The Social Web: Opportunities, Barriers and Solutions for Cultural Heritage Institutions Document details

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The Social Web: Opportunities, Barriers and Solutions for Cultural Heritage Institutions

Document details


Janet E Davis and Brian Kelly


30 Mar 2009





This report summarised the opportunities provided by the Social Web for cultural heritage organisations, describes barriers which have been encountered in exploiting this potential and describes possible approaches to addressing these barriers.

Executive Summary

This report looks at the opportunities, barriers and solutions to using the Social Web for cultural heritage institutions in the United Kingdom, and especially in England and Wales.

It considers briefly the historical background of the use of information and communications technology by cultural heritage institutions in the UK, and why it is important to consider how they can use the Social Web.

The report explains briefly the difference between the first phase of providing cultural heritage Web resources, when organisations created content and published it within a fairly static web site, and this second phase, the Social Web, which focuses on dialogue and interaction facilities.

It connects the broader current debate about enabling people to engage with public services to the existing communication skills of people working in cultural heritage.

The section on opportunities looks at various ways in which the Social Web is being used and could be used. It includes examples of how it can be used to provide or improve:

  • Access

  • Advocacy and campaigning

  • Continuing professional development and peer-to-peer support

  • Education and outreach

  • Fundraising, sponsorship

  • Marketing and promotion

The barriers section looks at what people consider blocks their use of the Social Web and concludes that fear of change is probably the greatest barrier. The strong lead from central Government is likely to accelerate change at local authority level, freeing the cultural heritage institutions under their aegis to use Social Web tools more.

The solutions include using examples of organisations that have implemented use of the Social Web already and using advice provided on UKOLN’s Web site. The case studies have informed the development of a risks and opportunities framework and an accompanying risk assessment and management toolkit which are described in the report.

The report concludes that there remains a need for practical workshops to build confidence in the sector. Strong leadership on these Web issues is also required within cultural heritage, and there needs to be more collaboration with organisations also endeavouring to increase digital participation.



This document is available under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0. See .

About This Report

This report was commissioned by the MLA. The work was coordinated by UKOLN. The main author was Janet E Davis. Additional content and editing work was carried out by Brian Kelly, UKOLN.

Table of Contents

1 Introduction 1

2 Background 2

3 The Opportunities 3

4 Understanding the Barriers 10

5 Addressing the Barriers 12

6 Addressing Barriers Through Cultural and Political Changes 19

7 Ways Forward 20

Appendix A: Glossary of Acronyms and Specialist Terms Used 21

Appendix B: Useful Resources 22

Appendix C: Examples of Uses of Social Web by Cultural Heritage Institutions 25


Cultural heritage institutions in the United Kingdom have come a long way in using computers and the Web in their everyday work during the last decade.

In 2000, digital resources were still scant even within the institutions. Many public libraries’ staff were unable or unused to using e-mail, word-processing or basic spreadsheets on computers, although they were used to using the electronic catalogue system at least for lending library stock by then. Pioneering museums were creating electronic catalogues and picture libraries by 2000, but most of the staff still used card indexes to find objects. Many of the public record offices were starting to think about whether they should have computerised records and encourage the public to use their archives.

Many cultural heritage institutions had minimal web sites that gave opening hours, information about admission charges, and possibly a small (often hand-drawn) map showing their location. Some did not have even that much. Most staff in most institutions had, at best, shared access to a desktop computer, which often had only outdated software.

Between 2000 and 2009, the Lottery provided funding for large cultural heritage digital projects through the Heritage Lottery Fund and, from 2001 to 2005, through the New Opportunity Fund’s ground-breaking Digitise programme. The People’s Network, also established during this period, provided access to computers linked to the Internet in public libraries throughout England, and trained libraries staff to provide people with help in using the computers.

These national initiatives were essential for establishing a basic digital infrastructure within cultural institutions. The digital landscape is developing rapidly, however, and technologies that were beginning to emerge as the NOF Digitise projects started are now available, often free, for anyone to use online.

Within the last decade, use of the Web has increased very rapidly. The first phase of the Web was about cultural Institutions publishing some information and educational resources online. The second phase opens up opportunities to use and share content effectively, and to engage in dialogue with people.

This report seeks to summarise various barriers which have been identified in exploiting the potential of the Social We based on issues which have been raised at a series of Web 2.0 workshops which were organised by UKOLN for staff working in museums, libraries and archives.

The main author of the report, Janet E Davis, has worked in or with all domains within public cultural heritage over the past 25 years. She has been at the forefront of introducing information technology into heritage work. During the past decade she has focused principally on the creation of heritage web sites; developing and embedding appropriate standards for online heritage information, and in increasing access to heritage collections through online accessibility.

The research for this report was mainly desk-based, using evidence from sources such as online discussions about issues relating to the use of Social Web tools by cultural heritage institutions; discussion during UKOLN’s Introduction to Web 2.0 and the Social Web workshops. The author also attended two of the workshops (Newcastle and Birmingham); attended and co-led a session on libraries’ use of the Social Web at the London LocalGovCamp (4th March 2010); interviewed or discussed the issues of using the Social Web in cultural heritage with various people in the sector, and with people involved with digital strategy in local authorities, including a local councillor, Web software developers, local authority communications team staff and people in council IT/Web teams.

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