The Intersection of Libraries, Archives & Museums

Rachael Cristine Woody

Rachael Cristine Woody

May 16, 2018

There’s no one model for libraries, archives and museums to coexist and interact. Each entity can be a stand-alone repository, a mixture of two entities, or contain all three entities. Library, Archive, and Museum (LAM) professionals are trained in organizing and categorizing items in their respective collections. Since this is their specialty they’ve applied the same principles to classify LAM entities separately, due to the LAM’s slightly different functions and collection materials.

This separation may seem natural to a LAM professional, but it’s not intuitive to outside persons interested in using the collections. It’s not reasonable to assume a collection researcher will understand why LAMs collections are separated by entity type. This assumption is even less acceptable when considering the capacity for cross-searching collections via online collections management systems.

There’s no standard for how to mix all three entities into one repository—and there can be discrepancies in reporting structures, autonomy, and budgetary support. This post will begin to explore the intersection of LAMs. Future posts will address in more detail LAM points of intersection and how they can be successfully navigated.

While there is no typical model for LAMs to interact, one of the most common iterations is the existence of archives and libraries within museums. Due to this commonality, the Society of American Archivists (SAA) Museum Archives Section is a group dedicated to supporting professionals who work within this intersection.

The Museum Archives Section strongly recommends a museum “maintain an active, professional archives program to systematically collect, organize, preserve, and provide access to its organizational records of enduring value and to recommend policies and procedures for the creation, maintenance and ultimate retention or disposition of current museum records in all formats.” There are two takeaways:

  1. A museum needs to establish an active and professional archives program.
  2. Policies and procedures to dictate the management of the archive collections must be in place.

Though this is a museum archives resource, the outlined takeaways are also applicable to libraries present within museums. A library requires the establishment of an active and professional program and must have policies and procedures in place. Libraries often exist within museum spaces to keep published and bound resources that support research regarding the museum object collection. The museum library’s function is similar to an archives because the materials have the benefit of interacting, together offering a fuller, more complete historical understanding of the museum objects.

An article from England’s National Archives, “Success Guides: Successfully Managing Archives in Museums,”  by Emma Chaplin and Janice Tullock further dissect the museum/archive intersection.

Chaplin and Tullock argue archive collections have the capacity to enrich and enlighten the museum collection. Archive materials are often related to collection creators, collectors, and the museum’s history. The materials can be records of business, donations, correspondence and research, photographs and drawings, and other ephemera. Information contained within a museum’s archival collection is a valuable resource that supports current and future research and should be invested in. A museum archives has the capacity to tell the whole story and offer a more accurate historical understanding of the museum collection.

The authors outline similarities among museums and archives:

  • Similar but separate collecting policies
  • Similar or same storage and preservation needs
  • Similar or same collections management systems

And one main difference: Difference in cataloging standards

Though there is a difference in cataloging standards among LAMs, versatile and inclusive collections management systems offer a solution. The ability of collections management systems to handle these differences and still provide cross-search results has allowed LAMs to proceed with the digital integration of their collection materials.

Collections management systems have become savvy enough to allow previously separate repositories to come together for more thorough and accurate research. LAMs may presently remain siloes in physical form but the divide is dissolving digitally. With the availability of technology to manage and display their traditionally separated collections together, many LAMs have been prompted to explore their potential to collaborate.

LAMs have increasingly focused on their intersectional relationship over the last 10-15 years. This is demonstrated by OCLC’s research effort in 2008 as explained in “Libraries, Archive and Museum Convergence.” OCLC convened a group of LAM professionals to address just that. In 2008 they spent a year researching and workshopping the intersections that exist among LAMs and analyzing how the digital era has influenced their work.

During the course of research, they identified two indicators for successful intersectional LAM models:

  • Institutions where LAMs have a strong and responsive IT partner
  • Institutional mandates for integration (top down) met with grassroots enthusiasm for working together (bottom up) feed a powerful dynamic

And one indicator of failed models:

  • Organizational charts where reporting lines of different collection entities terminate in separate administrative offices

As soon as technology allowed LAMs a way to online publish collections together LAMs began working to address their separation. Exploring ways to provide interactive collections regardless of entity is the first step. Now comes the harder work of improving systemic issues of separation and promoting continued intersections of libraries, archives, and museums.

Rachael Cristine Woody

Rachael Cristine Woody

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