Context Book Report: The Participatory Museum by Nina Simon

“We are not about stuff and projects but about relationships and stories that rise up from the community. The story is more important than the stuff.”

~Ron Chew, former director of the Wing Luke Asian Museum, Seattle, WA (quoted by Simon, 2010, p. 264)

Nina Simon is an exhibit designer and museum consultant. Her book, The Participatory Museum is valuable for any cultural institution desiring to design and implement participatory activities. Part 1, Design for Participation, outlines her philosophy of making an institution participatory. Central to the participatory organization is her concept of “me-to-we design,” building upon individual experiences to create collective engagement (Simon, 2010, p. 25-26). Part 2, Participation in Practice, goes through all the steps of planning and implementing various types of participatory activities, as well as evaluating, managing, and sustaining them.

A wide range of participatory activities is presented, and throughout the book Simon includes detailed case studies. The case studies include both successes and failures, with in-depth analysis about why some activities succeeded and some didn’t. The wealth of detail and specific examples make it not just an inspiration for creative imagining of the participatory library, but a practical and detailed resource for designing projects that have a greater chance of success.

Digging a little deeper into this rich resource, several concepts stood out to me: encouraging diverse levels of participation, scaffolding activities, and the institutional values behind participatory institutions.

Diverse Participation

Simon cites Forrester research’s “ladder” of social network participant types (it’s worth looking at the brief presentation on their website).  According to this research, people participate in social networks in diverse ways (Simon, 2010, p.8). The categories are creators, critics, collectors, joiners, spectators and inactives:


Users who produce content, upload videos and write blogs. At the time of the initial publication (2008), the research indicated that 24% of general online audiences create.


Users who submit reviews and/or ratings and comment. (37%)


Users who organize links and aggregate content (21%).


Users who maintain accounts on social networking sites (51%).


Users who read blogs, watch videos, or visit social sites without joining (73%).


Those who don’t visit social sites (18%)

The percentages in these categories change depending on demographics, and have changed over time, but “one thing stays constant: creators are a small part of the landscape” (Simon, 2010, p. 8). Although we tend to think of creators when we think of Web 2.0, every level except inactives are participating in some way. Simon emphasizes that it is not necessary to make everyone a creator. Her participatory principles are focused on encouraging diverse forms of participation and lowering the bar to participation for as many people as possible.

Case Study: YouTube

Simon points to YouTube as a successful site where value comes from many levels of participation. On its face, YouTube appears to be about the creators of videos and the spectators of videos. In fact, YouTube encourages spectators to become critics and collectors—people who rate and comment, who make playlists of videos, and by their participation act as curators (or, in library terms, catalogers and reference librarians!) and improve the site for everyone. Even spectators participate since the number of views of a video affects its visibility and popularity—you participate just by watching.


The Forrest Research user profiles suggest that only a small percentage of people will respond to completely wide open opportunities to participate. To “convert” spectators and joiners to collectors, critics, and creators, institutions need to use “scaffolding”—structure around the opportunity that invites the user in and provides implicit and explicit information about participate. “The best participatory experiences are not wide open. They are scaffolded to help people feel comfortable engaging in the activity” (Simon, 2010, p.12).

The vast majority of people who are willing to participate need an invitation to do so, and they will feel more comfortable if the activity is well-scaffolded. The DOK library multitouch table  is a great example of an activity that invites creative participation from a wide audience. The activity is structured clearly enough that participants can figure out what they are supposed to do to participate, and the content on the table gives people a spark for their creative response. Users can add their own photos, tag photos or contribute stories (Boekesteijn, 2011). This leaves participation open to a very wide audience. A project such as inviting library constituents to submit their own videos might reach the most active “creator” patrons, but would probably put off many others who would like to participate but don’t feel comfortable creating their own content from scratch. The multitouch table levels the playing field for participation and invites spectators to become collectors, critics and creators.

Fancy interactive tables aren’t the only way to encourage participation. Simon describes successful designed interactions using sticky notes and pencils, typewriters, or markers and drawing paper (Simon, 2010, p. 108). One of the great values in this book is the wide variety of participatory experiences Simon describes. Anyone hoping for ideas for making their library more participatory will find creative and well-thought out ideas here to spark their own ideas as well as practical considerations to consider when trying to develop “me-to-we” design.

Values of Participatory Institutions

Simon outlines what she feels are the three key values that a participatory institution needs: the desire for input, trust in participants, and responsiveness to participants (Simon, 2010, p. 183).

The institution needs to have the desire for the input and involvement of outside participants. The institution needs to trust that prospective participants have value to add to the institution (we’re not just “letting” them participate because we have to, because everyone else is doing it, or to placate them with superficial participation while we do the “real” work. Finally, the institution needs to be committed to being actually responsive to participants’ actions and contributions or ultimately participants will not feel valued and interest in participating will fizzle. The DOK multitouch table is responsive by design without requiring staff input, but a lower tech investment such as a sticky note comment board is responsive only when staff are respectful and responsive to participants’ contributions.

According to Stephens, the hyperlinked library is one where “users will connect, collaborate, create and care” and where the library will “encourage the heart” (Stephens, 2011). Simon’s three values reflect a similar mindset. The heart-oriented values of desire for input (connection) and trust and responsiveness are part of the scaffolding that make patrons feel safe and valued enough to participate in the organization.


I had a few connections to prior class discussions while reading the Participatory Museum.

Staff Need Scaffolding Too

Introducing participatory activities can be unsettling or even scary to library staff who are used to a different way of doing things. We shouldn’t ‘tsk-tsk’ at staff any more than we should do so to library patrons who are wary of a new system!

In Rachael’s Valdez’s blog, she wrote about her initial feeling of resistance to introducing games into the engineering library. Ultimately the games are a valuable addition, but Simon’s work demonstrates why Rachael’s initial uncertainty about them wasn’t unreasonable either. Staff need the scaffolding to feel comfortable in the participatory library just as the patrons do. There is a world of difference between adding extra work to someone’s pile and a true organizational commitment to participation. According to Simon, to be a participatory cultural institution, commitment must come from the institutional level. Staff, just like patrons, need to feel that their participatory efforts are supported and welcomed. She cites the case study of the successful New York Public Library Hand-made blog channel. Hand-made started with the efforts of one craft-oriented librarian, but was supported and developed by the organization into a popular library offering (Simon, 2010, pp. 343-345). Although participatory efforts can spring from individual passion and initiative, organizational support and commitment is what makes them sustainable.

Making Literacy Participatory

In a prior blog posting, I wrote about the Battle of The Books school activity and my son’s response to it. I regretted that his creative idea—a play battle dressed up as your favorite book character!—was much more interesting than an adult-supervised trivia game about books, which is what the program really is. I wondered if there was a way to engage kids with literacy more creatively, in a Library 2.0 way.

“What do children do with the books they really love? They don’t just want to read a book and memorize facts or receive learned opinions about them. When they love books they immerse themselves in them, they play them, they live them.” (McKinney, 2014)

It turns out that one of Simon’s participatory case studies is an example of doing exactly that: allowing kids to engage with a book by *playing* it. The 39 Clues series by Scholastic connects to an online game so that children can extend their involvement with the story—clues provided in the books extend into the game.

There is another, newer series, Spirit Animals, that does the same thing. Readers use a code in the book to unlock the online game, build a character and choose a spirit animal—my son has gone for this series in a big way. You can play the game and interact with friends in the game, and share stories on game forums.

Of course, Scholastic’s goal is to build loyalty to a series and get customers to buy more books. Imagine a library or a school doing a similar thing simply to encourage children to read more books, to engage deeply with the stories they read, and to interact with others around the stories.

Simon writes: “Imagine a museum game that required visitors to visit six times in a year to connect with six different exhibits that punctuate a more open-ended online narrative. Forget “build the exhibit and they will come.” This is “build the narrative and they will return” (Simon, 2010, p.73). While the high production values of 39 Clues or Spirit Animals might not be within the reach of a school or library budget, constructing and connecting a narrative through a simpler online game could be.

Spirit Animals screen shot

Me (Lyria Duskwanderer) with my spirit animal, Renet

Think Big, but Think Small

This class encourages us to think big about the future library. Reading The Participatory Library, reminded me that you also need to think small. Simon’s book is a treasure trove of the small details that make the big projects work. It would be a useful resource for anyone wanting to learn more about how to implement participation in the library.


Boekesteijn, E. (2011, February 15). DOK Delft takes user generated content to the next level  [Web log post]. Tame The Web (TTW). Retrieved from

McKinney, M. (2014, February 15). Battle of the books [Web log post]. Retrieved from :

Simon, N. (2010). The participatory museum. San Francisco: Museum 2.0. [Kindle edition] This book is also available online at

Stephens, M. (2011, February). The hyperlinked library [White paper]. Tame The Web (TTW). Retrieved from

Valdez, R. (2014, February 16). What’s in a game [Web log post] Retrieved from:


About mollificence

library student, writer, mom, Kindle addict View all posts by mollificence

9 responses to “Context Book Report: The Participatory Museum by Nina Simon

  • Wendy Derman

    I *love* the books to games concept! If those had been around when I was a kid, you would not have been able to tear me away. In fact, when people ask me why I like WoW so much, that’s how I explain it.. it’s like being able to live inside and interact with the story in your favorite book. In my case, the video game came first, but there are also tons of books written about the world as well, and I have read many of them.

    Also, your post really sparked a lot of thought for me. Your opening quote brought me back to a conversation I had while working on a live theater production many years ago. I was chatting with the director, and I mentioned how I loved working on plays, but once the play went into production I always got bored with it pretty quickly. He remarked, “Ah, you like the process, not the product.” I now have an idea what I’m going to talk about for the upcoming “Topic of our choice” blog post, so thank you for sparking that!

    • Molly McKinney

      @wderman–indeed, I am having trouble dragging them away from Spirit Animals (the younger one recently hooked his brother into the world so now it is BOTH of them). It’s a lovely day here and I just threw them outside (while I set a bad example and type at my computer, ha). Of course as kids are wont to do, they are taking the game with them into the real world–doing “training exercises” with their spirit animals on the (real) trampoline. (As Brandon’s mom said in Galaxy Quest, “Well, he’s outside.”) 🙂

      I am looking forward to your “process not product” post! I started with that “story not stuff” quote because so far it seems very applicable to the hyperlinked world, in many many aspects!!

  • Tracy Micka

    Another great post, @mollymckinney. I have been feeling kind of unsteady with the ‘big’ ideas we’re dealing with in this class, wondering how they might play out in real life (I don’t work at a library, so it’s all conjecture for me at this point). The book sounds like a great resource. And it’s so true about the kids wanting to act out the books. We started reading the Magic Treehouse series to to our daughter when she turned four and from there on out it was “Jack and Annie” EVERYTHING. (Of course, I always had to be Jack, and she always got to be Annie…)

    • Molly McKinney

      @tmicka Moms always get second choice of role. We need better agents. I loved this book–it was a little overwhelming with so much info–I think it would only increase in value if you were trying to plan a specific project, then all kinds of stuff would line up with your specific situation.

  • Jolene Kemos

    @mollymckinney – This is such a great post, and such an important concept! And, super small world, Nina Simon is now the Executive Director of the Museum of Art and History in Santa Cruz! ( She holds regular open forums to invite feedback and collaboration…and then implements the ideas! The museum has transformed in the last two years from a stodgy icon to a vibrant center for culture and collaboration. One of her biggest achievements is the GLOW Festival which highlights the fire art of the large Burning Man community in town! It was HUGE this year. Anyway, your post was very exciting! Thank you!

    • Molly McKinney

      @joleneck Thanks! I enjoyed all her Bay Area references while I was reading the book! She mentions several museums I have been to with my kids (Tech Museum, Chabot Space and Science, Oakland Museum) so it was interesting to see some of the behind the scenes stuff that goes into those experiences.

  • Play « Caught Up In The Web

    […] post was inspired by Molly McKinney’s context book report on The Participatory Museum by Nina Simon. Molly opened with a quote from the book, “We are not […]

  • Elissa Papendick

    I’ll definitely have to check out this book! I studied arts administration and policy and we spent a lot of time talking about socially engaged art and how to engage museum visitors (and the spectrum of problematic community art projects…). The book definitely sounds relevant to libraries. I’ve been really excited about this participatory show at the Berkeley Art Museum ( and am very curious what the public engagement is going to be like! They have a series of Sunday workshops, ranging from indigo dying, weaving a rug, and even a ceramics studio! ( Can’t wait to see the final outcome.

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