’t hurt to prepare your institution for another lockdown. In fact, investing time into creating a small repository of digital content (and resources to create something in a stitch), even while operating as usual, can help prepare for several different unexpected circumstances. For example, a routine pest inspection reveals a termite infestation on your historic house museum’s front porch, and your institution determines that the best course of action is to close until the structure is safe for visitors. Rather than panicking, you know that you can reach into your archives and publish the small digital exhibit you have been saving, or open the folder with all of the resources you need to put on a virtual cocktail hour later that week. If you can anticipate any closings, you can schedule and market digital content and virtual programming ahead of time to increase the likelihood that your efforts will be successful.
Digital content and virtual programming is likely here to stay, and by now, many public historians have decided that isn’t a bad thing. What other factors affect your thinking about the viability of online components? How do you define ‘success’ in these contexts? Drop a comment below!