Going Mobile: The Smithsonian’s Mobile Strategy and eBook Production at Smithsonian Libraries


Smithsonian Panel: (L-R) Martin Kalfatovic, Katie Velasco, Mary Savig

Many museums are implementing mobile services to benefit their visitors.  This presentation focused on the efforts at the Smithsonian.  Martin Kalfatovic, Assistant Director of Digital Services at the Smithsonian Institution Libraries, reported on a survey of 1,600 Mall visitors to determine their mobile needs.  Forrester Research conducted a conference and strategic planning workshops, resulting in the development of the Smithsonian’s mobile strategy and key development tactics.  The strategy envisions the use of shared tools across all the museums, followed by an infrastructure for mobile initiatives, products, and services.  Here are some of the metrics for success:

The Smithsonian Libraries and the Smithsonian Institution Scholarly Press have formed a partnership for digital publishing.  The library would like to turn its collections into an e-book platform, with the Press responsible for the editorial content.  An initial test showed that this platform would be favorably received.

Katie Velazco, New Media Project Specialist at the Museum of Natural History, described the museum’s first mobile app, MEanderthal.  It allows users to morph a photo of themselves back in time to see what they would have looked like as a Neanderthal.  The app has been downloaded 215,000 times in the last 14 months.  90% of the downloads were for the iPhone.  Katie showed what she would have looked like:

Other mobile apps recently developed include:

  • A scavenger game for students.  Students found the navigation difficult, and the novelty of the iPad wore off after a while.
  • LeafSnap to identify trees from their leaves.  The user takes a photo of a leaf which is identified from the Smithsonian’s database.  Although the database is limited to trees from Central Park, New York and Rock Creek Park in Washington, DC, it has been downloaded 150,000 times so far.
  • A National Mall Visitors’ app to connect visitors to SI museums.

Free WiFi is a priority for all the museums in 2011, so that visitors can browse content by museum and see current exhibits and museum highlights.  The Natural History Museum’s website has been optimized for mobile devices.

Here are the lessons learned from these activities:

Mary Savig described the Archives of American Art, which she said is the art world’s “Ft. Knox”.  The Archives have 16,000 linear feet of storage, with about 16 million documents and 6,000 collections.  It is currently accessible on microfilm and is one of the world’s largest resources for preserving art.  People get to the website in traditional ways, using social media, Flickr, Stumbleupon, etc.  Many people only stay on the website only for a short time, just enough to see a single image that they are looking for.   Some functions can be optimized for phones, but some aspects of the site will be difficult to read on phones.

Don Hawkins
Columnist, Information Today and Conference Circuit Blog Editor

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