Are We GLAM Enough?

One of the reader suggestions on my blog list was “explore the intersections between museums and archives,” an open-ended topic, but definitely one I’m interested in. I wondered for a while whether there was a specific activity I should do to explore these intersections, but since starting the blog, I’ve had several experiences related to the topic without doing them specifically to write about, so I’m going to look at the topic broadly, and add libraries to the mix. This is going to be one of the more “curiosity” oriented posts on A Catalog of Curiosity, as opposed to the posts that review a specific thing or make a particular argument.

As a history museum professional, and a user of museums, archives, and libraries, I’ve observed that the museum and library worlds tend to be fairly siloed from one another. Both academic and public libraries have a lot in common with history museums in terms of intended audiences and missions to preserve and share information and resources, but you don’t see close collaborations between museums and libraries as a mainstay of their work. You rarely see museum and library professionals sharing conferences or professional development events. The main exception is institutions that really are hybrids or have both, such as presidential museums and libraries. Archives straddle the divide between the two, in that both libraries and museums often have their own archives, and archivists as a profession often have some fluency in the norms of both type of institution.

We talk about the fields as related. Especially on Twitter or in the blogosphere, you often see the acronym GLAM -- galleries, libraries, archives, museums -- to discuss all of these fields. One of the major sources of federal support for these fields is the same: IMLS, the Institute of Museum and Library Services. Of course, many more museums are nonprofits, while public libraries are typically funded by the local government, but we recognize one another as members of the same sector. I’m certainly not saying anything new or radical by suggesting we should collaborate more often. At the same time, I personally haven’t seen a lot of movement on collaboration in the decade I’ve been paying attention.

As part of our honeymoon, my spouse and I spent the better part of a week in London, staying in Willesden, which is in the borough of Brent. I noticed that there was a Brent Museum, and suggested we check it out, to get to know the area where we were staying and as a balance to all of the huge museums we were visiting. The exhibits themselves were interesting and worthwhile, tracing major events in the area from prehistory through the present day. They were quite professionally put together, although some of the interactives were showing signs of age. But what I liked best about it was that the museum is actually housed in their local library. This was convenient for us, because the hours were the same as the library's and it was open later in the evening than many of the other sites we wanted to visit. At first I was looking for a converted conference room marked “museum,” but when we found it, it was a series of exhibits occupying one side of one of the large rooms, right across from the stacks where the history books were shelved. There were a few elements with sound in the exhibits, but it was not a silent area of the library; across the way, people were chatting and students were working together on homework.

I loved this concept. The museum really seemed to be accessible to the community, with convenient hours and no gatekeeping. There's no security guard eyeing you or admission desk asking for a ticket or donation. This model certainly wouldn't work for all museums, but it seemed to be working for this one! One of the few things the Brent Museum seemed to be lacking was space for temporary exhibits to keep people coming back. There was an art gallery in the library as well, which seemed to have temporary art exhibits. The other thing it seemed to be missing was any kind of docent or guide for people who like a more facilitated experience, but the space may well have a docent at other times of the day. I'd love to see more museums in libraries – if not the whole museum, then at least some exhibits.

A number of libraries, particularly academic libraries and large public libraries, do their own exhibits, with materials from their archives. These may not be the same as the Brent museum (which had archeological artifacts, oral history recordings, and other media) but they fulfill a worthwhile niche, and it wasn't the first time I had seen a well done exhibit in a library, by far. My hometown of Ithaca, NY, has a hidden gem in the exhibits of the Kroch Library, underneath Olin Library at Cornell. The Leventhal Map Center in Boston is also worth a visit -- it's a nonprofit that works as a public-private partnership, housed at the Boston Public Library. In another vein, a number of public libraries offer museum passes that library patrons can check out for short periods of time, as part of collaborations to make museums financially accessible to their communities.

I'm curious as to why there isn't even more collaboration and cross-pollination of ideas between museums, libraries, and archives. It may seem like a facile thing to wonder about when there are plenty of examples of good collaboration, but I think we don't have a strong culture of collaboration, despite plenty of exceptions. We never talked about libraries or even archives when I was in grad school. I'm fortunate to be able to work closely with the archives where I currently work, partly because the whole institution is such a small staff, and partly because because of the research I do for exhibits, and I'm learning how much I was missing before. 

I think that there are probably several reasons that the fields don't talk as much as they could. Academic historians (who are not public historians) are typically not trained to use museum collections; they use two-dimensional collections in archives but not three-dimensional objects in their research. Libraries are not solely focused on history, and so connecting with archives and museums may feel too niche. I’ve seen some institutions that have an archives and historical artifact collections but aren’t focused on either (such as universities which have an interest in preserving their own history) put them under one department so they only have to pay one staff member. It’s understandable, but it often means one person trying to do one job for which they were trained and one for which they weren’t. Overall, though, my guess is that GLAM institutions don’t work more closely together because it’s a low-urgency change. There are good examples of collaborations, and it feels like not much is at stake if we don’t collaborate. However, since all of these fields are talking about how to stay relevant and help people understand how relevant sharing and analyzing information is in our modern world, it makes sense to keep taking note of what’s going on at the intersections of museums, libraries, and archives.