Unlocking Knowledge to Empower Minds

Michael Edson

Michael Edson

Today’s keynote was delivered by Michael Edson, who’s director of web & new media strategy, office of the CIO, at The Smithsonian Institution. As he began speaking, he emphasized that what he was about to share were his own thoughts, not those of his institution. I wondered why he needed the caveat … but the reasons soon become evident.

Edson’s keynote centered around the idea of “knowledge commons,” which to him means finding ways to make public knowledge available to everyone. (It’s part of what a democracy is supposed to be like; it’s what many of the US founding fathers had in mind, he said.) Given the enormity of The Smithsonian Institute, with its 29 individual arms that cover all of the universes and everything in them, sharing it is no small thing.

Edson is dreaming of SI being able to share its collected wisdom as easily as other orgs do on powerful, usable, popular platflorms and sites that people search every day. This is not happening yet … and his laments about that made it clear why his comments were personal rather than institutional. Because of the barriers that SI has in place for knowledge sharing, their rich resources are not being discovered online — at least, not via SI channels. However, much of what the Institution does post is picked up by other sites (Flickr, YouTube, etc.), where it’s searched, found, used, and enjoyed. How frustrating, tho, that it’s not happening via the venerable Institution itself.

Creating an SI Knowledge Commons would make SI more relevant. Its brand is weak, a fact  proven by BattleBrands.com, which shows SI’s brand ranking around ones like TGI Fridays. (which org is more important?) Edson wants SI to start “reshaping our digital identity” immediately, if not sooner.

He cites MIT as an amazing example. The school has been giving away lectures free online. Faculty volunteer their lectures, tape them, and post them for anyone who’s interested. This Open Courseware (OCW) model has made “genuine superstars” of some of the lecturers and has also brought more attention and respect to MIT. OCW’s tagline, “Unlocking Knowledge, Empowering Minds. No Registration Required” sums up the idea and value of the knowledge commons that Edson would like to see SI and other orgs adopt.

Thankfully, this dynamic (and very sharing!) speaker is putting all of his slides — plus the text of his speech — even his footnotes — not only up on the conference website but also on SlideShare.

Participating in commons means giving away knowledge, and it also brings rich rewards. What a world it would be if more of us shared for the common good. Going back to the founding fathers again, Edson left the crowd with the thought that it’s not just how much you accumulate — but rather how much you share — that is the measure of your worth.

~Kathy Dempsey, editor of Marketing Library Services newsletter


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