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Content Strategy for Digital Collections: Archives, Libraries, and Museums

Museums, archives, and libraries share many goals and functions. Their mandate is to exhibit and preserve the collection of the best assets that represent the story and chronology of a culture or a society. These institutions have had to most recently revise their playbooks to use the digital space as a primary channel in making their collections accessible to visitors. To do this effectively, content strategy for digital collections is a necessary piece that is able to streamline the approach of how these institutions shape and expand their roles as modern resources.

The items that museums, archives, and libraries collect reflect the human spirit. Art, artifacts, books, and manuscripts are all documents of human innovation, thinking, and activity. They have been produced by people putting energy into telling their stories. These objects also have the power to bring to light a variety of stories and experiences. These are places to which people and society entrust their most treasured items. So how can we ensure that they are being referenced and used as the shift towards digital becomes ever more important?  

Enter content strategist as digital curator

Similar to a museum curator, librarian, or archivist, a content strategist crafts experiences that establish audience relationships and secure return visits (both virtual and in-person) and continued engagement. In every instance, the content strategist takes a detailed look at the context of a collection, determines how to best engage audiences with it, and develops a message that inspires action and aligns with the institution’s goals and objectives.   

Curation has a distinguished position in cultural institutions. In archives, libraries, and museums, curators use their judgment to select and arrange artifacts to create a narrative, evoke a response, and communicate a message. Archivists, librarians, and museum curators understand this in a very personal way because this is what curation is all about.  Whether a digital content creator or a researcher assembling resources, curation seeks to answer these two questions: What is it you are trying to say? What does your collection represent? 

Within an increasingly complex digital landscape, particularly in light of the global pandemic, institutions rely on content strategists to use curatorial techniques and principles to bring their collections to virtual audiences. Prior to 2020, digital objects, such as video, articles, slideshows related to collection items and artifacts were considered as either short-lived or nice-to-have. Now, these digital collections are essential to telling a story. 

Highlighting a collection’s best assets

Content strategy reframes a collection by creating an overarching structure that defines how its content is organized, positioned, and made relevant. Similar to physical exhibition rooms and display cases, it examines how to strengthen primary content by positioning it with related content elements to support an initiative or theme. 

Digital curation of a permanent collection is an opportunity to feature a collection’s best assets, further emphasize an institution’s unique voice, and create a more nuanced and personalized communication with audiences. Digital curation requires a balance of timely/new or timeless/evergreen content while offering access to multiple dimensions of content simultaneously. When done selectively and effectively, it creates a context that makes the digital experience relevant, engaging, and worth a return visit. 

Managing and maintaining a digital collection

As archivists, librarians, and museum curators care for the upkeep and care of physical objects, digital content strategists set up parameters and strategies to manage and maintain content related to a collection for the short and long term. Content strategy ensures that the plan is executed and that there are effective metadata structures in place to retrieve, maintain, audit, and migrate assets within a Content Management System (CMS). This helps with maximizing the use of the content, reduces access barriers to a collection, and increases content discoverability.

Using data to optimize content

Physical archives, libraries, and museums have security guards with hand counters tracking traffic through their spaces. In the digital world, analytics tell you how many people are visiting, where your audience is looking, and where to expand or improve.

Content strategists use analytics to inform their decisions to create new or updated content. There is a bigger return on investment when curatorial efforts focus on where the traffic is already higher; however, content strategists should also track keyword behavior in search engines and internal traffic to anticipate what audiences are looking for.  Analytics is one part of the equation to forecast and provide insights into behavior, however, it does not always tell the level of enjoyment and connection with said content. Audience research is invaluable in this case in understanding the wants and needs of target audiences. 

Fostering audience relationships

The content strategist can also play the role of a docent or guide, by highlighting topics for discussion. They set expectations and tone, and help to moderate the conversation with extensive knowledge of both a collection and its intended audiences. One major difference between exhibit and digital curators is the integrated and exposed community. For example, in archives, libraries, and museums, there is a large divide between the general audience and expert researchers. Digital experiences allow content strategists to gather additional content, spotlight it, and create a dialogue with a variety of audiences, including both researchers and other target audiences, and provide access points for feedback to gauge if the content resonates. Content strategists may become subject-matter experts who can effectively define and manage the rules of engagement and promote conversation, communicate insights, and extend general knowledge to build trusting relationships. 

There is a lot more content in museums, libraries, archives institutions that can be published and promoted in a meaningful way; however, it is absolutely acceptable to leave gaps in a collection. Not everything is required to be available online. Listen to your audience and their needs for content. When it comes to accessibility, you want to ensure that you are following web accessibility norms and guidelines, such as screen reading, alt text, etc. 

As institutions continue to increase the digitization of their collections, a solid investment in content strategy goes hand-in-hand to ensure that it is telling the right story, correctly representing collections, and engaging new and existing audiences with their value.

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