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Empowering Arts Organizations in an Information Age

ANNA MATHEW, Knowledge Associate, Young Associates |

Technically, I’m a librarian. So why have I joined Arts Consultants Canada?

Well, I work for Young Associates, a team of consultants working primarily with arts organizations in a variety of areas, most significantly financial and data management. I believe the field of library science – now more frequently referred to as information science, information studies, or even just ‘information’, has broad applications to sectors beyond the public, academic, school, and traditional corporate (e.g. legal and medical) settings to which we are accustomed. The information specialist is no longer restricted to within the library walls and now frequently finds him/herself in an embedded role within an organization which has a non-information related mandate but needs someone to perform information retrieval and information management duties to support that mandate. What I’m saying is, in our ‘information age’, a librarian can find him or herself working anywhere.

It’s no surprise that we don’t come across too many arts organizations who can afford to keep a permanent, embedded information specialist on staff. Sure, some of the larger organizations have a researcher or two, but for the most part, arts organizations have too much administrative overload and too many budget constraints to deal with to consider creating a formalized role for an information manager. Enter the arts consultant.

In the Spring 2014 ACCA newsletter, my Young Associates colleague Samantha Zimmerman wrote about how consultants can play a leadership role in getting arts organizations to consider their statistical data as ‘SMART’ data, and to set goals and put systems in place to make data part of a larger picture in preserving and communicating an organization’s story. That sentiment is echoed by Negin Zebarjad, a consultant at Nordicity, a consulting firm that earlier this month hosted a panel for Artscape Launchpad on “The Power of Data on Communicating Your Impact”. Zebarjad focuses on good design and clear goal-setting, and emphasizes that arts organizations need to become aware of what data they are already collecting and think about how it can be threaded into the narrative they want to tell about themselves. During the panel, representatives from major funding bodies stressed the importance of seeing a balance of qualitative and quantitative information from organizations when assessing impact. Smartly organized data – which is collected, preserved, analysed, and presented according to well-designed systems and in support of clearly articulated goals – makes that qualitative-quantitative balance possible; this is becoming more relevant as CADAC is looking for correlations between the financial and the statistical data they receive.

The information specialist’s role in consulting with arts organizations goes beyond accessing and manipulating a client’s database. We can offer arts organizations assistance in understanding how information moves through their organizational ecosystems and how it is affected by software, hardware, and, most importantly, people. By undertaking strategic exercises like organizational data flow visualizations and goal setting, and hands on activities like database design and cleanup, we can increase efficiency and strengthen identity.

A favourite instructor at the University of Toronto’s iSchool said: “A librarian helps people find stuff”. (Full disclosure, he might not have used the word ‘stuff’). Another memorable instructor put forth a ‘cocktail party’ definition for the term information architect (a kind of information specialist) as someone who: “is supposed to make sure that people can find what they’re looking for without getting lost or confused.”

Arts consultants armed with information skills can do both those things by helping organizations become information literate and empowering their stakeholders to use that information to operate efficiently, to advance their mandates, and to extend their reach.

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