Monday, 20 February 2012

Narrative as an element of communication in cultural heritage organisations (by Paula Goodale)

After attending a few of the Information School’s monthly discussion group sessions, and generally being impressed by the talks given by fellow PhD researchers, I foolishly offered to talk about my own less well-developed PhD ideas. I hoped there might only be a small audience, it being the second Thursday in January (just after the Christmas break).  I was wrong, and there were staff too, including the head of my research group. I hoped that I would present my ideas with clarity and conviction and that questions would be benign – not a chance! I hoped I might get the killer insight or advice that has eluded me - instead I came away with more questions than answers, and confirmation (of what I already knew) that there is much work to do, ruthless focusing needed and that it will definitely NOT be easy. With these caveats in mind, I will now describe my fledgling PhD research project and try to summarise some of the points raised.

My core idea is related to the fact that narrative has long been a key element of communication in cultural heritage organisations, as a means of providing access to and interaction with collections, a device for sense-making and informal learning, and a way of approaching social policy goals such as community and inclusion. However, in digital projects (whether they are social media, web sites or libraries) this element of narrative is most often missing or under-developed, thereby missing a key opportunity to engage users. My goal is to look at why this element of narrative is missing online, and to explore ways of addressing this, firstly through the use of the PATHS system (that constitutes my day job), and other online media as appropriate. My research objectives (probably too broad) and methods are to:
  • Find out more about general users’ information behavior, using survey and observational methods.
  • Establish the current state of play on the use of narrative, using desk research and interviews with museum personnel.
  • Explore which are the most promising opportunities for incorporating narrative into user engagement, using open-ended and creative tasks in different systems (including PATHS and one or more social media sites), both individually and collaboratively.
  • Evaluate the outcomes of the task-based activities giving consideration to qualitative measures such as satisfaction with the results, perceived outcomes, quality of the user experience, etc.
  • Analyze the content of the narratives produced via task-based activities to understand more about the nature of narratives produced by general end users compared with those produced by experts.
What is very clear from the comments that followed is that ‘narrative’ is a confusing and multi-faceted construct, and that a tight definition of my interpretation is needed. I’d been challenged on this previously by one of my supervisors and another staff member, so this was no surprise. Aligned with this is whether narrative is data or method – my current thinking is that it might well be both, in that I am analysing the content of narratives, I’m interested in it is a phenomenon and I’m also investigating ‘narrative inquiry’ as a research method.

Further discussions with fellow researchers last week at the second LIS DREaM (Developing Research Excellence & Methods) workshop in London (which I’ve blogged about here) provided greater clarity and perhaps a degree of focus. One angle that I am interested in following is the development of narrative use for engagement in cultural heritage over time, particularly the changes in ownership (and content) of narrative from experts to end-users, and onto more collaborative approaches to interpretation. I recognise that this is still a mammoth task, but hope to make it more PhD-sized following plenty of grilling by my supervisors, extensive deep thought (perhaps supported via rich pictures or some other mind-mapping technique), and occasional more serendipitous tangential conversational encounters.

1 comment:

  1. Oh dear! I hope potential contributors to the discussion group aren't put off by Paula's opening paragraph. I had hoped that discussions were insightful but benign. I hope she wasn't too traumatized by her experience.