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published: March 2004
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October 28, 2010

Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0  License
Museums and the Web 2003 Papers

 

Online Museum Discussion Forums:
What do we have? What do we need?

Jonathan Bowen and Mike Houghton, South Bank University, United Kingdom and Roxane Bernier, Université de Montréal, Canada

http://forums.museophile.net/

Abstract

Virtual communities have become increasingly popular for the general public, using electronic mailing lists, newsgroups, WWeb-based forums, chat rooms, etc. However, it appears that online forums are not well integrated into the sphere of museums. Curators have therefore not capitalized on widening their mandate and engaging visitors as well as museum professionals themselves in effective online interaction.

This paper presents a survey of existing museum-related forums available for discussion by museum professionals and the general public with an interest in museums. Some of the software and facilities available to museums for the establishment and maintenance of mailing lists, WWeb-based discussion forums and more innovative service like WWeb logs, often freely available, are also explored. A museum discussion forum facility has been implemented experimentally (see under http://forums.museophile.net) using open source software. As well as local forums, this integrates topical information of interest to museum personnel from a wide range of online sources. Finally, some thoughts for the future are discussed.

Keywords: discussion forums, mailing lists, museums, newsgroups, online communities, WWeb logs, World Wide Web

A painting in a museum hears more ridiculous opinions than anything else in the world. Edmond de Concourt (1822-1896 )

What do we Have?

Background

We started off trying to set up a small anarchist community, but people wouldn't obey the rules. Alan Bennett, Getting On (1972)

The first electronic communities were set up using bulletin board systems (BBS) available on individual computers accessible directly via dial-up modems (Robson, 2001a). Christensen & Seuss (1978) reported their development of the first BBS that went live in 1979 in Chicago. Electronic mail had been invented some years before in 1972 by Ray Tomlinson of Bolt Beranek and Newmann (BBN) between two PDP-10 computers (Robson, 2001b). This led to the possibility of electronic mailing lists on the Internet where posting to a single email address resulted in distribution to a number of subscriber email addresses that could be added and deleted dynamically as required. This developed into more sophisticated systems such as the popular LISTSERV software (http://www.lsoft.com) that allow many options for email list management, like "moderation by a human editor to ensure relevance of messages.

Mailing lists work well for small communities (say up to several thousand), but beyond that they start to become inefficient since they rely on messages being sent to every subscriber's mailbox. Usenet was developed to allow access to and posting of messages (or 'articles') by large numbers of people via globally distributed 'newsgroups' in a large number of subject areas (Hauben, 2001). Tom Truscott of Duke University developed this system initially after a summer working at Bell Laboratories in 1979. Originally Usenet messages were distributed via modems and telephone lines, but the Network News Transfer Protocol (NNTP) created in 1986 allowed direct transfer on the Internet. Usenet messages were and still are stored on individual computers typically with a good Internet connection that can be accessed by local subscribers as desired. Nearly all universities, large companies and major Internet Service Providers (ISPs) have their own newsgroup server that typically includes a number of local newsgroups as well globally available groups. Access is normally limited to authorized users.

With the advent of the World Wide Web in the early 1990s (Berners-Lee, 2000), many existing protocols became supported by WWeb browsers, including NNTP for newsgroups. In addition, the possibility of producing a convenient hyperlink-based interface to newsgroups and their messages became possible, probably the best and most widely used (partly because it is free!) being that provided by Google Groups (http://groups.google.com). Other more recent WWeb sites where discussion groups can be established include Microsoft MSN (http://groups.msn.com) and Yahoo Groups (http://groups.yahoo.com). These sites are typically supported by advertisements and should not be confused with the original Usenet newsgroups as available from Google and via NNTP. As well as global discussion forums such as newsgroups, the WWeb now allows individual WWeb-based forums to be included on any WWeb site using both free "open source" software and commercial offerings.

As digital electronic communication has improved, more and more virtual communities have been formed (Rheingold, 2000). One of the best known is the WELL, originally accessible as a BBS and now available via a WWeb site (http://www.well.com). This has acted as a support group for health issues, for example, where the very nature of the form of communication may make people more open. It also makes it more likely that others with similar interests and problems can be found because geography is no longer a limiting factor. Recently a number of books on forming virtual communities have been published; for example, see Kim (2000) and Powazek (2001). It should be noted that social issues are as important as technical issues when developing a virtual community (Preece, 2000). Recent books on using the WWeb effectively include guidance on joining virtual WWeb-based communities such as mailing lists, discussion forums, newsgroup and chat rooms; e.g., see Lehnert (2003).

The systems described so far allow asynchronous communication where the interacting parties do not need to be connected at the same time. This has the advantage of allowing people to participate when it is convenient for them, that a permanent record of the discourse can be conveniently retained and that only a relatively low-speed network connection is required. An alternative and increasingly popular form of interaction on the Internet is synchronous communication where all parties involved must participate at the same time. This may be using text typed on a keyboard (possible with low-speed network access) or using voice and possibly video (requiring a higher speed "broadband" connection for good quality).

An early form of this type of communication was the Unix "talk" program. More influential has been Internet Relay Chat (IRC - http://www.irc.org), originally developed in 1988 in Finland by Jarkko Oikarinen, and influenced by Bitnet Relay Chat. The ICQ instant messenger system made the concept much more widely available (http://www.icq.com), including IRC support (http://irc.icq.com). Recently Internet-related companies such as Microsoft (with their widely used MSN Messenger - http://messenger.msn.com), Yahoo (http://messenger.yahoo.com) and AOL (http://www.aim.com) have produced their own messaging systems with increasingly sophisticated features. Most of these are largely used for communication between pairs of people in practice and are also still largely incompatible with each other, although this is a fast moving area where developments occur quickly.

Web-based chat rooms (using Java applet technology for example) are available for multi-way communication between several people. Chat room facilities are available from ICQ (http://web.icq.com/icqchat), Microsoft MSN (http://chat.msn.com) and Yahoo Chat (http://chat.yahoo.com), for example. Such systems are currently typically used for trivial recreational purposes and have been largely unexplored by museums so far. ICQ does include a Chat Room specifically for discussion of museums and theatres, but this does not seem to be very active at present.

Most museums have a community of visitors, perhaps even formalized as a group of friends of the museum. The possibility of building a similar group of virtual visitors has not been explored by most museums. It may be possible to collect email address of those with an interest in a particular museum as a starting point. McKenzie (1997) suggests using a virtual museum as a good basis for partnering with schools and thus building an educational virtual museum community. In any case, most museums have yet to establish serious virtual communities in any organized way.

Shabajee et al. (2002) discuss adding value to large multimedia collections through annotation technologies and tools to serve different communities of interest. This would allow additional information to be added to objects, for example. Different types of users are envisaged. Trusted members could be given usernames and passwords to allow them to gain special access to annotation tools. Other members could form themselves into self-selecting communities, perhaps with "community leaders" for different groups, in much the same way that some electronic mailing lists are administered. Annotations could be "closed" (i.e., only accessible by members of the group). Another option would be to allow open annotations that could be made by any user. Finally, third party annotations could allow drawing together of relevant information from other Web sites.

Web technology provides the medium for a virtual public forum although it is important to keep up with technical and social developments (Mason, 2002). Computer-mediated communication (CMC) systems like electronic mailing lists, newsgroups, chat rooms, etc., can produce, if recorded, large amounts of activity records which can be used to analyze and visualize the social networks that are formed during these activities. Analysis of newsgroups, for example, can identify subgroups that form discussions, and it is possible to use visual techniques to help in searching for leading authors and important articles (Chin-Lung Chang et al., 2002).

Virtual museum visitors already form a community, but one where interaction between them is still difficult. If two visitors happen to be viewing an object online at the same time, currently they are normally unaware of each other. Thus visiting museums online is a relatively lonely experience. There have been various surveys on virtual museum visitors. Futers (1997) reports on visitors to the Virtual Library museums pages (http://icom.museum/vlmp). This was based on a questionnaire and results collected for a project on a Museum Studies MSc course by Rachel Reynolds at the University of Leicester in the UK. Chadwick & Bovery (1999) studied the characteristics and patterns of behavior of virtual visitors. Most (about 70%) are lone visitors, unlike visitors to real museums. Bernier (2002) provides a survey of selected museum Web sites visited by French users and suggests, amongst other things, that museum staff should be more accessible to online visitors. Despite the increasingly available discussion forum facilities, it is often an aspect of the Internet that is not considered by museums; e.g., see Gander & Melling (2002) where email is considered, but more multi-user oriented mechanisms for communication are not.

As well as surveys of virtual visitors, there have also been surveys of museum Web sites. For example, see Bowen (1999) for a general survey of 986 museum Web sites from 26 countries and Micheloni (2002) which includes a survey of museum Web sites with accessibility in mind, an increasingly import aspect as legislation progressively mandates improved disabled access for public facilities, both real and virtual. Museums should be as inclusive as they can in the communities they consider serving, both with respect to physical and online facilities. The Altered Image Museums Group (2002) provide a recent survey considering online museum exhibits. Bernier & Bowen (2003) have surveyed online discussion forums for museum professionals. However online museum communities for visitors have yet to be seriously developed or investigated.

In this paper we survey existing electronic mailing lists, newsgroups, Web forums, news sources and Web logs (for online journal-style recording), especially in the context of museum personnel. We then present a possible solution to aggregating the disparate sources of topical online information available and consider possible future directions.

Mailing Lists

Whoever in discussion adduces authority uses not intellect but memory.
(Leonardo DaVinci 1452-1519)

Electronic mailing lists are used by professionals in many domains to create communities for people with common interests. For example, the Virtual Library (http://www.vlib.org), originally set up by Tim Berners-Lee (inventor of the World Wide Web) to index the Web using volunteer experts, communicated via a mailing list that is still archived on the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) public mailing list Web site (http://lists.w3.org/Archives/Public/www-vlib). Messages ranged from one-way announcements to interactive discussion; for example, see a message announcing the establishment of the original museums entry posted on 16 June 1994 (http://lists.w3.org/Archives/Public/www-vlib/msg00146.html) and also some early visitor access statistics on 10 March 1995 (http://lists.w3.org/Archives/Public/www-vlib/msg00240.html). This resource developed into the Virtual Library museums pages (VLmp, http://icom.museum/vlmp), subsequently supported by the International Council of Museums (ICOM) and still extant today (Bowen, 2002b).

Museum professionals have formed a significant number of electronic mailing lists, the largest and most widely known being MUSEUM-L, run (or "owned" ) by John Chadwick (http://www.finalchapter.com/museum-l-faq/). It was established in April 1991, and an archive of messages dating back to January 1994 is available online (http://home.ease.lsoft.com/archives/museum-l.html). MUSEUM-L uses the popular LISTSERV email list management software that offers many configuration options (http://www.lsoft.com/products/?item=listserv).

Many museum organizations run mailing lists to maintain contact with their members. For example, the International Council of Museums (ICOM - http://www.icom.org) maintains a discussion list focused on issues directly relevant to ICOM and "archived on the same Web server as MUSEUM-L (http://home.ease.lsoft.com/archives/icom-l.html).

H-Museum (http://www.h-museum.net) have recently established a thriving Web site and associated mailing list for museum professionals as part of H-Net (http://www2.h-net.msu.edu), supporting the humanities and social science online. Recent messages and archives of older messages are accessible on the Web site. A member of a team of editorial staff checks messages for relevance before posting. Longer-term issues are developed by an advisory board. The list is multi-lingual and international, but with a bias towards German participation since this resource was established in Germany. Information on the Web site is available in English, German and French. This is a very professionally run resource; this may explain its rapid rise in popularly.

More specialist lists allow smaller numbers of globally distributed people to discuss focused museum-related issues. One of the largest of these is Cons DistList, the conservation distribution list for discussion on all aspects of museum, library and archive conservation, with electronic archives of messages impressively dating back to as far as 1987 (http://palimpsest.stanford.edu/byform/mailing-lists/cdl). This is part of the Conservation OnLine (CoOL) resources for conservation professionals provided by Stanford University.

Webhead is aimed at discussion relating specifically to science exhibitions (http://www.escribe.com/science/webhead). A more informational resource is the Museum Security Network on reports of cultural property incidents (http://www.museum-security.org/artcrime.html). This allows timely distribution of information on crime committed against museums and galleries.

In the UK, JISCmail" (http://www.jiscmail.ac.uk) is a centrally funded mailing list facility provided for the UK academic community. There are some criteria that must be met, and one of the list owners needs to be employed by a UK higher education or further education institution. However these restrictions are not too limiting if the list is academically oriented with some benefit to the UK academic community, and a number of museum-related mailing lists have been established using this resource.

For example, the Heritage mailing list has over three hundred subscribing members worldwide (http://www.jiscmail.ac.uk/lists/HERITAGE.html). The GEM list is available for discussion of issues in museum education within the United Kingdom (http://www.jiscmail.ac.uk/lists/GEM.html). The UK Museums Computer Group (http://www.museumscomputergroup.org.uk) uses the facility for its mailing list to keep in contact with members and to allow members to participate in online discussion (http://www.jiscmail.ac.uk/lists/MCG.html). Resource, the UK central government Council for Museums, Libraries and Archives, has a JISCmail list for news announcements only (http://www.jiscmail.ac.uk/lists/RESOURCENEWS.html), but have also launched a Web based discussion forum on their own Web site (http://www.resource.gov.uk/discussion).

Commercial Internet companies like Yahoo (http://www.yahoo.com) provide Web based electronic mailing list resources supported by advertising, organized as a set of groups (http://groups.yahoo.com). For example, MAGDA (http://www.magda.org.uk), the Museums & Galleries Disabilities Association in the UK, uses this facility with over a hundred members (http://groups.yahoo.com/group/magdamail). A number of other museum-related groups are available from Yahoo, and there is a category explicitly allocated for museums and galleries, but they are not yet very active in general.

In summary, there are a number of electronic mailing lists aimed at museum professionals (e.g., CHILDMUS, H-MUSEUM, MCG, MUSEUM-L, MUSWEB-L, RESOURCENEWS, VSMUS and WEBHEAD-L). More information on these and further mailing lists for museum professionals can be found elsewhere (Bernier & Bowen, 2002a&b; Bernier & Bowen, 2003). A useful set of links to mailing lists on archives, records management, museums and related subjects is available online listed by subject and country (http://archimac.org/Profession/Lists). This includes a questionnaire for the submission of further lists. ICOM also maintains a useful resource on museum-related discussion lists, distribution lists and forums under various categories (http://icom.museum/mus_dist_list.html). An up-to-date alphabetical index of mailing lists, Web boards and newsgroups about museums and conservation is available from the District Museum in Sibenik, Croatia (in English!) with subscription information, including 126 examples of such Internet communities at the time of writing (http://public.srce.hr/muzej_sibenik/muslists.html). There appear to be hundreds of museum-related mailing lists, many of which are quite specialized. Finding such mailing lists is quite difficult, although it is hoped that the pointers included here will be a helpful starting point to some readers.

Newsgroups

The thing I hate about an argument is that it always interrupts a discussion.
G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936)

Although newsgroups, as introduced at the start of this paper, are very popular with expert users of the Internet, they have not made as much impact on newer Internet users as electronic mail and the World Wide Web. They are an excellent mechanism for distributing messages worldwide on the Internet to a targeted readership who have typically expressed an interest in particular topics addressed by individual newsgroups by selectively subscribing to a small number of them. However, newsgroups have yet to be discovered or used by many museum personnel, certainly in comparison to mailing lists. There are literally hundreds of museum-related mailing lists, but only a handful of newsgroups aimed at those with an interest in museums, despite the fact that there are around a hundred thousand different newsgroups extant on the Internet.

The MUSEUM-L mailing list was interfaced to the bit.listserv.museum-l newsgroup in 1994, and this newsgroup still exists. Newsgroups under the "bit" hierarchy were originally part of BITNET, a network that ran on IBM mainframe computers until it was superseded by the Internet. Unfortunately the link is no longer working, so rather confusingly the mailing list and associated newsgroup are now effectively two separate forums. Messages posted on one do not automatically appear on the other. The original mailing list is still by far the most active forum. Despite this unfortunate schism, there have been about 23,400 discussion threads in this newsgroup so there has been quite a lot of activity over the years.

The de.sci.museum newsgroup was created to interface to an existing mailing list (DEMUSEUM) for the discussion of German museums between 1998 and 2001, with about 3,020 discussion threads. In the United Kingdom, uk.culture.museums was created as a brand new newsgroup in 1998 for the discussion of museums. It has had 1,090 discussion threads at the time of writing. However there are only a few messages posted to this newsgroup each month, and there is not that much interaction when messages are posted. Pdaxs.arts.museums (from Portland Metronet, Oregon, USA) is a more specialist and less widely distributed group with about 484 threads.

More generally, the rec.arts.misc newsgroup is for discussion of the arts in general and includes the topic of museums. With around 14,000 discussion threads, it is quite an active group. About 626 of these have included "museum" in the message.

Newsgroups were originally accessible via special newsreader programs where the user

subscribed to groups of interest. This is now integrated into Web browsers such as Internet Explorer and Netscape by specifying "news:" followed by the name of a news server and/or the desired newsgroup instead of a standard Web address. A default news server can be specified on most Web browsers. However this depends on access to a news server, which normally requires authorization of some sort. These are normally available within universities and some companies, but are much less common in museums. Internet Service Providers (ISPs) often provide access, although they do not tend to promote this strongly.

There are also Web sites that provide Web gateways to Usenet newsgroups, and this is often the most convenient method of access although there may be a charge. As mentioned previously, probably the leading site for free access is provided by Google (http://groups.google.com). This includes excellent and fast searching facilities and allows posting of messages to newsgroups as well as reading if the user is registered with the site. For example, it is easy to search for articles containing the keyword "museum" sorted by date with the most recent messages displayed first (http://groups.google.com/groups?scoring=d&q=museum). It is also possible to link to a specific newsgroup although there are not many that are directly relevant to museums, and those that are tend not to be as active as museum-related mailing lists. For example, the uk.culture.museums UK oriented newsgroup on museums can be viewed directly (http://groups.google.com/groups?group=uk.culture.museums).

In summary, there are a number of newsgroups that are relevant to museum personnel (e.g., bit.listserv.museum-l, de.sci.museum, uk.culture.museums and rec.arts.misc). However, museums have not embraced newsgroups in the same way that they have used mailing lists. This may be partly because the process to set up a new newsgroup is quite involved, requiring a formal online vote in most cases, as announced under the news.announce.newgroups newsgroup. It also requires some technical expertise and knowledge of Internet culture, typically available in university computer support services that have had Internet access for decades, for example, but not at most museums.

More use of newsgroups could be made by museum personnel for discussion and queries, but the existing mailing list infrastructure established by museums and the advent of the Web probably mean this opportunity will never become a widespread reality. Despite this, readers who have not tried newsgroups are encouraged to use the Google Groups interface to explore what is being discussed in their field by typing a relevant keyword or two into the search box. Of course much of the discussion is not very high-level, sometimes disintegrating into heated arguments colloquially known as "flame wars" where not much worthwhile information is exchanged, but if more professionals participate, the quality of discussion could be improved.

Web Forums

Oh, what a tangled Web we weave when first we practice to believe.
Laurence J. Peter (1919-1988)

With the advent of the Web, many discussion forums that previously used other technologies are now using Web based interfaces, and many new forums have been established. In particular, software is increasingly available to install messaging systems on Web sites relatively easily (of which more later). As an example, see the Snitz Forums 2000 community (http://forum.snitz.com) where such software is under continuous development in the form of freeware. For a culturally related Web site using this software, see the AboutBritain.com website (http://www.aboutbritain.com/Forums).

One of the most successful and high-profile uses of an interactive forum in the museum world has been the Tate Britain" s "Judge for Yourself" , Turner Prize 2002 Discussion Forums (http://www.tate.org.uk/judgeforyourself), allowing the general public to discuss the UK" s leading contemporary visual arts prize. The forums were closed for posting not long after the prize was awarded, but are still available for perusal at the time of writing. The following initial questions were put forward as individual forums to provoke discussion (the first one after the winner was announced, the rest beforehand):

  1. Winner Keith Tyson was commended by the jury for embracing 'the poetic, the logical, the humorous, and the fantastical'. Do you agree?
    (5 threads, 16 messages, 3.2 messages per thread average)
  2. Is pornography an acceptable subject for art?
    (11 threads, 48 messages, 4.4 messages per thread average)
  3. Is conceptual art 'pretentious, self-indulgent, craftless tat'?
    (26 threads, 190 messages, 7.3 messages per thread average)
  4. Is painting dead?
    (12 threads, 90 messages, 7.5 messages per thread average)
  5. Was Madonna right to describe the idea of an arts prize as 'silly'?
    (3 threads, 22 messages, 7.3 messages per thread average)
  6. Who should win? Judge for yourself
    (14 threads, 98 messages, 7.0 messages per thread average)

Individual threads were defined by different topics in subject headings. Users could reply to existing messages or create a new thread. The more popular forums tended to have more messages per thread, although apart from two forums, the number of messages per thread was remarkably consistent across different forums. Overall, 464 messages were posted in 71 different threads (and 6 forums), with an average of 6.5 messages per thread and 77.3 messages per forum over a period of about two months. The forums were officially launched on 30 October 2002 (on the same day as the opening of the exhibition, although the forums were available online for a short while before that date) and were active until the end of December 2002. The Turner Prize winner, Keith Tyson, was announced on 8 December 2002.

Contributions to the forums were made to the discussion by gallery staff (clearly indicated with a blue "TATE" label) as well as the general public who could register with the site if they wished to actively participate. Once registered, further contributions could be made under the same username, with simple password protection. A facility was included to track individual forums by email as well as being able to read all forums online. Each registered user was allocated a simple Web page including name and email address (both potentially hidden from other users if desired), registration date, occupation, town/city, Web site address, number of messages posted, and hyperlinks to recent messages by subject, forum and date posted. Users could also select viewing preferences such as threads (by subject heading) per forum listing, messages per thread listing and time zone as well as profile options to control the visibility of the name and email address to other users. The forums are also searchable by keyword term, category of forum (default all categories), date range (default all dates) and username, with a user-selectable number of results on each page (10, 15 or 30). Overall, this seems to be a successful use of a discussion forum by a museum, probably because of the high profile nature of both the Tate and the Turner Prize.

For an example of a smaller museum that has implemented a forums system on their Web site, see the Kew Bridge Steam Museum located in west London, UK (http://www.kbsm.org/forums). This museum has used the commercially available UltraBoard 2000 customizable Web based bulletin board system from UltraScripts.com, Inc. (http://www.ultrascripts.com). The main active "board" is used to post museum news. The other boards cover discussion on steam events, steam exchange (a "virtual marketplace" ), research and questions, clubs and societies and a catchall "off topic" board for everything else. Anyone can read messages, but it is necessary to register to post messages. However, these forums have yet to really take off in practice in terms io participation. For a successful forum Web site, there must be a critical mass of users willing to post to the forums on a reasonably regular basis. This may be difficult to achieve based around a single museum unless it is of national or international standing.

Another smaller museum, the Spellman Museum of Stamps & Postal History at Regis College, Weston, Massachusetts has a well-signposted forum on its Web site (http://www.spellman.org/forum.php3). Again, activity seems to be very low at the moment, but basing a forum around a hobby could increase interest in it with suitable publicity.

As an example of a national museum-related organization, the UK Art Fund provides some online forums (http://www.artfund.org/ubb/cgi-bin/ultimatebb.cgi). They are "powered by Ultimate Bulletin Board (UBBTM) from Infopop Corporation (http://www.infopop.com) which itself runs its own very active general community forums Web site (http://community.infopop.net). Again, although the Art Fund is a national body, there are not enough active contributors to make any significant and ongoing discussion possible on the Web site so far, although there are postings dating back to 2001. More publicity could be helpful. For example, it is not even obvious that there is a forums section on the Art Fund" s homepage where the forums section is two hyperlinks away via a not-so-obvious link in a hidden menu marked "your say" . In addition, the Web address for the forums section is not very friendly for linking. A Web location named http://ww.artfund.org/forums, for example, would encourage external hyperlinks that could attract more visitors.

Universities typically have good access to technical expertise for installing facilities like Web based forums at low cost. For example, at Curtain University of Technology in Australia, the Division of Humanities has a discussion forums service including one on cultural heritage that includes messages concerning museum activities such as conferences (http://blah.curtin.edu.au/cgi-bin/ultimatebb.cgi?ubb=forum&f=4). However there are not many messages in this forum and it has not reached a critical mass in practice.

It may be that completely virtual online museums can sustain a community of discussion forum users better than a physical museum. Such a museum has no geographical boundaries, and the average visitor to a virtual museum site may be more au fait with Internet technology in any case. For example, the online Museum of Fine Art has a well signposted forums facility on its Web site (http://www.museum-of-fine-art.com/cgi-bin/ikonboard/ikonboard.cgi). At the time of writing, this virtual museum forums area has 118 members with 2937 posts in 84 topics. This is a reasonable number and could be deemed a successful example of the use of an online discussion forum. The system used is IkonBoard (http://www.ikonboard.com). As well is being able to post public messages, each user also has a personal message area.

MuseumStuff.com, a museum gateway Web site, provides links to discussion list resources aimed at museum professionals, although as yet these are not very extensive (with only 10 links at the time of writing) or even in some cases very relevant" (http://www.museumstuff.com/professionals/discussion_lists). It includes a link to the CharityChannel Web site forums area for the voluntary sector that could be of interest to some museum personnel" (http://charitychannel.com/resources/forums).

More generally, the ezboard online network community Web site allows users to create their own discussion group (http://www.ezboard.com). This is supported by advertising, although ads can be removed for a small annual charge. This includes an Art Network Web site with eight forums (http://server2.ezboard.com/bart). The Google Directory includes a section with further links to arts-related forums and chat rooms (http://directory.google.com/Top/Arts/Directories/Chats_and_Forums).

The Forum Find Web site, ezboard" s forum searching resource, claims to be the Internet" s largest community network (http://www.forumfind.com). It is possible to search the site by keyword, to discover museum-related forums, for example, ordered by criteria such as popularity (http://www.forumfind.com/search.php?Terms=museum).

Perhaps one of the simplest free bulletin board Web sites is QuickTopic (http://www.quicktopic.com). A new message board can be set up in minutes; for example, see one on museums (http://www.quicktopic.com/16/H/NUbKjndB5iSAk). Messages can be received by email as well as being read online. Delphi Forums is another general Web forums site (http://www.delphiforums.com). This includes keyword search facilities, and searching for "museum" reveals an active site with some worthwhile messages. General use of the site is free, but creating new forums requires registration and a fee of about $5 per month.

Online forums certainly provide interesting potential for a new way of performing collaborative activities where a participant" s time zone and geographic location do not present significant barriers, although they can sometimes result in the miscommunication of information (Kanuka & Anderson, 1998). The Google Directory provides hyperlinks to a selection of further general online communities (http://directory.google.com/Top/Computers/Internet/Cyberspace/Online_Communities) and also to online message boards providing Web based discussion forum facilities (http://directory.google.com/Top/Computers/Internet/On_the_Web/Message_Boards

News Sources

The man who reads nothing at all is better educated than the man who reads nothing but newspapers. Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826)

As well as discussion forums, news is available from a variety of sources. In a museums context, the 24 Hour Museum, the UK" s National Virtual Museum, provides regular news stories concerning museums (http://www.24hourmuseum.org.uk/nwh.html). Other more general news services can be used to search for items relating to museums. For example, the BBC provides Web based news that is searchable by keyword (http://newssearch.bbc.co.uk/cgi-bin/results.pl?tab=news&scope=news&q=museum).

The well-known search engine company Google (http://www.google.com), as well as providing what is widely considered the foremost Web searching facilities, also gives access to a wide range of news sources in a timely manner (http://news.google.com). The problem with search engines is that they only scan the Web periodically so any information presented is typically weeks or months out of date. By explicitly scanning known news sources much more often, it is possible to provide a view of a limited set of resources in a much more timely manner so it is only minutes or hours old. Google News scans over 4,000 continuously updated feeds from news agencies (such as Reuters - http://reuters.com), newspapers around the world, magazines, etc. It is possible to search these for specific keywords, as it is with standard Web search engines; for example, "museum" (http://news.google.com/news?q=museum), ordered by relevance (as judged by Google) by default. Alternatively, the most recent news items (typically only a few minutes old even when searching for stories specifically about museums) can be displayed first by requesting links to the articles to be presented in reverse date order (http://news.google.com/news?scoring=d&q=museum). It is possible to undertake more specific searches. For example, stories with "museum" in the subject title can be selected (http://news.google.com/news?q=insubject:museum).

In the UK, NewsNow (http://www.newsnow.co.uk) provides a similar service but with a different set of news feeds. Again it is possible to search for recent museum-related news items (http://www.newsnow.co.uk/cgi/NewsNow/NewsNow.htm?Search=museum).

Moreover Technologies (http://w.moreover.com) provides real-time news and business information from other 4,500 sources. These can be customized for individual customers for inclusion on theirWeb sites for example. News feeds are made available via RDF Site Summary (RSS - http://web.resource.org/rss) technology, an XML (eXtensible Markup Language - http://www.w3.org/XML) document format that is one building block for the "Semantic Web" (Berners-Lee et al., 2001 & 2002). Moreover Technologies provide a number of publicly accessible RSS news feeds. For example, see one on museum news (http://p.moreover.com/cgi-local/page?feed=265&o=rss). Note that the RSS format is not intended to be read directly, but rather is meant to be regularly processed, typically for inclusion on a Web page. Moreover Technologies provide their RSS feeds as standard Web pages as well; for example, the RSS museum news feed above is available in HTML format suitable for direct display in a Web browser (http://p.moreover.com/cgi-local/page?feed=265).

Daypop (http://www.daypop.com) provides searching across an impressive 14,600 news sites (and also "Web logs" - see the next section). A search for the keyword "museum" is possible; for example, (http://www.daypop.com/search?q=museum). This search facility is available as a dynamically generated RSS feed as well which could be used to integrate the information into another Web site using suitable software that is becoming increasingly widely available (http://www.daypop.com/search?q=museum&o=rss).

There are quite a number of RSS news feeds available now. To find them, a number of "syndication" services are available where a new feed can be registered and approved, having been checked for validity, etc. For example, see Syndic8.com (http://www.syndic8.com). This is the place to visit in order to find syndicated news feeds on a wide variety of topics. The site is searchable using keywords like "museum" (http://www.syndic8.com/feedlist.php?ShowMatch=museum&ShowStatus=all). As yet there is not much from which to choose in the way of museum-related news feeds, but larger museums could find this a good way to disseminate recent information about their museums in a timely manner.

Facilities are available for custom syndication of news sources. For example, NewsKnowledge collects news from more than 2,400 sources and in more than 20 different languages, with updates of news feeds scheduled every 15 minutes (http://www.newsknowledge.com). These sources can be scanned using keywords and combined to form a single news feed, potentially for use on another Web site. It is possible to try the facilities free, but there is a charge to have the news feed regularly updated.

Some initiatives of interest to the museum community do already provide their own news feeds online. For example, the Dublin Core Website (http://www.dublincore.org) includes such a feed (http://www.dublincore.org/news.rss). However this technology has yet to be harnessed in any significant way by the museum community in general. Overall there are not yet many news feeds directly relevant to museum personnel and available online. There are also not many museums using this technology to provide news feeds on developments at their museum. This is a technology that larger museums should be considering now if they are not already doing so, both in terms of gathering relevant news and providing topical information. It is certainly an excellent way to help increase the dynamic aspects of a Web site, and important to increase repeat visits by users.

Weblogs

Art is the desire of a man to express himself, to record the reactions of his personality to the world he lives in. Amy Lowell (1874-1925)

An interesting development is the use of Web logging software or "blogging" which allows people to create Web content in the form of a journal, typically via a simple Web interface and including date information automatically. Carver (2003) discusses the use of Web logging in the context of libraries, some of which may be relevant to museum personnel. Gateshead public libraries in the UK (http://www.gateshead.gov.uk/libraries) provide what they claim to be the first library Web log in the UK (http://refdesk.Weblogger.com) using content management facilities from Weblogger (http://www.Weblogger.com) who charge from $80 per year. Alternatively, BLOGGER provides an easy-to-use tool, including free and paid versions, together with various hosting options (http://www.blogger.com). BLOGGER providse an associated Web log hosting site called blog*spot (http://www.blogspot.com). A Web log can be set up in minutes (e.g., see http://museophile.blogspot.com).

The Daypop Web site, as previously mentioned, indexes a wide range of Web logs as well as news sites. It is possible to search across the Web log sites specifically using the keyword "museum" for example (http://www.daypop.com/search?q=museum&t=w). There is no obvious participation from real museums so far.

A "Web log" or "blog" could be used to collect and categorize information about a museum" s collection in a manner that is access to other museum personnel who could add further information and comments as desired. An important aspect of Web logs is simplicity of use that should help increase use by those who are find computer technology inaccessible. Many very active Web log communities now exist; e.g., see a collection of links including ordered by the time of last update (http://www.Weblogs.com) and Blog-City.com where users can set up a free Web log or pay a low $2 per month fee for improved facilities (http://www.blog-city.com).

The Google Directory includes a good set of links concerning Web logs including library and information science, science and culture, and also (some free) software tools (http://directory.google.com/Top/Computers/Internet/On_the_Web/Weblogs). However, there seems to be nothing yet specifically relating to museums. The online Weblogs Compendium is another useful resource (http://www.lights.com/Weblogs). Web logs have significant untapped potential for building a community feel to and increased interactive involvement in museum Web sites. It is recommended that museum Web masters investigate and consider their possible use.

What do we need?

Forum Aggregation

It is hard enough to remember my opinions, without also remembering my reasons for them!" Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900)

Currently much of the content for museum discussion forums is distributed around the Internet in a rather inaccessible manner than is difficult to find, as presented in the first half of this paper. A useful facility could be a to provide a single gateway Web site where many of these resources are gathered together in one location. As an experiment, such a Website has been established by Museophile Limited as part of a project with South Bank University, London (http://forums.museophile.net). Figure 1 shows the homepage

Figure 1. The Museophile discussion forums home page.

This Web site has two major features: local forums and a selection of external mailing list, newsgroup and news feeds from other sites. Locally, there are a number of forums split into named sections that visitors can peruse. These currently include:

"         Announcements - informational messages;

"         Art galleries - messages specifically relevant to art museums;

"         Conferences - announcements of forthcoming conferences;

"         Discussion - general discussion that does not fit into any other category;

"         Events - announcements of forthcoming events;

"         General - messages of general interest about museum-related topics;

"         Jobs - employment opportunities, links to Web sites, etc.;

"         Museophile - messages concerning the Museophile Web site;

"         Museums - information relevant to and about museums;

"         News - topical news items;

"         Online column - articles from a column in New Heritage magazine;

"         VLmp - announcements concerning the Virtual Library museums pages;

"         Web sites - pointers to interesting museum-related Web sites.

This list could easily be expanded or amended at any time. It is also possible for visitors to post items to these sections and to add comments to existing items. The user can undertake a keyword search across these sections and also within a particular section. Other facilities include polls for voting on questions and diaries (like Web logs) by individual users.

It is worthwhile for anyone making extensive use of this site to register a new user account. This only requires selection of a username and the provision of a working email address. Information is posted to the email address to allow the user to log into the site, after which a new password may be selected and further information provided if desired. While it is possible to browse and even post items without a user account, extra facilities are available to those with such an account. For example, any items posted will be identified with the user and it is also possible to maintain a personal "diary" of messages if desired.

Perhaps the most useful feature for registered users is the ability to personalize the home page of the Museophile discussion forums Web site. Normally, a selection of the most recent messages posted on forums is displayed. As well as selecting these items, registered users can also select from a wide range of feeds from external mailing lists, newsgroups and news sources relevant to museums as discussed earlier in this paper. Currently over sixty sources are available, and others can relatively easily be added (and suggested by users). When a particular feed is selected by a user, links to the most recent items available from that source are displayed in a list on the right-hand side of the Museophile discussion forum" s home page. Typically ten to fifteen items are a good number, but this is user-selectable. Any number of feeds may be displayed, although if many are selected, the page could become quite large.

The interface to Museophile discussion forums is meant to be relatively simple and usable on a range of browsers. In addition, a text-based interface with user-selectable size, colors and fonts, aimed at those with sight difficulties, is also available (http://access.museophile.net/forums.museophile.net). Museophile Limited is especially interested in improving accessibility to museum Web sites (http://access.museophile.net; Bowen, 2001) both for discussion forums and e-commerce (Bowen, 2002a).

With the above facilities, a registered Museophile discussion forums user has a single point of access for a wide range of museum-related information sources, from local Web forums to mailing lists, newsgroups and news sources. The system is not perfect, of course, mainly due to limitations in the underlying software. For example, it is not currently possible to search across the external feeds, and posting messages is not as simple as it could be. However, it is a useful resource that already has nearly two hundred registered users. Readers of this paper are welcome to join and experiment with the facilities (http://forums.museophile.net/newuser).

To help assess the needs of museum professionals and to improve the Museophile forum facilities, an associated questionnaire has been installed and advertised on some of the major museum electronic mailing lists, selected newsgroups and the Virtual Library museums pages. The questionnaire was made available in both English and French. The results of this survey are presented in a companion paper with a view to improving museum discussion forums in the future. Preliminary results are also available elsewhere (Bernier & Bowen, 2003).

Technology

Technology is dominated by two types of people: those who understand what they do not manage, and those who manage what they do not understand. Putt" s Law

The Museophile forum system is a dynamic Web application based on an SQL (Structured Query Language) database. The forum software is called Scoop (http://scoop.kuro5hin.org) and is implemented in the Perl programming language (http://www.perl.com), supported by a MySQL database (http://www.mysql.com). This software is all running on a commercially hosted PC running the GNU/Linux operating system (http://www.linux.org).

The Scoop software runs with an Apache Web server (http://www.apache.org), the most widely used Web server software in the world, via the "mod_perl" system (http://perl.apache.org); this closely integrates the Perl programming language with the Apache server, allowing Apache functionality to be replaced with or extended through Perl code. Linux is a free Unix-like operating system for a variety of platforms. It has been found to be as reliable as commercial Unix implementations, for a fraction of the cost.

All of these key components are "Open Source" Software (OSS) as propounded by the Open Source Initiative (OSI - http://www.opensource.org). Open Source is an approach to software licensing where software is made available free of charge (or for limited and reasonable distribution cost), with full access to the source code, and with the right to redistribute that code, subject to certain restrictions (Ming-Wei Wu & Ying-Dar Lin, 2001). The Google Directory provides access to many Open Source resources online (http://directory.google.com/Top/Computers/Open_Source).

Some OSS licenses require that modifications made to the software by licensees must be contributed back to a common repository of code for public use. All of the licenses for the components of the Museophile forum framework were considered to be open enough to make it possible for the Museophile code as a whole to be redistributed freely and without cost; this was considered an important factor in the success of the Museophile project.

The Scoop forum system is customizable, both in terms of appearance and functionality, through an extensive framework system that gives control over the layout of pages and over the content that is accessed to fill the page. This gives some flexibility in use (for example, functionality can be limited or extended to fit the profile of the Museophile forums) and capacity for future expansion, to keep up with discussion forum trends.

Features of Scoop

The developers of Scoop describe it as a "collaborative media application". From the Scoop project Website:

It falls somewhere between a content management system, a Web bulletin board system, and a Web log. Scoop is designed to enable your Web site to become a community. It empowers your visitors to be the producers of the site, contributing news and discussion, and making sure that the signal remains high.

Scoop is a Web forum and content framework system implemented by the administrators of Kuro5hin, a technology and society advocacy and discussion forum (http://www.kuro5hin.org). It is maintained by and for its developers and a small group of users, most of who run Scoop-based discussion forums themselves.

It is implemented in Perl and mod_perl, and is licensed under the terms of the popular GNU General Public License (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/gpl.html). This is the same license under which many common pieces of open source or "free" software are distributed, including most notably the key pieces of the GNU/Linux operating system.

The developers of Scoop describe it as a "collaborative media application". From the Scoop project Website:

It falls somewhere between a content management system, a Web bulletin board system, and a Web log. Scoop is designed to enable your Web site to become a community. It empowers your visitors to be the producers of the site, contributing news and discussion, and making sure that the signal remains high.

The content is presented as a series of recent news or discussion items, with the most recent at the top of the page, and with a thread of discussion attached to each. These items are in various categories, each of which can be viewed individually, again as a similar list. Scoop allows items or categories to have polls associated with them for users to vote on relevant topics, and Scoop site users can often have their own personal Web diaries for other users to read.

Scoop has been developed to support a site where the bulk of the page content has been provided by the users and is thus a good candidate for the implementation of a discussion forum system such as Museophile, which aims to combine both locally-hosted discussion and externally-hosted content such as email-based discussion lists, Internet newsgroups (Usenet), and content from other Web sites via various methods of syndication.

The forums provided by Scoop are entirely Web-based, once installed. All the major maintenance of the site is done by Web users with administrator privileges. Various levels of administrator privilege can be assigned, ranging from simple moderation rights, where certain users can "mark down" content they consider to be illegal, offensive, inflammatory or simply irrelevant, to full administration rights, where templates can be changed, code can be added or modified, etc.

Scoop supports these aspirations by being modular. The content of the page is laid out using components called "boxes" and "blocks" , which can be either content from a database (such as a message, a reply, a diary entry or a poll), or additional functionality implemented as Perl code. These components are laid out in page templates which allow the entire style of the site to be specified in one place.

Scoop supports syndication (distributing content feeds to and aggregating them from other Web sites) via a syndication format called RDF Site Summary (RSS - http://web.resource.org/rss), which is an application of the Resource Description Framework (RDF - http://www.w3.org/RDF) commonly used by museums and library organizations. RDF is itself an XML document format. XML is the eXtensible Markup Language (http://www.w3.org/XML), a core file format somewhat similar in style to HTML (which can be made XML-compatible), and used in all aspects of modern Web architecture.

RSS site summaries are now a very common form of Web site syndication, and they represent the main way Museophile intends to integrate foreign content into the forum system. The Scoop software can be scheduled to regularly collect and store RSS summaries from Web sites, and the modular presentation framework allows this content to be integrated in various ways. Scoop can also produce RSS summaries of its own local content, so Museophile can be syndicated in the same way. The Museophile discussion forums news syndication file is readily available as an external feed online and is regularly updated with the latest items posted on the Museophile site (http://www.museophile.net/backend.rdf). The format is not intended for direct viewing by users, but rather for processing by software into suitable form (e.g., HTML).

Alternatives to ScoopScoop is by no means the only candidate for discussion forums software. It was chosen for the Museophile project because of its range of features, and because the technical aspects of the system were a good fit with the existing Museophile project prototypes which are all implemented in mod_perl. Many alternatives exist, written in most Web programming languages and under a variety of licenses (commercial or
open source). Some of these systems are very like Scoop in their scope of application, and others are more simple discussion forums.

The main alternative considered was the Slash system (http://www.slashcode.com), which is the open source community Web site system developed by and supporting the popular technology Web site, SlashDot (http://slashdot.org). Slash is considered to be the "grandfather" of all news and discussion Web sites, having essentially defined the format that most community-oriented news sites follow. The Slash code is very substantial and requires quite a lot of understanding and maintenance, and was considered to be a little too large for Museophile's requirements, but presents a useful alternative for future expansion. Scoop was selected as a simpler, more immediately customizable code-base, and has proved to be an interesting choice.

Other possible alternatives include Phorum, an open source Web based discussion software application written in PHP (http://phorum.org). Commercial bulletin board hosting is also available (http://www.bulletinboards.com) as is message board and forum software/hosting (http://www.message-boards.net). The cost of a commercial service with no advertisements starts from around $10 per month. However some of these systems use Java applets (http://java.sun.com/applets) which may be slow to run first time and possibly require installation of suitable "plug-in" software if it is not already available on the user" s computer. The Forum Company (http://www.forumco.com) provide similar facilities that seem to be faster, perhaps since they do not use Java. For further links to bulletin board systems, including software (much of it free), examples of Web discussion boards, etc., the Google Directory provides a good starting point (http://directory.google.com/Top/Computers/Bulletin_Board_Systems).

Future Directions

The best way to predict the future is to invent it. Alan Kay

For the future, museums could borrow from research into networked multi-user and multimedia environments for learning and collaboration such as MOOs, object-oriented versions of MUDs (Multi-User Dungeons) that originated from the computer gaming fraternity (Bowen & Houghton, 1999). For example, see LambdaMOO, now an open source project" (http://sourceforge.net/projects/lambdamoo). This provides an interactive, multi-user network-accessible, programmable system aimed at the creation of text-based adventure games, conferencing systems and other collaborative software.

Research into Web based collaborative teaching environments could be useful for museum Web sites, especially in increasing their educational role (Curran, 2002). Computer Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW) technology is important in fostering new virtual social networks between people with common interests (Chin et al., 2002).

The increasing use of wireless networks by small communities means that the Internet will become more and more ubiquitous in the environment (Flickenger, 2002). Indeed, "ubiquitous computing" is a term that is now rapidly gaining widespread recognition, and the effects on groups and in a social context has been considered (Grudin, 2002; Jessup & Robey, 2002).

Much of the Web currently consists of "dark matter" inaccessible to search engines because it is only available in search databases with no direct hyperlink to the material available. Some material is just not available, even if it is stored on computers around the world. Sometimes this is for security reasons, but there is much interesting archive material that is not easily accessible online just because of lack of facilities, expertise, finance, etc., rather than any particular technological barrier. Certainly there are quite a few discussion forums of interest to the museum community that are not viewable to non-subscribers and are not archived even for subscribers. For example, the MCN-L discussion forum (http://www.mcn.edu/resources/mcnl.htm), launched in October 1995 by the US Museum Computer Network (http://www.mcn.edu), is freely available for subscription to anyone interested, but is not currently archived online, although there are plans to do so.

Current search engines are very text oriented both in their search capabilities and in their presentation. It is likely that more visual approaches will become more widely available in future. An example of what is possible using current technology is available in the form of the KartOO search engine (http://www.kartoo.com). This search engine aims to use information visualization to give two-dimensional graphical presentation of links between connected resources on the Web using Flash technology, available on many modern graphical Web browsers. Enough of the Web has been mapped by this resource to make it a worthwhile Web search tool already. The same technology could be adapted to search discussion forums and news feeds. See Figure 2 for the results of a search for "museum discussion forums".

Figure 2. The Kartoo search engine results with a search for
"museum discussion forums"

The "Semantic Web" has been heralded by Tim Berners-Lee and others as the next major step forward for the Web (Berners-Lee et al., 2001 & 2002). The technology for this concept is currently under development and should allow much better Web-wide searching facilities using semantic information and knowledge rather than just the syntactic keyword search that is currently widely available. This vision has itself spawned a community of believers (http://www.semanticWeb.org). RDF is an important part of the underlying technology for the proposed semantic Web so examples of the searching of newsfeeds as discussed earlier in the paper are a relatively small-scale example of what could be achieved. The same approach could be adapted for Web-wide searching of discussion forums, for example if suitable standards are widely adopted in the future.

For more interactive forums, open protocols are really needed to open them up to any participant. For example, Jabber is an XML-based protocol for two-way communication of messages offering an open system that claims to be extensible, decentralized and secure (http://www.jabber.org). Something similar for multi-way communication as needed in chat rooms would also be a worthwhile development for the future.

Conclusion

There is no greater mistake than the hasty conclusion that opinions are worthless because they are badly argued. T.H. Huxley (1825-95) ." "

There is still much potential for museums to develop their use of discussion forums. The technology continues to become more sophisticated and easier to use. What is needed from museum professionals are ideas on how the technology can successfully be used in a virtual museum setting to develop communities of people with an interest in museums online. The unique aspect of museums is their collections, and these could be a good resource around which to base interactions.

For example, why not allow virtual visitors to add comments and discussion to individual objects in an online collection database, perhaps using Weblog or discussion forum technology? Of course it should be made very clear what material has been provided by museum curators and what has been submitted by visitors, but this is a matter of presentation. If there are enough visitors online at the same time, instant interaction to discuss objects could be possible using text, audio and even video. Software to do this has not yet been adapted for a virtual museum environment, but all the elements and infrastructure needed are available now.

Advances in the "semantic Web" continue, and this is certainly an area that museums should monitor; e.g., see ERCIM (2002) for a selection of articles. Developments in RSS/RDF XML technology, as mentioned earlier in this paper, are likely to be of particular pragmatic importance in improving search facilities for news feeds, Web forums, etc.

The development of online communities by individual museums and groups of museums is likely to become increasingly important and interesting as the Web becomes a less static and much more dynamic space in which to interact. Imagination is as limiting a factor as technology and adequate funding, but of course all three are required for success. Overall there is considerable scope for museums to exploit this currently underutilized but rapidly changing aspect of the Web.

Acknowledgements

The research and development presented in this paper were supported by the Business Award & Support Scheme BASS/HEROBAC Museophile project through South Bank University, London (http://www.museophile.sbu.ac.uk). The quotations in this paper were obtained from the Quotations Page Website (http://www.quotationspage.com ).

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