Saturday, January 07, 2006

Findable Public History

[A newer edition of this post is available here]

I am currently reading Peter Morville's new book Ambient Findability, which is concerned with how people find their way through information and through the world. Many of the ideas that he explores have direct relevance for public history. For example, online marketing is rapidly shifting the balance of power from advertisers to consumers, from 'push' to 'pull'. One implication of this (and Morville's main point) is that 'findability' becomes crucial. Consumers use tools like search engines to find information and evaluate it; if your product is too far down the results page it may as well not exist. Another implication is that there is an effect that Chris Anderson calls the Long Tail. There is a sizable market for things that are only available online. As an example, Anderson and his colleagues estimate that a quarter to a third of Amazon's book sales are for books that are not on their top-100,000 bestsellers list. If the average Barnes & Noble or Chapters carries about 100,000 books, then these are the books that you won't find in stores.

As an academic historian, I can tell you that these include almost all of the books written by my colleagues, and will no doubt include my own book when I get it published. Should we throw up our hands? Not necessarily. In Digital History, Cohen and Rosenzweig argue that

digitization can dramatically increase the use of previously neglected collections by making inaccessible materials easily discoverable. The Making of America collection largely draws from books from the University of Michigan’s remote storage facility that had rarely been borrowed in more than thirty years. Yet researchers now access the same 'obscure' books 40,000 times a month.

What does this mean for public historians? On the one hand, it means that there is probably a significant online audience for any of our work. On the other, it means that we have to be concerned with findability. For every work we produce we should be asking ourselves, "how are people going to get here?"

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