Libraries, archives and museums hanging together??!

As those of you who’ve been with us since the inception of this blog will remember (or now be reminded of, if your memory doesn’t readily flash back to August 1st 2005), we’ve started hangintogether in the wake of an RLG Forum concerned with the convergence of libraries, archives and museum. “Libraries, Archives, & Museums—Three-Ring Circus, One Big Show?” played at the Center for Jewish History and the Minnesota Historical Society, and sought to invigorate the discussion among partners about how these three cultural heritage domains can pull on one string.

However, there was the little matter of the question mark in our title. Same question mark also graced the title of an RBMS conference in 2006 called “Libraries, Archives, and Museums in the Twenty-First Century: Intersecting Missions, Converging Futures?”. I walked away from these cross-community gatherings feeling that the question mark should be replaced by a (tentative) exclamation mark. Both events highlighted in particular growing convergence around interpretation and exhibits. At RBMS, Marcia Reed (Getty Research Institute) showcased various collaborations in LA which had successfully leveraged “library” objects to create highly successful exhibits in museum venues. At the Minnesota version of the RLG Forum, Eric Celeste (U of Minnesota) commented that libraries stand a lot to learn from museums in terms of telling stories with their materials, a point the following presentation by Robin Dowden on cutting-edge projects at the Walker Art Center underlined. Our host Michael Fox (Minnesota Historical Society) memorably exclaimed that same day “I continue to argue that good museums need to become more like research libraries and archives just as good libraries and archives ought to adapt certain characteristics of the museum experience.” [Word doc]

While relationships around outreach to a physical audience seemed to get museums, libraries and archives learning from and lending to one another, sharing and integrating data remained a difficult topic to discuss, let alone reach consensus on. Speakers at these events portrayed data relationships as desirable, yet discussions surfaced obstacles which seemed difficult to overcome. Predictably, librarians and archivists expressed frustration with idiosyncratic descriptive practices in museums, and noted with exasperation that museums “don’t do subject cataloging.” Bob Sink (Center for Jewish History), host of the RLG Forum in NYC, chronicled his institution’s quest for an integrated solution to managing library, archive and museum collections in one vendor system – a story which (anti)-climaxed in the purchase of two systems, one for library and archival material, one for museum objects. Both anecdotes show that in terms of data standardization and the attendant systems market, museums and their library/archive colleagues were clearly out of step.

Since then, our world has kept on changing, and I believe it has changed in ways which may turn library, archive and museum integration from simply “a good idea” into an essential ingredient to maintaining relevance in an information landscape dominated by the large-scale information hubs such as Google, Amazon and flickr. If users bypass us for the less authoritative, yet more comprehensive experience on the open web, then we have to offer services integrated across the library, archive, museum community (as well as disclosed into the online spaces where people work and play). These ideas aren’t necessarily new – if you go back to Merrilee’s aforementioned inaugural hangingtogether post, you’ll find a very nice quote by Michael Fox pointing in the same direction. However, the sense of urgency in the discussions around remaining relevant to our users seems to have increased exponentially since Michael made his remarks 2 years ago – if you don’t feel the urgency yet, check out Peter Brantley’s post correlating the rise of the web with declining use of library resources.

Maybe we’ve reached a tipping point. That’s one hypothesis we’d like to test with our new project “Organizational & Service Relationships on the LAM,” an investigation into how libraries, archives and museums do and can collaborate more closely in the space of a campus or campus-like environment. Watch out for another blog-posting this week to find out how RLG Program partners can get involved!

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