What special value do digital catalogues hold for users?

Throughout the focus group conversations, participants expressed a number of expectations for these catalogues by virtue of them being digital resources. Some of the most consistent sentiments shared include the following:

Digital catalogues can and should push beyond print limitations in terms of interactivity and navigation

One thing clearly communicated by the focus group participants is that they want the catalogues to take advantage of the many affordances of the digital format and push beyond what printed books or ebooks can offer. This means including digital interactive features and allowing participants to navigate the text in different ways:

Some of them are really published books. I’m not a millennial, and I still hope that the millennials will buy books (especially when I have written them). But it’s clear that some of these catalogues didn’t really use the potential of digital possibilities.

The Matisse publication and the Getty publication were still very tightly formed to that model of an actual hard copy book, whereas the NGA and PMA catalogues felt like they were really taking advantage of the digital platform… These kinds of publications I think can and should be different, to use what is possible in the digital world.

Although there will always be users who prefer books, participants didn’t express the need for these catalogues to mimic that format. Those who prefer a hard-copy environment said they would simply download and print a pdf to read.

Digital catalogues can change over time to include new information and interpretations

Focus group participants had strong expectations that digital catalogues would be updated as new information on the collections becomes available. Having access to the latest information on works was seen as a significant advantage of the digital format. On the whole, participants liked that digital catalogues are dynamic resources:

When it’s more like a book that just seems to have been made into something digital, it feels like it’s finished. And something that I really value for a collection catalogue that is digital is the fact that you can, and I think that you should be able to add to it and keep it dynamic.

It feels like we don’t have to have a cutoff of what it has to look like in its finality. I wonder if digital catalogues should ever have a final form. I think that’s one of the limitations about thinking about past catalogues rather than some new form of knowledge sharing.

Digital catalogues can reach wider audiences

One participant pointed out that print museum catalogues have a smaller audience than digital catalogues. The digital catalogues can be accessed easily by anyone who has an interest, whereas print catalogues require more effort to acquire and tend to be used only by scholars and researchers.

Having these digital publications…does make all of this information really accessible. We know how to do research and going to the library and so forth and so on. But I think the fact that anyone can go and explore more, see these objects, read more about them…I think that’s encouraging.

I know museums and galleries have been trying to get mobile for the last thirty, forty years. They’ve been trying to reach out to a new audience…This is just a natural next step forward. And I think accessibility is key.

Not only does the online environment extend these institutions’ reach among general audiences in the United States, but it provides opportunities to serve audiences in other countries as well. One participant who works in West Africa spoke passionately about how these kinds of online, open-access resources could be extremely valuable to students and scholars in developing nations who have less access to libraries or databases such as JSTOR:

So what I view to be an amazing strength of all four of the projects we’ve looked at is that they are something that someone can look at on a smartphone, which is way more widely used and available among university students who I’ve met abroad than books in a library or articles that exist behind databases that are pay-based.