About The Quilt Index
The Quilt Index (http://www.quiltindex.org) is a partnership project of The Alliance for American Quilts (AAQ), MATRIX: The Center for Humane Arts, Letters, and Social Sciences Online (MATRIX) and Michigan State University Museum (MSU Museum). It is providing unprecedented access to extensive documentation on quilts and quiltmaking that now exists in a variety of locations and media: in museums and archives, in public and private collections, on paper survey forms, and in varied electronic formats. Utilizing the benefits of a distributed repository system and a comprehensive controlled vocabulary for descriptive metadata, The Quilt Index is a pioneering digital repository addressing the need to balance centralized information access with preservation of local variation. In particular, The Quilt Index provides wide access to information geographically dispersed and, in many cases, inaccessible due to location or fragility. The raw material of a significant portion of the database is not the objects themselves, but the information about quilts and images of quilts found in public quilt collections, private collections, and the myriad of state and regional quilt documentation projects.
Developed with major funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the Quilt Index will, by the end of 2010, have documentation for over 50,000 quilts and thousands of quilt-related ephemera drawn from over 27 public and private collections. Through the Quilt Index it is becoming possible to locate, reference, and search quilt materials easily, thus creating a significant resource for users. The project management team is now dedicated to the continued expansion of digital content and the development of a rich array of secondary user tools that will substantially increase the effectiveness of on-line museum and library resources for research, teaching and learning. Specifically, we are enriching the content of the Quilt Index digital repository by
- introducing innovative tools to work with the objects in the repository,
- training scholars and educators who are building on-line exhibits, multimedia presentations, lesson plans, and other resources that will become a part of the public Web site, and
- building a rich array of social networking features around the Index to enrich and augment its usefulness for individuals and groups of users.
The Quilt Index collections form the seed of what is growing into an extensive network of digital documentation, images, and aggregate information, as well as K-12 curricula materials, on-line exhibits, and forums for scholarly exchange. It is also beginning to serve as a national leadership model for on-line access to material-specific collections. We have, in fact, already been contacted by other groups, interested in indexing dolls, baskets, and embroidered samplers, who have used the Index’s extensive documentation to develop their own projects. We have also been contacted by and have consulted with organizations and individual researchers who have wanted to use the Quilt Index comprehensive fields at the initiation of their research and data cataloguing projects.
The Quilt Index Community of Users
A recent study reveals that more than 25 million individuals in the United States are considered part of the quilt world. Around the globe there are significant collections of quilts and a growing number of quiltmakers, quilt documentation projects, and exhibitions. This quilt world includes makers, collectors and owners of quilts, producers and marketers of quilt fabric and quiltmaking tools, artists, educators, scholars, curators, and collection managers. The Quilt Index, for the first time, makes it possible for researchers, students, quilt makers, genealogists, and a wide public audience to easily locate, reference, and search quilt documentation data. Scholars from a variety of fields, including art history and criticism; women’s studies; cultural studies; folklife studies; material culture studies; textile history; racial and ethnic studies; political and religious history; American social history; and state, regional, national, and international studies are able to use this information as primary, documentary source materials. With the establishment of a critical mass of content data and a growing roster of tools and resources on the Index, the resource has been attracting users from around the world who are drawing upon the Index for a range of scholarly, creative, and educational purposes across many professional disciplines. Analysis of user data statistics indicates an extensive international audience, especially in Europe (Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands) and Australia, as well as significant traffic from other cultures; in one month traffic from Italy dwarfed use from the US. There is even regular, considerable, access by the US military (Cohen, 2008).
Opening The Quilt Index to a Community of Users: Social Networking
Based on internal analysis and feedback from user surveys, The Quilt Index management team knew that it needed to implement existing and new tools to engage both target and unexpected audiences to foster meaningful use and new contributions. The Quilt Index aims to be inclusive of the broad quilt community, yet the content control previous to this project had remained with The Quilt Index staff and with formal contributors who are content-providing partners with editorial control of their contributed records. Already the team had regularly posted information on The Quilt Index on listservs that had the highest known relevant audiences and had created a MySpace and Facebook presence for The Quilt Index. Yet while we knew that we were building audience awareness about the resources and that The Quilt Index was providing a space for people to gain unprecedented access to information, we also wanted to make a shift to empower users with the tools to contribute to that knowledge base. We understood that the success of social networking tools is based on the ability of users to contribute their own information to a topic area, the ease of their use, and the ability of users to access the thinking of other users with similar interests. It is this ability to create user-generated context around traditional repository materials and to support a multitude of perspectives about these topics that makes social networks a powerful application to strengthen the already vibrant network formed by the quilt community.
This diverse and dispersed audience with passion for the content and with no centralized platform to share resources provides an ideal environment for community-based resource development using Web 2.0. As a first step, we created a Quilt Index wiki that we hoped would harness the commitment, knowledge, and grassroots spirit of the quilt research community into a public listing and sharing space for groups conducting quilt documentation. We envisioned a wiki that would allow members of the community to define quilt-related terms, people, or issues over time; would have terms that could be approached from multiple perspectives; and would become a valuable resource to the larger quilt community. However, there was also some hesitation.
Already The Quilt Index management team members were effectively using a wiki for internal project management. MATRIX technical staff created an opensource Mediawiki (http://www.mediawiki.org/) powered site for organization-wide communication and a TRAC project management system (http://trac.edgewall.org) integrated with Subversion for project-specific Web site development and staff communication about project needs. The internal Quilt Index staff use the TRAC site for tracking progress on each contributor and partner. However, the TRAC application and user permissions model is very specific for software development and Web site project management. Even among institutions that are contributing images and data to the Quilt Index, there is no need for detailed access to such technical and administrative discussions.
After reviewing a number of wiki applications for use on The Quilt Index, MediaWiki stood out as the best option. The basic framework is recognizable because it is so widely used (e.g., Wikipedia); the software is open source and freely available; the technical installation and set-up are very straightforward; and MATRIX is already using it in another context. After installing an instance of MediaWiki, all that needed to be done was to use CSS to style the wiki, which included the Quilt Index header and navigation. Technically the wiki is on a separate server, but practically for users moving between the wiki and the other Quilt Index site features, it is seamless through the navigation.
Information Organization and Populating Content: The Quilt Index Wiki
Facing the installed and blank wiki, we had to determine how to organize information on it to serve our audience needs, provide a valuable resource, and utilize the potential for social networking and user-generated content. We worked as a staff team to identify several sets of resources both that we could initially use to populate the wiki and that would be immediately valuable to the user community. We also identified a staff member to serve as the “champion” or wiki-master, whose role would be to populate the first pages, communicate with potential wiki-contributors, and investigate uses of the wiki.
The initial plan for structuring information in The Quilt Index Wiki included two pilot sets of resources: geographically-defined quilt documentation projects, and quilt-related oral histories. These two areas were identified gaps in available resources and were of general interest to researchers, to The Quilt Index management team and to those individuals and organizations that had led or contributed data to the documentation projects. Inquiries about quilt documentation projects frequently appeared on listserv discussions, at conference and professional meetings, and in communications to The Quilt Index staff: this indicated the need for centralized, up-to-date information on quilt documentation. However, we quickly realized that we should add a section on museums which had quilts in their collections, because this was also a frequent inquiry and discussion topic. This section would encompass one existing user group (i.e. the museums who were already contributors to the Index) as well as museums the management team had already identified as potential new contributing partners to the Index. For each section, we developed a template for the base page of information that would fit the information needs of users and would be easy for users to update. We populated the list with an initial set of information and developed a standard letter of invitation to send to The Quilt Index’s existing contributors to expand or update their listings. Then project team staff began sending out the letter to museums known to have quilt collections. This list of museums with base listings in the wiki continued to grow as Quilt Index staff came across references to additional quilt collections. Over 130 invitations were sent out to institutions. In addition, announcements of the Quilt Index wiki were made on several listservs. This process not only added to the richness of the wiki, but also provided a means to expand links with other museum organizations and identify future partners.
Almost immediately upon publicly launching the wiki, the administrative team began to make changes in the structure of the first set of categories and began proposing additional resources and sections for the wiki. Each suggested change was discussed within the administrative team and reflected the team’s collective knowledge about the quiltmaking and museum communities, current management needs of The Quilt Index, proposed future Quilt Index expansion priorities and possibilities, and in-house expertise about working with digital information and management of collection data. Some ideas - such as adding lists of curriculum materials, media projects and exhibitions or all quilt-related periodicals and publications - we put on hold for later inclusion or we determined might invite too much public editing and, hence, too much administrative oversight.
At first we created one section titled Museums with Collections to encompass lists and information about quilt-holding institutions; we then added sections titled Libraries, Historical Societies, and Archives for additional institutions that held quilts or quilt-related ephemera. Our rationale for that organization was that most users would be seeking out sources that had more quilts than documentation, museums would be places more likely to host quilt exhibitions, and there would be fewer users interested in institutions holding just documentation.
Again, we quickly embarked on an animated staff discussion on how all four types of institutions - historical societies, libraries, museums, and archives - may hold quilts and quilt-related ephemera and may also host exhibitions. Under the initial structure we realized that an institution might have to be listed under several categories – a task that would be frustrating for the contributor and the user of the information. We then discussed recasting the categories in terms of the contents, not the institution that holds them, and thus came up with the section headings now used. Before we made the change, however, we consulted with a digital archivist and digital librarian; both agreed that “simple is good” and “either structure would work, but that we should choose one structure and stick to it.” We decided on three main sections: Quilt Documentation Projects; Oral Histories; and a section first called museums, libraries, archives, historical societies, but then renamed Quilt Collections that encompassed all types of collection-holding institutions. Even though we realized that some collection holding institutions would have oral history collections or the records of quilt documentation projects, we decided to keep them in separate categories. We wanted to be able to see at a glance the full scope of the documentation projects, some of which were still in the hands of private individuals and/or the project teams. In many cases, quilt documentation projects are still active entities, not just archived material; thus, maintaining the quilt documentation projects as its own category within the wiki allows those who are interested in documenting quilts in their possession to determine who to contact. The oral histories were a targeted area of further Quilt Index project development, and it benefited The Quilt Index team to see information on them aggregated in one place. Under the Quilt Collections section, all collection-holding institutions were listed in alphabetical order.
We toyed with the idea of having large institutions, institutions with major collections, or institutions that contributed to the Quilt Index be listed first in alphabetical order, and then smaller institutions listed second, again in alphabetical order, but we decided against this, wanting The Quilt Index wiki to give small institutions equal opportunity. After all, the wiki is a very democratic technology.
This broad Quilt Collections category was a very good solution at first, but as the number of institutions grew, and especially as more and more institutions from outside the United States were added, it became very unwieldy; by October 2008, there were links to over 100 institutions from at least six countries on a single page. To address this, we rearranged the Quilt Collections and Quilt Documentation Projects pages to list institutions and projects by country, with all institutions from each country listed in alphabetical order under the country heading. This greatly improved the ‘contents’ navigation at the top of each page, giving users a much smaller, and arguably more useful, table of contents. In addition, this organization coincided with other important social and professional clusters of information by state. Tourists and quilt researchers could plan trips according to geographic region. Museums, for instance, have state associations, and it would be easy to see which museums in a state had like collections and might serve as a springboard for collective actions such as opportunities for economic development through cultural tourism.
Expansion of The Quilt Index Wiki Information Structure
One of the Quilt Index expansion ideas has been to do an in-depth project on one state or region in order to answer the question: Is there such a thing as a distinctively regional quilt? A productive meeting with the executive director of the Michigan Museums Association in early December 2008 revealed that we could use The Quilt Index wiki to prepare for such a project; simultaneously, it prompted a rethinking of our method of organizing information. We added an in-depth page listing Michigan quilt collections (museums, libraries and historical societies) to the wiki linked to ‘M’ on the ‘Quilt Collections in the U.S. The Michigan State University Museum was kept on that main ‘museums, libraries, archives, historical societies’ page, as well as added to the ‘Michigan quilt collections’ page because of its major institutional role in The Quilt Index, the Great Lakes Quilt Center and its extensive and important quilt collections. The Michigan quilt collections were originally arranged alphabetically, but because we knew that in Michigan information was accessed more frequently according to county designation, the change to county was accordingly made. Thus the wiki demonstrated the flexibility it has within its structure to accommodate local variation.
Additional changes that were made included changing the navigation bard from the default setting, removing ‘Donations,’ populating ‘Help’ with content from the main page’s ‘Getting Started’ section, and adding links to ‘New Pages,’ ‘All Pages,’ and ‘Popular Pages’ as additional ways for users to navigate the growing amount of content on the wiki. An Email Discussion Lists section lists some of the primary listservs that are used by the growing international quilt community.
Inspired by the positive change made by the re-organization of Michigan quilt collections page by county, we considered listing all of the institutions on the Quilt Collections page by state, rather than alphabetically. The argument for was that it might increase usability and potentially facilitate cultural tourism, a concern of museums as was pointed out by the director of the Michigan Museums Association. A counter-argument was that many users would not know in which state a particular institution is located - e.g., where is the Kalona Quilt Museum, exactly? - and therefore we should preserve the alphabetical architecture. Listing by state would also have created the problem of where to put the growing number of international institutions. The differing perspectives were resolved by the creation of two sections with identical content about quilt collections in museums, libraries, archives, and historical societies, but different organizations: “Quilt Collections in the United States: by state” and “Quilt Collections in the United States: alphabetical.” The lists were revised placing the international quilt collections on a new International Quilt Collections list of the wiki, easily accessible from the main page. This solution has worked well and is the method of organizing information that is currently in place on the wiki. Almost exactly four months after population began, we finally had what will be for the foreseeable future, a stable and user-friendly way of structuring the growing body of information on the Quilt Index wiki.
Cultivating a Creative Community of Users
Once the population of the wiki content was well underway, we turned our attention to ways to use the wiki to build a creative community of users. One strategy was to use Mediawiki’s Community Portal to foster the development of collaborative exhibitions, possibly to show in the Quilt Index exhibit hall space. A trial project was launched to use the page to curate collectively an exhibit of crazy quilts from The Quilt Index in conjunction with the Alliance for American Quilt’s 2009 crazy-quilt themed annual contest. However, the community portal remains a very under-utilized space. We are currently investigating ways to increase utilization. During a Quilt Index training session with Michigan State University faculty, a discussion of potential class use of the community portal occurred. The potential of using the community portal as a place that classes can cultivate and present research projects, including virtual exhibits, utilizing the resources of the Quilt Index was raised. This potential use corresponds with Bowen’s suggestion that within a wiki there “can by any number of community and educational uses, such as the incremental accretion of knowledge by a group, or production of collaboratively edited materials” (Bowen, 2008).
Much of The Quilt Index’ base of users is a lay, but knowledgeable, user community of quilters and quilt historians of various ages and levels of comfort with Web 2.0 technologies such as wikis. Thus, usability has been a major concern from the beginning. As a guide to new users, the wiki includes a “getting started” section to guide new users through the process of contributing to the wiki. The wiki has 50 active users contributing to its pages.
Any individual or institution with knowledge of quilt history, collections, documentation, or oral histories may create an account and contribute. We have come across a number of use challenges. One issue is the wide range of technical capacity in our user base. In response to the letter of invitation, some organizations almost immediately responded and edited their organization’s page. Others, however, were confused that we were inviting them to make their entire collections public, basically to become a contributing partner in the Quilt Index. We suspect this wide variation in responses underscores the variation in understanding Web technology generally and wiki technology in particular. This difference within Quilt Index users is highly correlated with previous experience using Web technologies.
There are some common problems with wikis that need to be monitored. For sites, like ours, that allow visitors to create usernames and add content, wiki-masters need to be vigilant for spam entries. This is easily monitored by viewing the recent changes on a daily basis. In addition, it is very easy for inexperienced users to create orphan pages by editing what appears to be the phrasing of a title heading. The wiki champion developed a regular site review that includes checking for orphaned pages.
Using the Quilt Index wiki as a case study, we believe we have learned some lessons that should prove valuable to museum professionals who are contemplating or actively planning a wiki.
- Gather stakeholders to discuss initial organization of the wiki, but the staff must be prepared to be flexible and responsive to users. The site architecture will change as content is developed; however, the wiki environment of Mediawiki makes these changes easy to do and manage.
- Seed the site with valuable information that focuses on users and gaps in information that users can access.
- Contact directly those interest groups that can help to populate the site.
- Perhaps most important, provide a wiki champion (or champions) to regularly monitor the site, help to facilitate its growth, and assist users during its initial development.
Much that we have learned in the creation, testing and implementation of this wiki is applicable for any museum Web site, whether the museum is large or small, and regardless of the type(s) of collections the museum holds.
The authors would like to thank the support of The Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), and the staff of MATRIX, and MSU Museum, as well as Amy Milne, Executive Director of The Alliance for American Quilts.
Bowen, J., Wiki Software and Facilities for Museums, in J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds.). Museums and the Web 2008: Proceedings, Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics. Published March 31, 2008. Consulted March 13, 2009. http://www.archimuse.com/mw2008/papers/bowen/bowen.html
Cohen, Steve, Mary Worrall, Justine Richardson, and Marsha MacDowell (2008). IMLS Quilt Index: Evaluation Report on Outcomes and Possible New Directions. December, 2008.