Interview with Michael Edson from the Smithsonian Institution

By Michael Stephens |

Meeting Michael Edson and presenting on the same docket with him was one of the highlights of my time at the U Game U Learn Conference this past April in The Netherlands. Michael Edson is Director of Web and New Media Strategy for the Smithsonian Institution and was in Delft to talk about the Smithsonian Commons project that recently debuted as a prototype here:  The day after the  UGUL conference, we turned a serendipitous meeting at the Delft train station into a late afternoon walk around the town and dinner filled with conversation about our work, views of organizations and the future of library/museum services. It was one of those perfect “on the road speaking” travel experiences I most enjoy.

The commons project prototype is a multi-faceted, well-planned and researched virtual community that seeks to engage and inspire visitors. Explore the site for more - including videos of the various personas of visitors: museum visitor, teacher, millennial, and enthusiast. Howard Rheingold, someone I consider to be one of the best authorities of the power of virtual community and interaction, recently said:
“The Smithsonian Commons is not just about using contemporary technology to further an enterprise that was founded with deep respect for American technological innovation, but about expanding the idea of the institution itself. Every click on a website, every video viewed, every exhibition shared via mobile device, every citizen scientist project, every teacher and student interaction with the Smithsonian via social media expands the idea of what the Smithsonian Institution is, who it reaches, what it can do.” (

Sadly, my travel schedule prevented me from hearing Michael at ALA Annual in Washington DC, but I gladly followed mention of his talk via Twitter and blog posts. I also made sure that he’d spend some time chatting with me for Techsource as part of our coverage of Annual.

Michael Stephens: Michael - Thank you for your expertise and for sharing so much of what you’re doing via conferences and online communities. I’ve spent a lot of time reading your work, exploring your slides and viewing the videos at the Commons prototype. I’ll be including this in my LIS768 class this fall as an example of emerging social technologies meeting the mission of an institution perfectly. Tell me a bit about the planning process for the Commons.

Micheal Edson: The process to date has been more about internal education—persuasion—and preparing leadership to plan and execute the Web and New Media Strategy than about planning to do the Smithsonian Commons per se. Our Web and New Media Strategy makes a small number of very specific, achievable tactical recommendations, one of which is to develop the Smithsonian Commons, but there are a lot of other important pieces in there that need doing too, such as bringing a higher degree of focus on governance, mobile platforms, usability, measurement and analysis, and findability across all the Smithsonian's digital properties.

It only occurred to me recently that it will be a long time until we're organized and resourced to properly attack these tasks in a comprehensive way, and the Smithsonian Commons concept could be the alluring goal that gets us to do the difficult and less glamorous things that we need to have overall success.

The ideas of the Smithsonian Commons have not come easily to everyone. People are busy and not everyone is as immersed in new media culture as our digital practitioners. It reminds me of William Gibson's famous quip that the future has arrived, it's just not evenly distributed yet. We produced the Smithsonian Commons Prototype as a way to help focus discussion about the Big Ideas of the Web and New Media Strategy and it's been a very successful campaign. The Institution is now beginning to see how this all might work, and now we're starting activities that a good project manager might recognize as project planning.

MS: Where did the Smithsonian Commons idea come from?

ME: The idea of the Smithsonian Commons emerged from discussions among Smithsonian Web and New Media practitioners in the Fall of 2008. We knew we needed a model—a platform—that supported the independent work of Web teams and innovators throughout the Institution, but that also made the independent work of Web teams easier and gave us network effects so the sum of all our individual projects would add up to more than the whole. I'd been thinking about intellectual property and "future of work" issues and studying the work of Lawrence Lessig, James Boyle, Tim O'Reilly, Clay Shirky, Chris Anderson, and Don Tapscott and Anthony Williams (who wrote Wikinomics) for a while—and also reflecting on the mission and history of the Smithsonian—the concept of a commons just made sense. The Smithsonian was founded on the idea that everyone should have access to the raw materials of discovery and knowledge creation, and the concept of a knowledge commons or learning commons seemed to be completely harmonious with those ideas. The commons also provides a compelling collaboration model that allows disparate groups of people to collaborate and work together without having to sacrifice their autonomy to a central authority: this aspect of the commons is soothing in an organization that has unresolved issues around departmental autonomy and central control.

MS: The connection between libraries and museums gets clearer and clearer to me, especially after my speaking trip to Germany. At our Stammtisch evening, I spent a long time chatting with a museum employee. Her take was this: “We have 30 seconds to grab a visitor’s attention. We can’t use a blog. We can’t create a social experience in that time...”  Then at UGUL, you said to the audience “We have competition from EVERYONE.” What can museums - and libraries - do in this time of great competition to meet the needs of users and non-users alike? How do we “grab” them?

ME: The "We're competing with everyone" line I used at UGUL is from my "Imagining a Smithsonian Commons" paper [ starting around p 21]. I'm trying to build a case for greater Institutional focus on Web and new media by showing that many of our beloved Institutions just aren't as relevant and useful as we think they are.

I think the issue of "how we grab them" is both practical and a philosophical. The degree to which we do and don't need to "grab" our audiences is contingent on the individual missions of our organizations—the work we need to do in society.
I recall that there are something like 18,000 museums in the U.S., and I don't know how many libraries, archives, history centers, and the like—each one of which has a different mission, audience, collection, staff, and board of directors. Some of these missions can be accomplished by sitting back and guarding vaults, while others require us to compete with Lady Ga Ga [? Gaga?]. I am content, as a U.S. taxpayer (who subsidizes the operations of many of many libraries, museums, and archives) and global citizen, with a spectrum of approaches as long as organizations pursue their missions with urgency and verve. I am not content when our public institutions posture about their own importance but neglect to use the tools, logic, and culture of digital technology when those tools could be profoundly helpful. No director should allow this: no board of directors should tolerate it.

Once, through strategy and mission and executive focus, we've established a need and a willingness to "grab" people, how to grab them becomes a process of fitting the puzzle pieces together. I always start with three questions: Who is it for? What do they want? How do you know? And the answers are always surprising and refreshing. We did some person-on-the-street interviews for our digital strategy effort last year where we asked people what they wanted from the digital Smithsonian,  [] and they weren't so interested in our social networks but they really want images and videos of everything in the collections. That surprised me, and it had a big influence on the work we're doing. Chris Anderson's The Long Tail gives us all permission to find a route to success by cultivating engagement with niche audiences around niche content—and museums, libraries, and archives have nothing if not niche content!

MS: Finally, I’ll urge readers to check out all the links below, but I thought we’d end on this. For small libraries that might not have a lot of financial resources or libraries facing funding issues, how do the ideas built in to Commons project scale? What can they do to compete in their markets?

ME: Map collector and entrepreneur David Rumsey [] (who has spoken at IMLS and many museum and library conferences) advised me that the ethos of this era in digital technology is "do what you can, but DO it!" It has never been easier to publish and connect digital content and there is nothing but opportunity for those willing to place a bet and get their feet wet.

I know there's always resource pressure (believe me, we have it here!), but as Harry Houdini said "there's always a little slack somewhere." At the ALA conference I invoked the presence of an Extra Terrestrial Auditor to bring this into focus: if an auditor from outer space flew her spaceship down to your library and tried to match your mission with the way you spend your time and money, would the two things match? Digital initiatives take time and money, but so does everything else you do. How can your director justify *not* finding resources to start connecting with the 4+ billion people who use the Internet or the thousands of people in your local community who are online too?

I constantly marvel at how grateful the public is when a small collection just publishes a few images to Flickr. I follow the Nova Scotia Archives on Twitter [] and every once in a while they publish a cool photograph of cod-drying racks or old ships or some fact from Nova Scotia history. It's joyous and playful and it expands my understanding of the universe a little.

At higher levels of effort you need some strategic thinking to help you figure out what to do and what not to do, but just getting started and starting the organizational learning process is the most important step, and at some level it doesn’t really matter what that first step is as long as you're engaged. I have yet to hear of a collection area, a topic, or even a single idea that doesn't already have an active online audience surrounding it. Even modest contributions from museums, libraries, and archives can make a difference in people's lives.


Smithsonian Commons Prototype: (Michel urges all ALA TechSource readers to their input, votes, and comments!)
About the Commons Blog Post:
Michael Edson: