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

Rachel Sargent, USA


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.

Keywords: Natural history, online access, digital collections, best practices

1. Introduction

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 goal behind these guidelines is to promote creative online access to natural history collections aimed at a public audience by providing general advice for such projects and raising awareness amongst natural history collections staff about the importance and potential of such projects. This paper will first discuss the importance of online access to natural history and current thought on organizing digital knowledge. Next, the methods include a model analysis of six existing sites and a case study review of three current online access projects. Finally, eight guidelines follow as the conclusions of the research and are summarized individually.

This project was intended to provide preliminary evidence about online collections browsing behavior that could inspire a more in-depth study in future. It was not intended to draw specific or technical conclusions. Due to severe time and resource constraints, the methodologies were kept simple, designed to reveal general patterns, but not hold up to fine-grained or statistical analysis. Some sites have evaluated their offerings in detail; however, a literature review revealed little to no will towards conducting a large, cross-site comparative user study that would reveal patterns of successes or weaknesses between sites. The intent with these preliminary data is to show that a larger, more detailed multi-site user evaluation would be fruitful and informative.

While natural history museums have maintained online collections resources since the early 1990s aimed at scientists and researchers, they have just begun to consider ways these resources could be made available to a wider audience than the academic community. As natural history collections custodians move towards designing collections access websites that welcome general audience users, they will face new challenges, questions relating to online interpretation, scaffolding learning experiences, and user-centered design. While natural history collections managers have not focused on online public access, some of their colleagues in art and culture museums have put a lot of thought into ground-breaking public-facing collections web projects. Lessons from these art and culture projects can provide valuable guidelines for future online natural history collections sites. At the same time, observers of the modern Internet are predicting new and interesting directions for web presences, ideas that can be incorporated advantageously into natural history sites. Successful online access to digital natural history collections will come from understanding the importance of accessing natural history resources through the Internet and incorporate ideas from the revolution in organizing digital information.

Digital Access to Natural History

More and more natural history collections professionals are pondering how natural history collections can be made accessible to a greater diversity of people. Increasingly, museum and collections professionals are turning to the Internet to answer that question. In a presentation discussing the Smithsonian Institution, Wayne Clough, the current Secretary, relates an anecdote about a visitor who was a long-time Washington, DC resident attending a VIP tour. At the end of the tour, which included research facilities and collections storage spaces, the visitor declared that this was the first time they understood the Smithsonian. Clough asks, “How can we use digital processes to allow people to connect to that experience?” (Brand, 2009). How can online access mirror the experience of a privileged tour of the collection with a knowledgeable curator?

Typically, online access to natural history collections has taken the form of an online search interface connected to a collection database. This strategy makes the unjustified assumption that the user always knows what they are looking for (Norris, 2010). According to Chris Norris of Yale University, online accessibility has been measured by numbers of specimens digitized, but it’s time to question the access value of more digital holdings if those resources cannot be found: “As far as public accessibility is concerned, one has to wonder what the point is of putting more stuff online when we do such a bad job of helping people explore what’s already there” (Norris, 2010). How can online access support the public finding resources they don’t know about?

Even as collections managers are wondering how to reach the public, the public is losing access to science, including natural history. Standards for federal accountability focus on math and language arts, often to the detriment of other subjects, as time-strapped teachers focus on these rubrics instead of pursuing broader content. Further, efforts to teach science often focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) curricula, which neglect nature-related subjects (Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning, 2011). While education in all the sciences is important, it may be more critical that students gain a basic understanding of natural history. Without an understanding of the natural world, the environmental problems facing the world today would go unnoticed, unremarked, and ultimately un-addressed (Louv, 2008). The first step for natural history museums, in the effort to re-connect the public with the natural sciences, is connecting them with the knowledge represented by natural history collections. Online collections access will be a key tool moving forward for natural history museums to engage public audiences.

Ordering Digital Knowledge

The evolving digital world of knowledge on the Internet is challenging traditional perspectives on organizing information and ideas. It is increasingly apparent that digital knowledge changes with perspective and transcends the boundaries of separate web pages to live in the links as “networked knowledge” (Weinberger, 2007; Weinberger, 2012). Internet epistemologist David Weinberger (2012) has specific recommendations for taking advantage of this networked knowledge. He suggests institutions wishing to engage fully on the Internet embrace open access, be findable and encourage reuse of their intellectual resources, link to everything, and engage across institutional boundaries.

Networked knowledge allows new and creative ways to focus passionate amateurs. Some art collections websites have explored socially collaborative features, which provide a dialogue among their users and museum experts. Here we begin to answer the first question presented in the natural history section: how can online access mirror the experience of a privileged tour of the collection with a knowledgeable curator? Users can have direct access to an open dialogue with scientists and collections staff through social tagging and commenting platforms.

Museum visitors are looking for meanings and meaning cannot be queried in a search engine. Howes (2007) advocates for incorporating serendipity into online collections access. Serendipity is when a visitor discovers something they had not been seeking, but are delighted to have found. Natural history museums are beginning to ask the question leaders in the art and culture museum field have been asking: how can online access support users finding what they hadn’t explicitly been seeking? The answer is, by providing collections browsing tools that encourage serendipitous discovery.

By answering the questions natural history collections managers face, thinking in terms of networked knowledge reveals the importance of open access and dialogue, increased linking, encouraging reuse of content through user participation, engaging across institutional boundaries, and promoting serendipitous discovery. Increasingly, natural history museums are recognizing the value of a web presence and that that value can only come to fruition if their content can be found, accessed, and reused creatively (Woods, 2007; Smithsonian Institution, 2009). As natural history museums move forward with creative collections web projects aimed at the public, there are strengths in how networked knowledge behaves that natural history collections managers can take advantage of to create “cybercabinets” (Asma, 2001) of digital natural history specimens: web projects that mimic the wonder and mystery of the original cabinets of curiosities.

2. Methods and Findings

The literature covering online access to natural history and networking knowledge through the Internet lays a foundation for thinking about new strategies in digital natural history collections access. However, in thinking about digital collections access, the views of actual users and initiators of such projects are invaluable. To gather information from users and project developers, I conducted a model analysis of six collections websites using an heuristic tool I designed and a user self-study survey and analyzed three case studies of current online digital collections projects. While this research is concerned specifically with the presentation of natural history collections online, insufficient natural history web projects exist to analyze as models. Consequently, four of the six sites are art and culture related in the theory that these projects will nevertheless have informative lessons that can be applied to cybercabinets.

All of these methodologies were kept simple to accommodate the brief time line of the project. The heuristic tool and the user self-study survey especially were designed to produce basic and preliminary information so that they would be easy to use for the volunteer study subjects. Neither can be considered to provide data that would hold up to fine-grained or rigorous statistical analysis, but rather provide early evidence for how a larger, more technical study could be conducted.

Model analysis

Heuristic evaluation

I designed an heuristic evaluation checklist using criteria identified by the literature as relevant to online collections access. Key elements were: project evaluation at all stages is critical; use web design basics to be findable and fail gracefully; keep content, navigation, and presentation simple; provide multiple entry points to content; provide access to experts; and record user activity (Economou, 1998; Soren, 2004; Kilbride, 2004; Cameron, 2005; Dunmore, 2006; Burnett & Lichtendorf, 2007; Chan, 2007; MacArthur, 2007; Howes, 2007; UKOLN, 2008). My heuristic consists of ten simple yes/no questions to use in analyzing each site’s user interface and includes a section for comments (Appendix 1). Since a website experience is fundamentally subjective, I tested the standardizing potential of the checklist by asking three additional evaluators with disparate backgrounds to evaluate the sites using the heuristic tool.

The heuristic analysis revealed that all six model sites the Paleontology Portal, the International Quilt Study Center and Explorer, the Powerhouse Museum Collection Search, SFMOMA’s Artscope, the Brooklyn Museum’s collection page, and the Encyclopedia of Life were easy to find, uncomplicated to navigate, had multiple entry points to their content, provided a lot of content, and supported browsing and serendipitous discovery, indicating that these are essential features of online digital collections access. All but one encouraged re-use of digital resources and should also be considered an essential access element. The models were evenly split on whether they allowed users to personalize their experience. Most did not provide interactive access to experts and the only two that collaborated across multiple institutions and included extensive external linking were the natural history sites.

User self-study

I designed a user self-study survey using SurveyMonkey to gather qualitative user experience data. Survey participants were asked to look at all six randomized sites, choose one to browse, and then answer seven questions (Appendix 2). The target audience groups for this survey were high school students, K-12 teachers, adults out of school with enough interest in museums to be potential visitors, and enthusiast-amateurs. The survey was accessible through a link posted to my Facebook feed, the University of Vermont’s School IT Listserv aimed at teachers, and the San Francisco Volunteer Managers Coalition Listserv aimed at museum educators and volunteers. I received 190 responses across all six sites, which were analyzed primarily qualitatively by looking at the breakdown of site popularity as supported by user comments. Charts from key multiple choice questions demonstrate the differences across sites (Figures 1-3).

The most interesting survey results came out of the user’s open-ended comments and revealed clear and consistent attributes that users favor. Visual appeal is critical for first impressions, attracting visitors, and providing a positive experience and cannot be over-emphasized. Users want a site to be useful: easy to navigate with a lot of content. Users like sites that are interactive, that allow them to do something, or participate in some way. Lastly, they do not want those sites to be text-heavy.

Case studies

The three case studies Brooklyn Museum’s Collections Browse site (, the Encyclopedia of Life (, and Connecting Content (no website) represent a range of age, size, and prestige. Case studies were selected after reviewing fifteen collections web sites, many of which were found through the archive of the Museums and the Web awards. Natural history sites were targeted, but rarely provided public access to digital collections. Consequently, the Brooklyn Museum’s page was added because of its high profile among museum collections web sites, despite being an art collection. The Encyclopedia of Life was chosen because it exemplifies a large collection of natural history, although it does not provide access to digital museum collections as such. The Connecting Content project came closest to modeling online access to digitized natural history collections, but was in progress with no existing website yet and therefore can only partially demonstrate the challenges facing online access to digital natural history collections. Each case study reveals a different lesson relevant to online access to digital natural history collections and taken together become a complete picture of the potential for cybercabinets. Case studies were conducted through a combination of interviews with key staff members and examination of project documentation, including grant proposals, published articles, and promotional materials.

The Brooklyn Museum’s Collections Browse site is popularly regarded across museum professionals and the web 2.0 blogosphere as a remarkable example of community building by uniting online collections access with social media. The site features visual browse options, research tools, social media engagement and creative community interaction revolving around the digital collections, and a high degree of transparency and access to staff through comment and chat posts.

The Encyclopedia of Life aggregates reliable biodiversity content on the Internet in a constantly evolving, up-to-the-minute, and free resource aimed at researchers, educators, students, and the general public (EOL, 2008a). EOL has six cornerstone partners who run different aspects of the encyclopedia. EOL is a huge collaboration, with currently 218 content partners ranging from natural history museums, university collections, government agencies, and international research consortia, and including popular websites like Flickr and Wikipedia (EOL, 2008b; EOL, 2012). The bulk of the site is individual species pages, which include media (photographs and videos), descriptive text, taxonomic nomenclature, maps, links to relevant institutions, and references from published scientific articles.

Connecting Content is an Institute of Museum and Library Services National Leadership Grant funded three-year project led by the California Academy of Sciences’ Library. The over-arching project includes pilot projects by seven partner institutions all focused on different challenges of digitizing specimen collections along with related field books. According to the Connecting Content grant abstract, the pilot project at the California Academy of Sciences (CAS) was planned for its novel goal of digitizing historically significant specimens and related field journals in order to re-unite both with relevant published scientific literature in one data mash-up portal that will be available to lay and expert audiences alike.

Despite the wide range of priorities, backgrounds, and sizes of the case studies, the same few themes were foundational for all three. All the case studies emphasized the importance of sharing digital resources openly, keeping the online experience personal, community building, and ensuring resources and experts were easily accessible. The primary driving force behind all these projects is the desire to share digital resources as widely as possible. By releasing digital collections onto the web under open access policies, more users are able to disseminate and re-use the content. The case study projects felt that keeping the online experience personal for users, both by allowing them to personalize their browsing and by providing a personal face to the institution, created a positive dynamic that encouraged engagement and a sense of community. Community building was a priority through other efforts, like transparent communication and social media features. Further, users benefit from and seek access to experts, which is supported by community building. Accessibility was perhaps the most important consideration for supporting content sharing. Users need to be able to find content before they can use it, which means making it findable and being flexible across multiple platforms. The case studies all recommended giving users as much control and ownership of the content as possible. If users feel they have real ownership of digital resources they will invest greater creativity into re-using those resources in new and unexpected ways.

3. Conclusions: The guidelines

These eight guidelines are based on the conclusions of the literature review, model analysis, and case studies. They are aimed at assisting the website development decisions of natural history collections professionals who wish to build cybercabinets: creative online access to digital natural history content. A cybercabinet would provide all the wonder and possibility of the cabinets of curiosity of old, but in a new digital format. These guidelines are meant as much as general advice in building cybercabinets as they are an advocacy tool for inspiring natural history collections managers to follow in the footsteps of their art and culture colleagues in making their digitized collections available to a broader, public audience. Many of the lessons they contain should come as no surprise, especially to those familiar with current museum web projects, but nevertheless represent a shift in focus and perspective for natural history collections staff who have traditionally been concerned exclusively with the needs of the scientific research community.

One: Be useful

Comments from the user self-study survey made it clear that users want sites that are easy to use. Ease of use incorporates issues of findability, accessibility, flexibility across presentation platforms, intuitive navigation, and simplicity of layout that have been discussed in the literature and by case study interviewees. The first step for a useful site is that users be able to find it. On today’s Internet, findability often equates with googlability and web developers have learned how to work with Google search algorithms to ensure a site is found and listed first in the results. All the model sites could be googled and found at the top of the search list. Accessibility is the findability of the content itself, once users have arrived at the site. Accessibility is a broad concept referring to design strategies that put content within reach of users by incorporating ADA standards, language considerations, and software availability among other concerns. Even amazing content is no good to users if they cannot use the site well enough to get to it. Web developers must understand their target audience if they are to successfully address accessibility issues. Site flexibility overlaps with accessibility and refers to the ability of the site to function adequately across multiple viewing platforms. Web designers speak of allowing sites to “fail gracefully”, meaning that a site is so well designed that even when it fails, it still allows users to access its basic functions. A flexible site can serve user needs no matter what browser or viewing device the user is employing and even if the site is not functioning at peak performance. Intuitive navigation and simplicity of layout help a site to fail gracefully while supporting ease of use. Perhaps the most important take home message for creating easy to use cybercabinets is to remember to keep them simple.

The other side of being useful is having deep content. Respondents to the user self-study survey were clear that they wanted access to a lot of content. The more digital objects specimen photographs, locality maps, collection records, etc the more useful the site to more users. In a collection site, users want to see that they have a deep resource at their fingertips, that they can have as much content as they choose to explore. Do not limit the content of a cybercabinet unless there is a good reason to do so.

Two: Be beautiful

Users in the self-study survey were unequivocal in preferring visually appealing sites. Not only did they repeatedly comment favorably on colorful or unique site graphics, they were initially attracted to sites that were visually appealing. The number one reason survey respondents chose a site to browse was because it looked fun and interesting. Conversely, respondents were very clear that they were put off by text-heavy sites. 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 original appeal of cabinets of curiosities was the aesthetically enticing objects within them and the same will be true of cybercabinets. Show off digital specimens aesthetically and users will be attracted to the site. Additionally, striving for visual appeal will align with the goals of accessibility and simplicity raised in the first guideline. Cluttered and convoluted sites are neither accessible, simple, nor attractive. By focusing on the beauty of the site design, other site qualities will fall into place.

Three: Keep it personal

The case study interviewees agreed on the importance of giving users a personal web experience (Bernstein, 2011; Chan, 2009; R. Morin, personal communication, February 1, 2012; D. Castronovo, personal communication, February 1, 2012; C. Parr, personal communication, February 7, 2012; M. Studer, personal communication, February 8, 2012; B. Byrnes, personal communication, February 8, 2012) . By allowing site visitors to personalize their interaction with a digital collections site, they become more engaged. Personalizing provides a sense of ownership and control for users and supports online community building. Survey respondents sought out and favored sites like the Quilt Explorer that allowed interactivity and gave them the ability to contribute. Features like collecting favorite digital specimens and sharing them with friends or permitting users to comment and have social interactions with each other allows users to have their own personal versions of cybercabinets.

Four: Provide serendipity

Serendipitous discovery is the unexpected discovery of something the user only knows they want after they find it. Authors from the literature were clear on the importance of serendipity to a collections web experience (Frost, 2002; Chan, 2007; Howes, 2007; Norris, 2010) and every model was employing some feature to support serendipity. Usually, serendipitous discovery tools are in the form of browsing strategies. There are many ways to support browsing, from simple similarity recommendations to algorithms that track and match user data to make sophisticated and personalized recommendations. Even simple browsing strategies can be very effective, such as the visual browsing represented by SFMOMA’s Artscope and which could readily lend itself to a cybercabinet that virtually mimics the experience of pulling open a collections drawer with its neatly laid out specimens. Incorporating more than one browsing strategy has the happy result of providing multiple entry points into the content, which is always a good idea.

Guideline two, to be beautiful, highlights the importance of having a fun and delightful web presence, which serendipity can support. Howes (2007) identifies “the joy of serendipitous discovery.” Users won’t necessarily realize they want serendipity as part of their online experience and Howes declares that developers often overlook the importance of serendipity. Cybercabinet builders should avoid that mistake by keeping serendipity in mind when creating a site. Additionally, serendipity can tie in with one of Weinberger’s (2012) key recommendations: linking. Weinberger advises linking widely to other sites to take advantage of the networked knowledge ecology on the Internet. The two natural history model sites incorporated many links to external partners and resources. This linking strategy creates a different sort of serendipitous discovery in that it encourages users learning about other related sites and resources, turning a collections site from a webpage to a resource broker.

Five: Share

Weinberger (2012) saw sharing through open access to content and linking between sites as one of the primary advantages of the modern Internet. All three case studies highlighted the importance of sharing digital resources. The Brooklyn Museum saw sharing their digitized collections as key to building community with online audiences. Connecting Content focused on the open access side of sharing and the Principle Investigators on the grant were concerned with making their digitized specimens and field books available through multiple public platforms in ways that were standardized for easy access. Connecting Content’s Principle Investigators were clear that they hoped to see unexpected, creative, and unique results from public re-use of the project’s digital products (Rebecca Morin, personal communication, February 1, 2012; Danielle Castronovo, personal communication, February1, 2012), a sentiment that was also expressed by the Brooklyn Museum in reference to their collections website (Bernstein, 2011).

EOL, as a site that aggregates pre-existing content, is built on the concept of sharing. It shares with existing sites in collecting content and then shares with users in making that content available in a public-friendly format. EOL is also heavily inter-linked to the sites with which it shares data, such as the Global Biodiversity Information Facility or Animal Diversity Web. Interviewees with EOL praised the idea of re-use in the first place, if possible: why re-invent resources that already exist? However, since public-friendly online access to digital natural history collections is still in its infancy, many cybercabinet strategies will have to be invented. Once they are, share them. EOL has had to create new site tools and presentation strategies, which are posted freely on the website. The EOL interviewees were confident that through free and open sharing users would come to rely on EOL as a trusted and reliable source.

Six: Encourage participation

In the past, museum professionals have worried that hosting the un-vetted contributions of random users will undermine the trustworthiness of their websites (Kilbride, 2004; Cameron, 2005; Burnett & Lichtendorf, 2007; MacArthur, 2007; Howes, 2007). However, while museum professionals have perceived trust and participation as an either/or situation, users from the self-study survey had no problem seeing them as complimentary. In building cybercabinets, site developers should remember that users will trust sites that provide reliable and accurate resources while also allowing them to participate and make their own contributions.

Visitors to a site will engage more deeply if they are asked to actively participate in some way that revolves around the content. The Brooklyn Museum was using their folksonomy-generating tagging activity to foster participation, as well as supporting social features like posting collections-related comments. Shelley Bernstein advised seeing the museum web presence as an on-going online conversation (Agenda, 2009) and as such an inherently participatory relationship with web visitors. EOL also encouraged social participation by allowing members to join groups and post comments. Just as guideline three – “keep it personal” – identified user’s desire for interactivity and contributing, this guideline also emphasizes the importance of encouraging people to become active participants on a collections site and not passive recipients of digitized data. Users from the self-study survey repeatedly stated they sought out interactive experiences on websites. They selected sites that promised options for participation and responded positively when they found participatory features. Active participation will give users a sense of ownership in a cybercabinet, encouraging them to care about the natural history being presented.

Seven: Provide Access to Experts

Many authors in the literature review (Kilbride, 2004; Cameron, 2005; Burnett & Lichtendorf, 2007; MacArthur, 2007; Howes, 2007) identified the importance of providing access to experts as part of the online museum experience. User evaluation reveals that web visitors turn to museum resources because they give access to a knowledge source with respected experts. Yet only two of the model sites were supporting user engagement with experts: the Brooklyn Museum and EOL. In a paper published with Museums and the Web, Shelley Bernstein (2008) from the Brooklyn Museum explicitly advocated supporting access to experts through a collections website. Part of the reason Brooklyn Museum staff are active on the social media features of their collections webpage is to allow site users to engage them directly in dialogue through the chat and comment tools. The Brooklyn Museum understood that fostering open dialogue between site visitors and experts creates an atmosphere of trust, benefiting the online community.

Interviewees with EOL did not explicitly cite access to experts as one of their web strategies, nevertheless EOL is built to support interaction between all its users, from credentialed scientists through amateur enthusiasts to casual browsers. In EOL’s case, access to experts is a by-product of their desire to create a global online natural history community by keeping the site experience personal, accessible, and engaging. EOL’s strategy can be considered in reverse; that is, cybercabinet projects should provide dialogue with scientists in order to promote user engagement and trust.

Eight: Collaborate

Creating cybercabinets that truly capitalize on the networking advantages of the Internet requires multi-institutional collaborations. As cybercabinets bring together content from disparate sources in aggregations and mash ups, the web experience for users is enriched. Weinberger (2012) advocated for cross-institutional collaboration as one of his five recommendations for taking advantage of the networking of knowledge on the Internet. Institutions, in defining themselves as distinct entities, isolate their members within knowledge microcosms that don’t readily allow communication across institutional boundaries. On the Internet, linking allows those boundaries to become permeable as institutions are woven into a network that is stronger from the participation of respected knowledge sources like museums. Increased linking allows for cross-fertilization of ideas nurtured within different institutional microcosms; ideas that the participating institutions can work on together and benefit from equally. While users may not consciously ask for collaborative and highly interlinked collections sites, they did explicitly ask for deep content on the self-study survey. When institutions share through collaboration and linking, their pooled resources become a deeper source of content when combined, exactly what users will want in a cybercabinet.

4. Summary

These eight guidelines for building cybercabinets be useful, be beautiful, keep it personal, provide serendipity, share, encourage participation, provide access to experts, and collaborate summarize the lessons learned from online digital collections access projects and ideas anticipating the new avenues along which the Internet is evolving. Incorporating these elements into a cybercabinet will promote user engagement, supporting the success of the site as measured by positive impact on site visitors. Online access to natural history collections is currently an under-utilized tool for promoting public appreciation of natural history. The goal behind these guidelines is to promote the creation of natural history cybercabinets aimed at a public audience, while taking advantage of the benefits offered by the networking of knowledge on the Internet.

All the conclusions provided by this study should be considered preliminary and were intended in part to show that a larger, more formal study in cross-site comparative user browsing patterns would be worth pursuing. Fine-grained methodologies for detailed statistical analysis would be more informative and the strengths and weaknesses of the heuristic and user self-study approach indicate future avenues for a more intensive study. As they stand, the guidelines should be considered an argument to raise awareness both for how and why a natural history site should incorporate public access, becoming a cybercabinet and not just a research engine.

Natural history museums have barely begun to plumb the potential of the Internet for reaching far-flung and diverse audiences to advocate for nature and the environment. Natural history museums, as the stewards for our deepest source of knowledge about nature their collections are the obvious advocates for public involvement with natural history. If the public doesn’t know why natural history matters, natural history museums must tell them. If they don’t know where to learn about natural history, natural history museums must show them. In the age of the Internet, with so much of the modern public on the Internet, online access to digital natural history collections through cybercabinets is an invaluable advocacy tool and one natural history museums should not pass up the opportunity to use.


I gratefully acknowledge the many people without whom I could not have completed this project. I wish especially to thank my parents, who edited drafts and critiqued research instruments; my heuristic evaluators who put in extra time browsing all model sites; and my advisor, who guided the project from the beginning.


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Norris, C. (2010). “Display case: It’s not the size of the on-line collection…” Museum. Retrieved from the American Association of Museums web site: onlinecollection.cfm

Pyle, R. M. (2011). “A nat’ral histerrical feller in an unwondering age.” In Fleischner, T. L. (Ed.), The way of natural history (pp. 160-171). San Antonio: Trinity University Press.

Smithsonian Institution. (2009). “Smithsonian web and new media strategy, version 1.0.” Retrieved from the SI Web and New Media Strategy wiki: http://smithsonian-webstrategy.

Soren, B. J. (2004). Research on ‘quality’ in online experiences for museum users. Retrieved from the Canadian Heritage Information Network web site:

Schwarzer, M. (2006). Riches, rivals, and radicals: 100 years of museums in America. Washington, DC: American Association of Museums.

UK Office for Library Networking. (2008). Good practices guide for developers of cultural heritage web services. Retrieved from the UKOLN website:

Weinberger, D. (2007). Everything is miscellaneous: the power of the new digital disorder. New York, NY: Henry Holt & Co.

Weinberger, D. (2012). Too big to know: rethinking knowledge now that the facts aren’t the facts, experts are everywhere, and the smartest person in the room is the room. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Woods, T. (2007). “Sharing the toys: opening digital access to museum collections.” Muse, 25:2. p.34-37.

Interviewee List

Brooklyn Museum

Deborah Wythe: Head of Digital Collections and Services

Corresponded by e-mail February 5, 2012

Shelley Bernstein: Chief of Technology

Corresponded by e-mail February 24, 2012

Encyclopedia of Life

Breen Byrnes: EOL Outreach and Media.

Interviewed by phone on February 8, 2012 at 12:30 PST

Cynthia Parr: Species Pages Working Group Director

Interviewed by phone on February 7, 2012 at 10:30 PST

Marie Studer: EOL Learning and Education Working Group Director

Interviewed by Skype on February 8, 2012 at 10:00 PST

Connecting Content

Rebecca Morin: User Services Librarian and project PI

Interviewed in person on February 1, 2012 at 11:00 PST

Danielle Castronovo: Archives & Digital Collections Librarian and project PI

Interviewed in person on February 1, 2012 at 12:10 PST



Review Criteria



Was the site easy to find? Did you have to click through multiple pages to get to it?(Please estimate how much time/how many clicks it took to find in the comments box)
Is the design overly complicated or confusing?
Does the site provide more than one way to engage with its content?(A key word search and a browse by subject would be two different ways to access the content.)
Is there a way to reach or interact with experts on the subject?(For example, do curators participate in comment threads or other interactive features of the site?)
Does the site personalize or allow you to personalize your experience?(For example, it might offer recommendations to you or allow you to save favorites.)
Does the site provide access to a large amount of content or resources?
Does the site encourage sharing or re-using of its content?
Does the site link to many other online resources and sites that seem useful/interesting?
Do multiple institutions participate or contribute to the site?
Does the site support browsing and serendipitous discovery?(Serendipitous discovery refers to when a site helps you find something interesting that you weren’t explicitly seeking.)
Please estimate how much time you spent exploring this site.

Appendix 1. Heuristic Evaluation checklist.


First, tell me a little about yourself:

1. My vocation is:

  • Middle/High school student
  • College/Graduate student
  • Teacher
  • Something else


2. I like at least some types of museums:

  • Very much
  • Sometimes
  • Very little

3. Take a quick look at each home page below. Select ONE site to browse, then answer the remaining questions. [randomize this list]

The Paleontology Portal

Powerhouse Museum Collection Search

SFMOMA’s Artscope

Quilt Explorer

Brooklyn Museum Browse Collections

Encyclopedia of Life

4. What attracted you to the site?

  • Name recognition of the institution
  • Already like the subject
  • The page looked fun or interesting
  • Other: write in here

5. Did you feel you needed prior knowledge of the subject to appreciate the site?

  • Not at all
  • Maybe a little
  • Yes, a lot of prior knowledge needed

6. How creative would you rate this site ( 1=not creative, 5=very creative)?

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4

7. Did the site give you multiple options or activities to engage with the content?

  • No
  • A few different options or activities
  • Yes, many

8. How fun was this site for you (1=not at all, 4=woohoo!)?

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4

9. Open-ended questions:

1. Why did you choose this site?

2. What did you like about it?

3. What didn’t you like about it?

Please include any extra comments you may have.

Appendix 2. User Self-Study Survey.


Cite as:
R. Sargent, Building Cybercabinets: Guidelines for Online Access to Digital Natural History Collections. In Museums and the Web 2013, N. Proctor & R. Cherry (eds). Silver Spring, MD: Museums and the Web. Published March 3, 2013. Consulted .

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