What’s in a name? (a declaration of dependence)

Some of us at RLG have been kicking around the idea to start a blog for a while. Early on we agreed to focus on issues of interest to our members — museums, libraries, and archives — and to focus particularly on issues that were of interest to all three. But what to call our musings?

On the 4th of July I was listening to KQED, one of the Bay Area’s NPR affiliate stations. Michael Krasny, host of Forum interviewed Kenneth Davis, the author of Don’t Know Much About History. Davis repeated the often-told story: John Hancock, President of the Continental Congress signed the declaration and reportedly said, “We must be unanimous. There must be no pulling different ways. We must all hang together.” Benjamin Franklin is said to have retorted, “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.” Of course, no one has a transcript of the proceedings that day, so we don’t really know what was said. Nonetheless, it’s meaningful, and it captures what I think the spirit could have been.

Then, later in the month at the RLG member forum, Michael Fox from the Minnesota Historical Society referenced the same story in relationship to libraries, museums, and archives:

The next question is, I suppose, why ought libraries, archives and museums be concerned about working together in support of research at all. We can take the high moral ground and declare that service to scholarship or at least its practitioners demand cooperative activities because researchers themselves do not necessarily divide up their informational needs along the lines of our organizational models. We divide the world. Books, papers, stuff. But users want to bring it together; they want answers and we give them a roadmap. I suspect that exposure to the undifferentiated mass of web-based resources reinforces the expectation of comprehensiveness when researchers put questions to reference staff, to our online catalogs, or to Internet Explorer. Or the rationale could be totally pragmatic. In a world where educational and cultural institutions face dwindling financial support, both private and public, none of us will thrive unless we can make the case that we provide compelling, essential and unique value to a significant public. One way to do that is to leverage our resources by working with partners. I write this on Independence Day and am reminded of Benjamin Franklin’s supposed admonition about hanging together lest we hang separately. To my mind and in this institution, that means delivering services that are organized around our patrons’ needs and not our professional sensibilities.

(Michael’s talk was great, and fortunately the full text is available from the RLG website.)

So when we were discussing the name for our blog, you’d think I would have come up with it myself. But it was Walt Crawford who suggested it after asking what the topic was. When we said the intersection of the three communities, he said, “How about ‘hanging together?’ ” Again, a reference to the Franklin remark.

Whether or not it’s apocryphal, this story has become part of America’s Independence Day folklore. Interestingly, the phrase is a declaration or a statement of dependence, a recognition that unity makes us stronger. As with the colonies, so too with libraries, museums, and archives, or the LAM communities. We have more common interests than differences, so why not band together when practical? We all share interests in collecting materials, describing our holdings, making them available and useful for the public, preservation, and resource sharing. There are also practical reasons for “hanging together,” in an era of decreased funding and rapid technological changes.

This does not imply that we need to lose our identity in the process of forging alliances. At the same forum, Wendy Duff from University of Toronto put up a slide that said:

does not mean

In other words, the three communities in the information sector (or the cultural heritage sector) should find ways to work with one another that don’t compromise necessary and rational independence. In forming a new nation, Georgia maintained its own distinct character from, say, Massachusetts. So too, the LAM communities should continue to maintain their own culture, traditions, and unique viewpoints, while finding the way forward together.

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