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Making it FAIR: understanding the lockdown ‘digital divide’

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Making It FAIR was supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s Towards a National Collection programme (TaNC) as part of UKRI’s call for COVID-19 projects. The project responded to challenges faced by smaller museums struggling to engage online with audiences during lockdown, and beyond. The difficulties faced by these smaller museums (and many larger ones too) mattered to AHRC’s aspirations for the digital humanities, because they would leave a huge amount of potential source material simply unavailable to researchers. In the team’s experience, too much museum activity relating to digitised collections was resulting in outputs that did not meet the FAIR data principles (data should be Findable, Accessible, Interoperable and Reusable).

The project team drew on academic researchers, museum sector support organisations and commercial IT practitioners, each bringing different skills and perspectives to bear on both the action and research sides of the work. Project Partners included: University of York, Museum of London Archaeology, Culture24, Collections Trust, The Audience Agency, Intelligent Heritage and Knowledge Integration. Making it FAIR was framed as a research project wrapped around an action project. Between January and September 2021, the project team worked with a cohort of eight small museums as they navigated the challenges of staying connected with existing audiences, and reaching new audiences, through collections-focussed digital content (the Action Project). The cohort received training, mentoring and technical support to plan and carry out digital storytelling experiments.

The Action Project methodology was built around the Let’s Get Real collaborative action research approach developed by Culture24 over a number of previous projects, but adapted for delivery online in a time of home-working and social distancing. The Research Project consisted of a core collaborative action research study which included a socio-technical challenge: as the participants encountered difficulties along the way, the project team responded where possible and prototyped simple tools that demonstrate how a fully developed infrastructure might support the smallest and least resourced museums.

The methodology concluded with a critical evaluation of the experiences of all involved, reflecting on the implications for Towards a National Collection and AHRC’s longer-term planning of research infrastructure.

By considering a fully rounded picture of the digital problems faced by small museums, the project revealed insights into the scope and nature of the national infrastructure challenge, which may be missed with the current focus on well-resourced Independent Research Organisations(IROs) and resulted the following project and strategic recommendations.

Read the Full open Access Report here by
Cooper, AdrianGosling, KevinKennedy, Anra;  Perry, Sara;  Reed, Darren;  Richards, JulianSmith, NeilTorreggiani, Anne;  Wright, Holly
Making it FAIR: understanding the lockdown ‘digital divide’ and the implications for the development of UK digital infrastructures: A Towards a National Collection COVID-19 Project Final Report | Zenodo

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