What’s wrong with museum libraries?
Libraries and museums both have similar missions: they acquire, describe and make accessible records of human experience. But what is the perceived importance of a library within a museum? The role of museum libraries could be described in special library terms – to provide information to support the activities of the museum, especially its research – and one could assume that such libraries do play an important role in their information-intensive organisations. However, the status of museum libraries, as well as their influence, is less clear than this. In 1996 Esther Bierbaum published an article on this subject, based on a survey of 152 randomly selected museum libraries2. Her conclusion was that museum libraries do not fare well within their parent organisations.
There are several measures of departmental status within an organization. One is funding; another, staffing and services, and a third is utilization. By the first of these measures (funding), the museum library’s status is not exactly stellar. By the second (staffing), status is at the least ambiguous, but the services offered by library personnel, especially to museum staff, somewhat redeem the situation. The third indicator measures the degree and extent to which management shows awareness of the library, for example by using its services. Unfortunately, utilization by those who matter when it comes to defining institutional status results in a low grade for the library. These results are not unique to museum libraries. In 1993 Davenport and Prusak examined why many corporate libraries play such a marginal role in their organizations. Their conclusions apply perfectly to museum libraries. ‘Corporate libraries have largely been left behind by the information revolution. Their goal is to obtain as many books as possible on the
assumption that someday someone would want to use each one. Library policies are not focused on how to ensure that information resources are used, but rather on ensuring that they do not leave the premises illicitly. Librarian skill development focuses on acquisition, storage, and classification of printed materials, and distribution of them on request. This is essentially a warehouse model of information provision.
There must be more to a museum library than an open door and neatly filled helves. Living in the information age, even museum librarians perceive hemselves as information professionals. It seems, however, that they operate ccording to the wrong conceptual model. Librarians have a high degree of otential value. They know what information is needed, and how to facilitate the ffective delivery of that information. Unlike their counterparts in information ystems they have chosen to focus on information, rather than technology.
However, technology is one of the tools to expand their mission, their function and cope, perhaps even combined with other information functions in the museum. To ind out what a museum librarian should do to upgrade the status of the library, the otential and the opportunities in this specific setting have to be articulated. To do his, I would like to place the museum library within the information structure of ts parent organization, and analyse current electronic developments as part of the useum information service model.
The library as part of the museum information structure n 1998, Elizabeth Orna and Charles Pettitt published a study about information anagement in museums and galleries5. Although this book sets out guiding rinciples and practices for integrated management of the whole range of
information, it is remarkable that the museum library remains absent. Museums are onsidered to be storehouses of objects, but they are also powerhouses of nformation. According to Orna and Pettitt there are two main players in this field: he guardians and the stakeholders of collection information. The guardians are esponsible for managing particular types of information. They have authority bout acquiring, recording, and amending the information at issue, and they have n overall picture of the ways in which it is used. These guardians are the curators nd the researchers, converting raw to refined information. The stakeholders have vital stake in information because they need it in order to maintain the essential nowledge for their jobs. The stakeholders include curators providing cataloguing nformation, the registrar’s department, conservators, collection managers, and lso documentation specialists.
To which of these categories does the librarian belong? Orna and Pettitt see ocumentation specialists as stakeholders, using refined information. ‘Their nterest in the refined information made available by the curator is likely to be ncorporating the information into the integrated information management ackage. n my opinion, this role is too limited.
Museum librarians as natural guardians of knowledge
Orna wrote in 1990: ‘The real essential is that museum professionals should try to
put themselves in the place of the widest range of potential users when they look at
their collections. Then they should think of how they can manage the information
to allow users to find their own way in, even if their ways of looking at the
material are very different from the museum’s own conception of what it is there
for.8 Librarians have traditionally been the interface between knowledge and
dissemination. As knowledge brokers they confront those who seek with those
who know. Because museum librarians meet staff members from all the different
departments of the museum, they are well informed about the needs and sources of
knowledge within their institutions. Furthermore, they consider user service of
paramount importance, and are equipped with highly developed methods of
information retrieval for anything they do not already know. The librarians not
only provide information, they also provide a physical space of communication,
their libraries. These facts make them natural guardians of knowledge.
All decisions about collection information management and access should
contribute towards the aim of using the full store of information. This store
includes the invisible knowledge in the minds of the people responsible for the
care and presentation of the collections. Museums do need people capable of
gathering knowledge from those who have knowledge. Subsequently this
knowledge has to be structured and refined. Librarians and documentation
specialists are among this group of knowledge administrators, involved with
recording the information produced by others. In this position museum librarians
are again the natural guardians of knowledge, which also gives them a leading role
in defining criteria for the information structure. Librarians are the ideal people to
act as information managers, analysing needs and designing a strategy for the
integrated management of, and access to, information.
Management of collection information
In museums different kinds of information are needed for survival and success. At
the centre of the museum’s requirements for information are the collections: all the
other kinds of information that any museum requires depend on them. That core
should be properly maintained, and if it is not, there will be a black hole in the
middle. Current developments in technology will bring new ways of using
collections and of creating services based on them.
The role of the librarian should be explored in connection with current
developments in object registration. In the early days of computing, the registrar’s
department was set up to provide inventory control and support basic core data to
administer the objects. The databases created could have been the results of a
stocktaking exercise, since they recorded only simple physical descriptions, with no
information about history or significance. Later on this activity was expanded to
record basic object data in such a consistent way that the data are usable in the long
term as information. In the year 2000, there is an international standard system
format and vocabulary for describing museum objects – CIDOC, Object-Oriented
Reference Model (CRM) – but its is not widely used9. Museum collection
management systems too are heterogeneous with respect to record type, platform
and comprehensiveness. Although cataloguing objects is a highly individualized
affair, more or less the counterpart of the standardization familiar to libraries, the
librarian can still furnish language-based information, methods and means for
authority and vocabulary control, indexing tools and record structures. Cataloguing
practices developed for use in library or archival settings might be usefully applied
in object description. Moreover, based on the experience of three decades of
wrestling with computerization, librarians have a significant base of knowledge to
share with museum professionals. Librarians have something to offer museums in
An example of the supportive role of librarians in the development of collection
information is the REACH project in the United States. REACH stands for Record
Export for Art and Cultural Heritage. Librarians are concerned with providing
information to the museum visitor, as well as to the educators and curators. It’s not
surprising at all that a professional organisation of librarians, the Art and
Architecture Group of the Research Libraries Group (RLG), started this project to
investigate whether information about objects could be extracted from collection
management systems and made useful for research purposes. RLG has developed a
testbed database of museum object records from a number of different museums
that use different collection management systems. The goal was to combine these
records into a single interface for the use of researchers. Essentially, the project
was concerned with standards. The REACH element set created in this project has
many points in common with other cultural heritage data standards11.
Here we have the old preoccupation of librarians, in love with standard formats,
standard vocabularies, standard procedures, and standard rules for cataloguing.
Integrated access to information in museums
Why do we use standards and why do librarians think museums should use
standards for information management? Standards are of critical importance for
structuring and networking databases in order to share information. The isolation
of the departments will erode as soon as museums make commitments to internal
information exchange and link computer programmes. Standards are necessary in
order to integrate object information, images and bibliographical descriptions.
Access to integrated information allows completion of the picture when an artefact
or a work of art is being researched. Although technology can greatly increase the
power of museums to retrieve, analyse and disseminate information, this is not
enough. Integrated management of the whole range of information is essential for
the museum. Those who provide value-added services successfully will benefit,
more than the owners of the objects. Librarians are able to contribute their
knowledge of information management and to support the dissemination and use
of standards. They can help to enrich the storehouse of cultural information
available in electronic form by leading object documentation projects in their
Today museum librarians are increasingly involved in the digitization of
information. Years ago, in 1995, the role of the chief librarian of the Museum of
Fine Arts in Boston was expanded into Director of Information Resources,
responsible for the library, the archives and for the development of an automated
collection management system.
Museum information centres
Nowadays many museums put increasing emphasis on access to information. They
stimulate visitors to discover more about the objects on display and the subjects or
cultures to which these objects belong. We have seen that within the museum
many different groups need access, desperate to find information. They choose
their own route through the information embodied in the objects, and through the
museum’s knowledge resources. There is a growing group of informal learners
who set their own targets about what they want to know. Meeting objectives that
relate to the needs of informal, self-directing learners is one of the most interesting
challenges in information management. According to Orna and Pettitt, little
research has been done on the questions actually asked in museums, either by
visitors or by museum staff. The most common enquiries are about specific types
of objects, or individual objects. In second place are requests for associated
information on places or individuals. Surprisingly, enquiries for objects illustrating
a particular subject matter represent a small proportion of the total. This kind of
research provides useful pointers to the essentials of information management.
The problem is that many collection management databases are rather poor in
content, being the result of stocktaking exercises or created as working tools for
the curators. The more raw materials are available, the more they have to be
mediated by indexing and interpretation in depth. Besides, in many of the larger
museums only a portion of the collections has been recorded in a database.
Therefore there are considerable limits to the ability of present-day systems to
provide users with full and accurate information about the museum’s collections.
Staffed information services meet this need. In my own experience, many visitors
need associated information of a very different kind, which is not supposed to be
recorded in the systems we use. Despite the attraction of electronic information,
printed materials will form the major resource for many years to come. Books have
been produced for hundreds of years, and much of the information they contain
will never be transferred onto computers. John Burnett wrote in 1995:
‘Bibliographical aids are vital, and if I had to choose between better online
bibliography and improved collections databases I would choose the bibliography:
I need access to dozens of objects, but hundreds, if not thousands, of pieces of
literature. Only a small number of objects are needed to pose questions whose
answers are widely scattered through print and manuscript.15
There is only one conclusion to draw: the need for staffed information services,
combined with the importance of books, highlights the library as the best location
for the museum information centre. Moreover, librarians are trained and
experienced mediators between individual users and the knowledge stored in their
museums. Librarians must be focused on innovation, since museums are places
where innovation begins. Innovation originates with listening to the users: What
questions do users ask? How do they use information? What are they expecting
Three different examples of museum information centres and how they are
• Already well-known are the self-service multi-media centres like the Micro allery of the National Gallery in London, the ARIA system of the ijksmuseum, and many more. Despite their attractiveness, these information roducts are limited in their scope and interactive approach. It is often ducation and communication departments that set up these centres. In fact, ducation people are users of the museum’s information sources, and as such o not differ from other users like curators and researchers, seeking nformation about the objects and their context. The educators create a range of roducts aimed at informing and educating the public, such as textual displays, uided tours, leaflets and guides, packs for teachers, gallery lectures, and also nteractive systems, multi-media presentations and websites.
• The second example is the human-mediated, internet-based virtual reference esk of the Electronic Reference Service of the National Museum of American rt in Washington. This service was started by the librarian in 1993 as an xtension of the traditional library reference function, to attract more users. At hat time the users of the Museum’s library were very few in number, and the useum had extraordinary but little-known resources for the study of merican art. One of the goals was to use the resources of the institution to the ullest extent. Information from Museum-developed sources was incorporated, ncluding the curatorial files. Today, many museums offer virtual reference esks, receiving in some cases hundreds of questions daily, in others one every wo weeks like the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Alberta16. For the Museum of
American Art the outcome of this service is an increased membership, ttracting many who were unfamiliar with the Museum before visiting it lectronically. Being part of an outreach programme, this service makes the useum more visible and proves to be a powerful instrument for the public elations of the library.
• A very different but most interesting example of the organization and influence f a museum information centre is located at the National Maritime Museum in ondon. In the early 1990’s the Collections Division established a functional eparation between the provision of information by the Information Division nd the management of information. The Collections Division is concerned ith activities that lead to the input and processing of d a. The Information ivision’s responsibilities are for output in the form of information products nd services. That being so, the information people have a decisive role in etermining the form and content of documentation and setting priorities.
nalyses of visitor’s requests are used to decide what part of the collections the
the collections people should tackle next. However, the need to balance the
interest of public access with the interests of collection management, curatorial
research and conservation is recognized. In the Maritime Museum, the process
of managing information is shared between the two divisions, and its success
depends on interaction, negotiation and co-operation between them18.
Collaborative efforts towards improving access to museum information
Museums and libraries are increasingly called upon to deliver, and provide access
to, collection information and educational programming, often in electronic form.
To achieve this technologists, collection managers, librarians, archivists, curators,
researchers and educators must work together as never before. The teamwork
approach, problem-solving groups that cut across departmental and institutional
divisions, or even organisational restructurings, are the rule rather than the
The example of the National Maritime Museum shows the importance of close
collaboration in terms of interaction, negotiation, and co-operation between those
who are responsible for the input of information and those who are responsible for
its output. Monitoring users’ needs by analysing their requests has become the
directional force for processing information.
Another user-related factor is the technology of the information system and the
method of the way in which this is used. Information technology is supposed to
support the storage and retrieval of information. Close collaboration with software
engineers and systems managers is essential for the design and operation of userfriendly
interfaces and the interconnection of databases. The technology needs to
be developed by people capable of reaching understanding with those who retrieve
information and those who manage the collections19.
Several initiatives in integrating and distributing museum information have been
launched recently. They were initiated by librarians and based on collaboration
• Already mentioned is the REACH project of the Research Libraries Group,
aimed at sharing data about museum objects. Their VISION project has been
set up to test applications to share image information, and is aimed at
developing a core cataloguing record for visual images. Both projects merged
in 1997 to further the goal of improved access to object and image
• In 1993, the NINCH project (National Initiative for a Networked Cultural
Heritage) was launched in the United States to bring national cultural heritage
online. Museums, libraries, research and educational institutions and
contemporary art organizations joined together to create an environment in
which cultural resources could be networked21.
• In the United Kingdom, the National Museum Director’s conference of 1999
offered its vision on how digitization could help to integrate the resources of
museums and libraries. Meanwhile, the UK government has taken steps to
hasten the integration of museum and library services. A new body has been
created, the Museum, Libraries and Archives Council22, with the aim of
welding together the areas they cover in order to exploit the synergy that exists
• Without these powerful bodies in the Netherlands, the Rijksmuseum Library has
taken the initiative of bringing together the curators of this museum’s
Department of Prints and Drawings, the Department of Dutch History and the
curators of the special collections at the National Library in The Hague.
Together they have formulated a project based on the content of both
collections called the Digital Atlas of Dutch History. The Atlas will result in a
website covering national history presented by means of characteristic print
materials and objects, including pamphlets, prints and medals depicting
historical highlights: this will be thematically arranged and enriched with
research findings. During this project the photographic departments of both
institutions joined the party. The Rijksmuseum Library designed the record
structure and the vocabulary for cataloguing printed texts and museum objects.
A uniform method of cataloguing will make it possible to link the pamphlets,
prints and medals. The Royal Library provided the standards, the procedures
and the infrastructure for the digitizing of text (pamphlets), images (prints) and
three-dimensional objects (medals). This partnership has revealed great
potential for both institutions.
Museum librarians as information strategists
Museum libraries should be more than storehouses accumulating books, and their
librarians should be more than custodians of collections of books. These will
become simply historic collections if the librarians do not participate in the world
of online resources. But there is much more to take care of. I defined librarians
earlier as the natural guardians of knowledge. As such, there are many potential
roles to be performed, most of them in co-operation with other information-
oriented functions. Within the museum setting, librarians have their work cut out
for them: they have the opportunity to take on a leading role as information
strategists and create a dynamic environment. The Director of Information
Resources at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Nancy Allen23, put it most
clearly in saying that museum librarians are shaping themselves as information
navigators, organizers and creators. They will continually expand their
understanding of information access and, in turn, teach others how to be selfguided
on the information highways. They will bring their knowledge of
information management to ongoing developments in capturing, describing, and
sharing museum information and, in turn, will support the dissemination and use of
standards. Many museum librarians will also help to enrich the storehouse of
cultural information available in electronic form, by leading object documentation
projects in their own institutions. Museum libraries of today have to be led by
information strategists, bringing all the resources in their institutions together, and
making them available to a global community.
I would like to conclude with a statement by my director, Ronald de Leeuw,
comparing the information policy of museums and libraries. He stated that
museums believe that they push themselves forward with spectacular exhibitions,
lavishly full-colour books about the collections and multi-media installations. But
all these achievements together open only a tiny window onto their large resources
of stored information and knowledge. Libraries are traditionally geared to
maximize the size of this window. In managing information and making it
accessible, museums can learn a lot from the library community.
It is now up to museum librarians to make these contributions, by offering their
expertise, and addressing museum needs outside and inside the library.