Doing new work in new ways. Just like we’ve always done.
“Technology @ Mount Vernon” is a combination of needs analysis, branding strategy and communication techniques prepared for the Mount Vernon Ladies Association. The Association was in the process of hiring a Director of Media and Technology as well as planning for the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington.
A New, Old Approach
When George Washington leased Mount Vernon from his sister-in-law Anne Washington in 1754, he was in the middle of a century where technology was changing the lives of everyday people in ways unimaginable just a few decades before. Although the changes may seem quaint from our 21st century perspective, for the people of Colonial America, the changes must have been as dramatic as any we see today. Modern manufacturing began as steam engines replaced animal labor. Manual labor was being replaced by new inventions and new machinery. Within 50 years, the world saw such new innovations as the sextant that could measure both latitude and longitude, the labor-saving spinning jenny and frame, and an improved steam engine that would quite literally change the face of America. If you will forgive the modern phasing, Washington began his life at Mount Vernon as the colonies became America 2.0.
The point being – technology is not new, does not exist in a vacuum for its own sake, and is successful only when it addresses the needs of everyday people. Technology – our 21st century technology – must do likewise. We must approach the subject of technology at Mount Vernon with that as our guiding principle – technology must address the needs of our staff, our visitors, our scholars, our contributors and our community. And just as the sextant provided additional, much-needed information, the spinning jenny saved time while producing a better product, and the steam engine made possible hundreds of additional applications – so too are our goals for the new technology of Mount Vernon.
In 21st century terminology, we must:
- Provide timely, accurate and easily accessible information;
- Create better products and services while saving time and money; and,
- Design an open architecture environment that fosters innovation.
The necessity to provide information on-demand is critical in today’s world. Although it is easy enough to list the increasingly wide array of devices – traditional media, new media, social media, smart phones, tablets, QR codes, text messaging – to emphasize the device misses the point. Our task is to understand how our staff, volunteers, scholars, and patrons gather and use information; what information is needed; and how we can most effectively provide that information to them.
Creating better products and services means the innovative and cost-effective use of technology to accomplish our business goals. If, for example, we create an online children’s game on the life and times of George and Martha Washington, it must represent the gold standard in terms of writing, scholarship, engagement, and the technology that delivers the product. The “game” technology must connect with other appropriate technology – the game includes an opportunity for parents to purchase tickets to visit Mount Vernon (with optional ticket delivery to smart phones) and a personalized “letter to teacher” that indicates that Sam or Susie has completed the game and would like to learn more about Washington. Along with links to online teaching guides.
All of this information should be presented in an “open architecture” environment; that is, available for use in other programs and projects that study the life of Washington. While respecting intellectual property rights, we should make our information available to third-party vendors to develop add-on products. This “open access to data” will inevitably lead developers to create innovative products and services that will dramatically increase our reach into our target communities. As the steam engine was used in hundreds of machines having nothing to do with Thomas Newcomen or James Watts, Mount Vernon’s store of data and scholarship should be available to those who will utilize it in new and exciting ways.
There are several areas in which technology will contribute to James Rees’ goal of creating “the world’s intellectual headquarters for everything to do with George Washington.”
Those areas include:
- Infrastructure and internal operations;
- Fred W. Smith Presidential Library;
- Education and scholarship;
- Building community, hosting conferences and welcoming visitors; and,
- Development and fundraising.
But first, a caveat. This paper was written “from the outside looking in,” if you will. Without an insider’s working knowledge of the opportunities and challenges facing The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, this paper is intended to explore the possibilities and to give a sense of how I would approach technology at Mount Vernon should I be fortunate enough to be offered the position of Director of Technology, Web and Digital Media. So I ask a little leeway knowing that many of these thoughts are likely to have already been considered and may already be in process. Some ideas may have been evaluated and rejected for any number of reasons. I have taken the liberty of including my resume at the conclusion of this paper to provide an overview of how my experience and education will inform my approach to meeting the challenges faced at Mount Vernon.
Infrastructure and Internal Operations
Technology is a tool, a means to an end, and no where is that more apparent than when supporting the daytoday activities of the people who work at Mount Vernon. Only one small group of people have the task of understanding, supporting, and teaching technology. For the rest of the Mount Vernon staff and volunteers, primary responsibilities are elsewhere. And while it is certain in this day and age that technology will be a necessity, it is not their primary focus. It is our responsibility in the technology office to understand their goals, their challenges, and their concerns, and to make the appropriate technology available and easy to use.
Here and in the next several sections are included bullet lists of some of the functionality that the technology office should provide each area. To again emphasize, this is a “from the outside” view and should, in that light, be taken as brainstorming.
- Design and teach classes for staff and volunteers with varying degrees of technology skills.
- Provide help desk support both in-person and online via remote login.
- Sponsor regularly scheduled technology events open to staff and volunteers.
- Create a consistent look-and-feel for all media integrated with our marketing plan.
- Design smart phone and mobile device versions of all websites.
- Implement multilingual websites and media resources wherever practicable.
- Provide business and human resource documents/forms integrated with enterprise systems
- Create a social media policy which encourages participation by staff and volunteers.
- Create special target audience websites (all integrated into main website) for scholarship, development, etc.
- Create an intranet for staff and volunteers. Include will be dashboards of media information, news, schedules, policy changes, etc.
- Encourage technology office staff to blog about our projects, respond to inquiries from staff and volunteers, etc.
Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington
The National Archives website lists 13 Presidential Libraries beginning with the Herbert Hoover Library in West Branch, Iowa. The Archives suggests that “at Presidential Libraries you will find: museums featuring interactive exhibits, interesting and fun public programs, important educational events, [and] vast archives available for scholarly research.” Think of these points only as the traditional starting points for the president who was “first in the hearts of his countrymen.” In addition to the traditional, we will:
- Create a state of the art, continuous learning environment for library including a strong “what’s next in technology” component.
- Design and maintain a media center that allows for the production of new media packages including interactive video/web conferencing capability.
- Develop ongoing relationships with technology offices in other presidential libraries.
- Create an ongoing program to digitize, categorize, and tag library resources to provide online, worldwide access to scholars.
- Install webcams to view library construction including a still-frame montage of daily progress.
- Produce “as we build” interviews explaining various aspects of functionality to be included in library.
Education and Scholarship
- Create online visiting scholars technology needs assessment, putting resources and support in place prior to scholars arrival.
- Based on this assessment, make certain technology office staff is up to speed on any requirements or special needs.
- Assign one staff member from technology office as liaison to each visiting scholar.
- Print and distribute a “service and support” brochure which includes available resources, support hours, help desk number, login/password information, how to set up an account, etc. An easy reference to whatever a visiting scholar might need.
- Design and support new interactive media classrooms.
- Provide video and/or web connections to universities and news media for guest speakers.
- Create the ability to record and/or webcast from anywhere on Mount Vernon campus.
- Install a “concierge” button in each classroom to request assistance with room technology, projection devices, etc.
- Provide support to classrooms in-person and via remote login.
Building Community, Hosting Conferences and Welcoming Guests
- Create an online distribution network for all press releases, etc. created by Marketing Office
- In conjunction with the Marketing Office, develop and implement an online marketing strategy.
- Develop an network of teachers, professors and education professionals to act as an online resource and advisory board
- Distribute Mount Vernon content on appropriate new media and social media outlets (YouTube channel, Twitter, FaceBook, etc.)
- Install webcams at various points of interest including archeology sites, tour stops in the house, blacksmith shop, etc.
- Expand the “ask the archeologist” section of the website to include blogs, tweets, etc. Include a video of the blacksmith making horseshoes, for example.
- Develop a website to market our conference facilities to target audiences.
- Create an easy, straightforward online registration system. All information is automatically conveyed to the appropriate person and/or office.
- Provide ‘print on demand’ capability for conference materials. Include marketing and donation content in all printed material.
- Photograph and/or video tape conference sessions to include on Mount Vernon websites, as well as new media outlets (YouTube channel, Twitter, FaceBook, etc.)
- Make conference material available to participants online with references to additional resources.
- Provide temporary guest access to Mount Vernon’s wireless network.
- Install a “concierge” button in each conference room to request assistance with room technology.
- Provide, program and support tablet/iPads for tour guides and other staff/volunteers that interact with the public including:
- Ability to capture visitor information (for email, newsletters, announcements, etc.)
- Local information including directions to Washington attractions, restaurants, hotels, live traffic reports, etc.
- Audio and video clips as well as facts, additional information, and stories useful to tour guides.
- Emergency information including severe weather announcements, lost child alerts, first aid requests, etc.
- Encourage visitors to tweet about the tour they’re currently taking using #MountVernon and #GeorgeWashington
Development and Fundraising
- Create an audience-specific website (integrated with all other websites) to address development and fundraising.
- Design website with a “one-click to donate” architecture (eliminate the need for a second and third “Join the Neighborhood Friends of Mount Vernon” clicks). Visitors to the website should be able to easily donate from any page of the website.
- Include “Support Mount Vernon” as a global feature on all websites.
- Link all material re Library construction to “give now” option for capital campaign. Include naming opportunities.
- Links to Washington-area attorneys and accountants that are willing to set up legacy donations for Mount Vernon at a nominal charge.
Time Lines, Budgets, Staffing and Strategic Alliances
When President John Kennedy proposed that we “land a man on the moon and return him safely to the Earth,” he was a visionary. When he added the phase “within this decade,” he became a manager. So it is with any of the ideas presented in this paper. Until priorities are established and time lines are in place – forgive the pun – we don’t leave the launch pad. The possibilities outlined in this paper – to say nothing of the thousands of opportunities already on Mount Vernon’s plate – dictate a need for strong project management skills, dealing with sometimes competitive goals, and a wide array of stakeholders and users. In creating my own internet strategy / web development business, in addition to creating and managing the Web Development office at University of Richmond, I have learned the value of a clear, concise plan. Not only to measure results and meet milestones but to inform the community of our process and progress.
Budgets and Fiscal Responsibility
Having run a small business for more than six years, I am keenly aware of the need for budgets that reflect our priorities and goals, anticipate the unexpected, and maintain the cash flow that makes results possible. Many of our clients are notforprofit organizations doing great work on limited budgets. And while I understand that stockholders are not part of the equation, there is a greater responsibility to donors who support our mission to spend their dollars wisely. Every dollar spent on “Project A” is a dollar that cannot be invested in “Project B”. We need to look at economies of scale and not miss the opportunity for “Projects A and B” to benefit from the same expenditures. I believe that budgets should be transparent, so that we can see the value that the effective use of technology has brought us. The desired return on our investment – be it direct cost savings, providing a better product and/or service, or streamlining our business processes – our desired ROI should always be at the forefront.
Staff, Volunteers and Interns
While important for all staff, it is critical that the technology staff continually learn new skills via classes, workshops, conferences, and with our own independent study. Working in several university environments, I appreciate and have always emphasized to my staff the necessity for creativity and innovation. It is important to actively create the environment where imagination flourishes and teamwork gets the job done.
According to Guidestar,® there are roughly 200 volunteers who devote their time, talent and energy to Mount Vernon. Within this number, it is reasonable to assume that there are many talented volunteers who would like to work with the technology office. The technology office should establish a volunteers program to handle appropriate tasks. The key here is training along with the implementation of a system that makes it easy for volunteers to contribute. With, of course, the proper safeguards and approvals in place.
Surrounding the nation’s capitol are some of the finest universities in the country. Having worked at University of Richmond and Virginia Commonwealth University, I am well aware of the tremendous talent pool available to the technology office. We should tap into this resource not only to gain the benefit of youthful creative talent and enthusiasm but to afford them the opportunity to intern in the unique, real world environment of Mount Vernon.
Throughout this paper, there are references to the strategic alliances that I envision. Some are necessary due to budget constraints. Some strategic affiliations are created because the product or service is simply not what we do, so why reinvent (staff and pay for) the wheel?
The goal of the technology office is to build relationships and strategic alliances with people, organizations and businesses that will lend their efforts to achieving our goals at Mount Vernon. Possible alliances, some already mentioned in this paper, include:
- Working with the technology offices of the 13 existing presidential libraries to create best practices for the technology office.
- Inviting game design companies and enthusiasts to create interactive learning modules.
- Partnering with local computer supply companies and printing businesses to support services for conferences and visiting scholars (including printondemand and computer supplies/repair).
- Partnering with photographers and videographers to suppy visual content to the website.
- Forming alliances with internet search companies – Google, Yahoo, etc. – to design and implement advanced, state of the art systems to retrieve library information.
- Partnering with digitizing service companies to make library resource available to a worldwide audience.
- Creating a worldwide network of Washington teachers, professors and scholars to contribute content, writing and editing services.
- Seek out lawyers and accountants who are willing to assist patrons in establishing legacy donations to the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association.