Building cybercabinets: Best practices in online access to digital natural history collections

Rachel Sargent, USA

Published paper: Building Cybercabinets: Guidelines for Online Access to Digital Natural History Collections

Natural history is deeply important to a wide range of human endeavors, yet access to such knowledge is at an all-time low for the general public. In the age of the Internet, engaging the public online is critical to building audiences and broadening support for natural history, yet online access to collections is currently an under-utilized tool for promoting public appreciation of natural history. This research examines ways natural history can be effectively and creatively presented online to the public and culminates in offering eight guidelines aimed at supporting development decisions for natural history web initiatives.
The guidelines are supported by research reviewing relevant literature, analyzing six model sites with an heuristic evaluation tool and a user survey, and exploring three case studies in depth by interviewing key project personnel. The heuristic analysis was designed using trends identified in the digital collections literature, and incorporating ideas from Internet epistemologists which are often overlooked in museum dialogue. User survey data was drawn from three groups: high school students, teachers, and professional adults and reveals their preference patterns. The case studies range from a well-established online collections portal to an in-progress pilot data mash up project and reveal how superficially disparate projects can share underlying philosophies.
The eight guidelines cover issues ranging from design considerations to project philosophies. The first recommendation is to be useful, which includes incorporating simplicity of design, findability, and deep content into any web project. The second guideline is to be beautiful. A beautiful site will win over visitors even if they have little prior interest in natural history and have never heard of the host institution. The third lesson is keep it personal, since users engage more with websites that allow them to personalize their experiences. The fourth guideline is to provide serendipity by supporting unexpected discoveries on the part of users. The fifth guideline is to share. Sharing through open access and linking between sites as one of the primary advantages of the Internet and promotes user trust, online community building, and creative content re-use. The sixth recommendation is to encourage participation by thinking of online access as an on-going dialogue with site users. The seventh guideline is to provide access to experts, one of the primary resources users are looking for when they turn to museum sites. The final guideline is to collaborate across institutional boundaries. When institutions share through collaboration, their pooled resources become a richer source of content.
The goal behind these guidelines is to promote creative online access to natural history collections aimed at a public audience. Natural history museums have barely begun to plumb the potential of the Internet for reaching diverse audiences to advocate for nature and the environment. The public needs access to natural history as much as ever, presenting collections online is supported by a growing body of research, and natural history museums can take advantage of the new networked knowledge ecology on the Internet to create "cybercabinets" of digital natural history specimens.