Inspiring the Technological Imagination: Museums and Libraries in a Digital Age

This is the first of several postings that will report on the literature review conducted as part of the project: “Inspiring the Technological Imagination: the Future of Museums and Libraries in a Digital Age.” Funded by the MacArthur Foundation this project addresses one of the four key questions that defines the Foundation’s Digital Media and Learning initiative: How might institutions change to take advantage of the learning opportunities provided by new digital media?The work discussed here seeks to contribute to the development of a field in new media and learning by focusing on museums and libraries as important learning institutions.


Getting Started: Blogging Scholarship


In discussing the organization of this literature review—as it serves as one of the deliverables of the MacArthur grant—the research team investigated the conventions of “blogging” as a mode of scholarly communication. Inspired by the efforts of Mimi Ito and her research team in creating the Futures of Learning blog, we came to appreciate the emerging conventions of scholarly blogging, such when to use web links, embed dynamic media, and add typographic flourishes. One of our greatest challenges was designing the organization of the series of blog posts such that each post could be read individually and make sense as a “dispatch,” but would also contribute to the overall report on the year-long investigation. The initial scope of our research activity—to review the literature that describes the digital media practices currently used in libraries and museums—was extremely broad. Although these institutions share many common interests in serving their various “publics” through the use of digital media, they also have significant differences in terms of their cultural mission, of modes of public access, and levels of resources (for example). While we want to encourage the cross posting of insights and experiences with digital media among institutional contexts, we decided for the purpose of this blog series to separate our discussion of the literature and practices of libraries from those of museums. (For an informative discussion of the history and futures of collaborations among libraries and museums see: Dilevko and Gottlieb, The Evolution of library and Museum Partnerships, 2004)


We address multiple audiences with these postings: we are keenly interested in communicating with museum professionals and library professionals, but also with digital media and learning researchers, design researchers, technologists, humanists, and other cultural workers who are interested the role of museums and libraries as learning sites in a digital age. We recognize that some of these audience members are extremely knowledgeable about the use of new digital media practices, not only in libraries and museums, but in other learning contexts as well. This is one of the exciting developments of the use of blogs for the communication of scholarly research: every posting creates the opportunity to expand the research effort through the feedback of readers. This truly makes the scholarly blog an example of what John Seely Brownfamously described as a “living document.”


Not surprisingly, what we discovered during the literature review effort is a range of documentation of these discussions: there are books of course that address relevant issues, but because of the emergent nature of digital media and learning efforts in the context of the development of Web 2.0 applications, recent discussions are not often documented in print form. So, unlike a traditional literature review, this series of blog posts will also discuss practices and activities that are not published in traditional print formats. In some posts we include references and links to particular institutional activities—such as the development of websites—to illustrate specific ways in which museums and libraries are creatively engaging digital media. In this case, references to the online activities of specific institutions are not offered as case studies or even best practices; they are described as noteworthy illustrations of new efforts that we “read” as part of our culturalreview of the development of digital media practices for learning. Blogs then not only offer the opportunity to reconfigure conventions for the circulation of scholarship, but also offer the opportunity for reconfiguring the genre of the literature review to include reference to and discussion of other modes of expression.


Indeed, finding an appropriate and “comfortable voice” for this form of scholarly communication was a significant part of the authoring/designing work involved in creating these blog postings. Individual research team members will author or co-author each posting, and when possible will make reference to earlier postings. Although the entire research team collaborated on the overall outline and trajectory of each posting, the individual author(s) will determine the tone and voice employed within a specific post.


This initial post offers an overview of the general context for the project including an introduction to some of the key theoretical notions that were explored in the course of the year long research effort. I begin with a brief elaboration of the title of the project: “Inspiring the Technological Imagination” before launching into a discussion about the framework that guided specific research efforts to find relevant literature and practices. Because the initial scope of the project was deeply informed by the MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Media and Learning(DML) initiative, I provide a brief review of some of the defining claims of that initiative. The end of this posting includes a table of contents for the other blog postings that will appear over the next several weeks.


The Technological Imagination Defined


The MacArthur sponsored project, “Inspiring the Technological Imagination,” grew out of a recently completed (but not yet published) transmedia book project called: Designing Culture: The Technological Imagination at Work (Duke UP, forthcoming). (An early excerpt was published in 2005 as “Taking Culture Seriously: Educating and Inspiring the Technological Imagination.”) In this project, I define the technological imagination in the following way:

A character of mind and creative practice of those who use, analyze, design and develop technologies. It is a quality of mind that grasps the doubled-nature of technology: as determining and determined, as both autonomous of and subservient to human intentions. This imagination embraces the fact that all technologies have multiple and contradictory effects. This is the quality of mind that enables people to think with technology, to transform what is known into a set of possibilities, and to evaluate the consequences of possibilities from multiple perspectives. (Balsamo, forthcoming)

It is not appropriate here to elaborate the details of this transmedia book project. Suffice to say that the MacArthur grant was designed to explore the notion of the development of the technological imagination within the context of libraries and museums. The broader argument is that the technological imagination is a key sensibility of lifelong learners who reside in the 21st century. As such, this imagination needs to be explicitly cultivated and, more importantly inspired. The transmedia book project, Designing Culture explores (and presents) a range of digital projects that were designed to address and inspire this imagination. Several of these projects involved the development of new museum exhibits and public interactive experiences. Thus the title of the grant “Inspiring the Technological Imagination” reveals the more specific focus of our investigation into the use of digital media in museums and libraries: to study how these cultural institutions might utilize digital media for the purposes of cultivating and inspiring a particular mode of imaginative engagement with technology that is simultaneously critical and creative, informed by the histories of technology as it also is engaged in the practice of imagining technological futures. Investigating how this imagination is cultivated in the context of museums, especially science and technology museums/centers, was a key point of connection between the transmedia book project and the MacArthur DML initiative.


Stakes in the Ground: New Spaces, Identities, and Learning Practices


For many young people learning no longer happens within a specificphysical location—the formal school classroom or the after-school program. While this may have always been true to some extent, learning places now include domestic (home) environments and various school locations, and also recreational facilities, religious centers, and cultural institutions (to name a few). Moreover, through the use of digital media, homes and schools provide digital access points to websites created by cultural institutions and entertainment companies that sponsor on-line learning activities. Since the advent of the WWW, the physical “place of school” has given way to a proliferation of online “educational places” that create entirely new “spaces for learning.”


French sociologist Michel deCerteau (1984) makes a poetic distinction between “space” and “place” when he writes: “a space is a practiced place.” A place has stable boundaries and a fixed location; a space is created in time through actions and practices. In this sense, school is a place; and learning is a spatial practice. This insight is not merely theoretical. It captures something important about the nature of learning in a digital age. Through the use of the Internet, educational places are now part of broadly distributed digital learning spaces. When learning design researcher Katie Salens provocatively asks “where is school in a digital age?” she invites us to shift our thinking about education from a focus on the “physical place of school,” to a consideration of the “nature of learning spaces” that emerge from the digital connections among physical places, virtual environments, and mobile practices of access and interaction.


In keeping with this insight, one of the key “stakes in the ground” established by the MacArthur Digital Media and Learning projects describes the space of learning (in a digital age) as a networked distributed learning environment (space) that is comprised of several elements: 1) physical places; 2) virtual places; 3) designed learning activities; 4) opportunities for social interactions; 5) information resources; and 6) access entry points. The diagram below represents this space as a network that is created through the connections among different physical locations (home, recreation, school, after-school, museums and libraries). These physical locations are represented as nodes within the learning network. They are distributedgeographically as well as temporally. Temporal distribution means that although they are always part of the network by virtue of their web availability, the nodes are accessed and experienced by learners at different times as part of their travels through the mesh of digital sites.





Several projects in the DML initiative focused explicitly on specific nodes within (this model) of a networked distributed learning environment. The following is a partial list of DML projects that investigate the use of digital media in schools, after-school programs, in the home, and as part of youth leisure and recreational activities. Henry Jenkins’ New Media Literacies Project identified the core skills that comprise literacy in the 21st century. This work guided the development of curriculum for schools and after-school programs. Katie Salens is working on the creation of Quest to Learn, a fully accredited public school (6-8th grades) in New York City that incorporates game-based pedagogies. Nichole Pinkard, the Director of Technology at the Center for Urban School Improvement at the University of Chicago, is PI on a multi-year project to develop an after-school curriculum and program to foster new media literacy. Mimi Ito, now a research scientist at the University of California at Irvine, designed and directed an extensive longitudinal (3-year) ethnographic investigationof how youth participate in digital media in the home, through mobile devices, and as part of online recreational (game-based) communities. These projects were instrumental in establishing a set of understandings not only about how young people engage digital media, but also about the way in which digital media can enhance learning. These projects also suggested new research questions: 1) how must institutions change to address the changing nature of knowledge creation in a digital age ; 2) how should learning environments be designed to address new forms of digital engagement; 3) what kinds of sensibilities emerge in the young people who grow up in digital environments?


This diagram provides an abstract approximation of the structure of a networked distributed learning environment; it is less useful in communicating the dynamic nature of the environment and identifying those who travel through it. The network is never static; it is animated through the practices of access, use, retrieval, storage, and creation. People activate the network through their communication practices with other people (with peers, with adults, with geographically dispersed community members), with applications, and with digital agents. They engage in these practices not only from fixed places that provide access (such as homes and schools), but also increasingly while they are on the move through the use of mobile communication devices. So even as this diagram calls out the important physical nodes within a networked distributed learning environment, it must also be understood that the environment is constituted by dynamic flows of interaction among people, between people and computers, and among digital devices.


The people who participate in a networked distributed learning environment manifest a host of new identities. They are simultaneously users of computer systems and creators of a learning experience. In Henry Jenkins’ (2006) words, they are productive consumers, prosumers who simultaneously produce digital experiences as they engage in the consumption of digital applications, services, and environments. The formation of a singular identity, gives way to the notion of shifting multiple identities. Teachers have to become learners so that they can better understand how to facilitate learning in these new digital environments. As students participate in peer-to-peer networks, they become teachers, not only for their peers for often for adults as well. The old distinctions between online and offline are blurred; the very notion of “identity” is under revision.


Although there is no age limit on those who participate in networked learning environments, most of the MacArthur Foundation DML projects focus on the learning experiences of a category of young people who have been variously named “digital natives,” the “born digital generation,” and “digital youth.” Faculty researchers from the Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, John Palfrey and Urs Gasser (2008) offer this snapshot profile of the digital native:

They were all born after 1980, when social digital technologies such as Usenet and bulletin board systems came online. The all have access to networked digital technologies. And they all have the skills to use those technologies (p. 1).


“Digital natives,” as Palfrey and Gasser assert, “live much of their lives online” and in so doing challenge traditional notions of identity as “singular,” “fixed,” or tied to an embodied persona. There is little separation between the creation of an online identity (that might happen through the design of an avatar or game character) and the embodiment of an offline identity. For digital natives, identities are fluid moments of experience that are expressed as they participate in online spaces; this participation is often part of a practice of rapid attention shifting. Online is a ubiquitous quality of embodied life. This observation about the changing “nature of identity” of digital natives leads Palfrey and Gasser (among others) to rethink notions of the “self,” “sociality,” and of “learning” more broadly. Identity, for digital natives, is multiple and mutable. Palfrey and Gasser speculate about how this changing notion of identity influences our understanding of the process of cognitive development in young people. Digital natives process information differently, which in turn, influences the dynamics of concept and knowledge formation. In another context, “the born digital generation” have been described as “just-in-time learners” who have learned first and foremost that when they need to know something they can always “Google it” (Anderson and Balsamo, 2008). Knowledge for digital natives is not as much “learned” as it is “harvested” and “synthesized” from the information flows they visit and travel through on a daily basis. Palfrey and Gasser describe their practices of knowledge construction as an iterative multi-step process that involves: 1) “grazing,” 2) a “deep dive,” and 3) a “feedback loop” (p. 241). Of particular interest for the purposes of the libraries and museums project is the nature of the “feedback loop” activity. This is Palfrey’s and Gasser’s term for the activity whereby a digital native engages with the information in a creative way by (for example) posting critique on a website, contributing to a wiki page, creating a podcast or a YouTube video, or disseminating the information to friends and network companions. The key dynamic captured by the notion of the “feedback loop” is the sense of participation: the learner actively engages with the information to do something else with it. It is not merely “memorized,” although it may indeed be “remembered,” rather it is actively woven into a set of meaning making practices that (might) involve the use of digital media (podcasts), authoring environments (wikis), and/or networks (e-blasts and blog posts). Participationis the foundation of learning within the context of a networked distributed learning environment. This is the key building block in the use of digital media in libraries and museums as they invent new ways to contribute to learning in a digital age.


Libraries and Museums as Specialized Learning Nodes: The Focus of this Blog Series


The projects mentioned in the previous section provided a general context for the design of the “Inspiring the Technological Imagination” research effort. Our more specific focus was to contribute to discussions about how libraries and museums might incorporate new digital media for the purposes of enhancing informal learning in a digital age. These cultural institutions have important educational missions, and through the use of digital media they are already making significant contributions to the learning experiences of digital youth. Our goal in this literature review was to delve into the context and the key issues under discussion by library and museum professionals about the use of digital media in their respective institutions and to make the connections between these conversations and the insights from the MacArthur DML initiative. Thus our blog postings will summarize key reports, resources and discussions that address two guiding themes: 1) the relationship between the use of digital media within libraries for the purposes of broadening participation in digital culture; and 2) the use of digital media in museums for the purposes of informal education. As mentioned earlier, we separate the discussion of these topics to focus first on the use of digital media in community libraries, and then on the use of digital media in museums. We know that there is much to be learned from the practices going on in each setting that would be valuable for professionals in other settings. The discussions are separate only for the purposes of organizing insights and archiving the literature review.


The last blog postings look to the “edges” of digital culture for insights about the future contribution of libraries and museums to the inspiration of the technological imagination. A third theme of the literature review thus focuses on the notion of tinkeringas a mode of knowledge production, specifically to investigate the role of tinkering in the creation of cross-generational community relationships and as a context for the development of lifelong (informal) learning habits. This part of the research was informed by the theoretical assertion that “tinkering” is an important mode of knowledge production in a digital age because these practices 1) enable important cognitive developments, 2) engender social and cross-generational face-to-face community-creating relationships, and 3) cultivate the technological imagination. Following this, the research team also investigated a range of tinkering practices, from those that involve the use of physical materials to those that involve digital tools and applications. As part of this literature review, we discuss specific examples of practices within community libraries and museums (specifically science/technology centers) that facilitate tinkering-based learning activities. The focus on tinkering was to suggest new horizons for practices and activities that might be adopted by libraries and museums in the future.


In brief, my argument is that the technological imagination needs to be actively cultivated. Too often, we leave the tending of this imagination to serendipity or superstition. We believe, erroneously I argue, that simply by providing access to technology (computers, mobile devices, games) young people will develop a robust technological imagination. And yet, as I elaborate elsewhere (Balsamo, forthcoming), a cultivated technological imagination requires more than just understanding how to use technology. It requires an appreciation for historical precedents and an ethical investment in the creation of our futures. The exercise of the technological imagination is always a work of time-travel: between the many pasts that create the conditions of the (technocultural) present, and between the present and the many (technocultural) futures we are in the process of enacting. This connects the work of the literature review with the broader aims of my ongoing project to consider how museums and libraries as important cultural institutions contribute to the cultivationof the technological imagination as the foundation for the creation of humane, responsible, and ethical futures.


While this project was only one year in duration, it has yielded several outcomes (in addition to this literature review) that will serve the basis for future research, design, and practice: 1) an article on the notion of tinkering as a mode of knowledge production, 2) an interactive map on DIY culture, 3) a prototype of an evocative learning object that melds the physical and the digital to serve as a creative platform for informal learning experiences within museums and libraries. These efforts will be described more fully in the final grant report that will be disseminated on Anne Balsamo’s website: blog posts that will follow will be authored by members of the “Inspiring The Technological Imagination” project research team: Anne Balsamo, Cara Wallis, Maura Klosterman, and Susana Bautista. The following is a list of postings and a tentative schedule for publication.


Posting Topic Outline

Inspiring the Technological Imagination: Museums and Libraries in a Digital Age Anne Balsamo


“Libraries: Setting the Context. From National Efforts to Create Digital Archives to Local Efforts at Access Equality.”Maura Klosterman


Digital Media in Communities Libraries, Part 1: From Information Access to Creative Participation.Cara Wallis


Digital Media in Community Libraries, Part 2: Teen WebsitesSusana Bautista


Digital Media in Community Libraries, Part 3: Games and GamingAnne Balsamo and Stacy Ingber


Digital Media in Community Libraries, Part 4: The Case for Virtual LibrariesAnne Balsamo


Digital Media in Community of Libraries, Part 5: Media WorkshopsMaura Klosterman


Museums: Setting the ContextAnne Balsamo


Mobile Eperiences in Art MuseumsSusana Bautista


Museums Collections: Digitization-Dissemination-DialogueSusana Bautista


Virtual Museums: Where to Begin?Anne Balsamo


Online (art) museum ExperiencesSusana Bautista


Learning from the Edges, Part 1: The Importance of Play.Cara Wallis and Maura Klosterman


Learning from the Edges, Part 2: Tinkering in a Digital Age.Anne Balsamo


Libraries and Museums in a Digital Age: Resources and Web links.” Anne Balsamo


References for Blog Post #1: Literature Review: “Inspiring the Technological Imagination: Museums and Libraries in a Digital Age”

Anderson, Steve, and Anne Balsamo. (2007). “A Pedagogy for Original Synners.” Ed. Tara McPherson. Digital Youth, Innovation, and the Unexpected (The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Series on Digital Media and Learning.) Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 241-259.


Balsamo, Anne. (2005). “Taking Culture Seriously: Educating and Inspiring the Technological Imagination.” Academic Commons.


Balsamo, Anne. (Forthcoming). Designing Culture: The Technological Imagination at Work.(Duke University Press).


Brown, John Seely. “New Learning Environments for the 21st Century.”


deCerteau, Michel. (1984). The Practice of Everyday Life. Trans. Steven Randall. Berkeley, CA: U of California Press.


Dilevko, Juris and Lisa Gottlieb. (2004). The Evolution of Library and Museum Partnerships: Historical antecedents, Contemporary Manifestations and Future Directions.Westport, CN: Libraries Unlimited.


Jenkins, Henry. (2006). Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York: NYU Press.


Palfrey, John and Urs Gasser. (2008). Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives.New York: Basic Books.


Author Bio: Anne Balsamo directs the Interactive Media Division’s Co-Design Lab in the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California. She teaches courses in design across the curriculum, public interactives, and culture and technology for the Interactive Media Arts and Practice program, the Interactive Media Division, and The Annenberg School of Communication at USC. She is also a freelance museum exhibit developer and curator who has created interactive exhibits for the International Museum of Women, the San Jose Tech Museum, the Papalote Children’s Museum in Mexico City, Liberty Science Center, and the Singapore Science Center. Her new research effort called “The Tangible Culture Research Project” investigates the design of evocative (mixed reality) knowledge objects and the role of tinkering in a digital age. For more information about her current work and new transmedia book project, Designing Culture: The Technological Imagination at Work visit (to be launched July, 2009).