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Museums, Archives, and Libraries:
Estranged Siblings

Nine muses preside over science, literature, and art. In Greek mythology, they were the daughters of Jupiter and Mnemosyne (Memory) and their home was the Museum. Little did these figures of inspiration to writers, scholars, artists, and scientists know that someday their patronage would be split between three institutions. Today, each cultural institution -- museums, archives, and libraries -- has its own discipline, with its own programs of training and bodies of literature. They have become three fields with one purpose: the collecting and preserving of our cultural heritage information for the education of the public. A closer examination shows that while the division into three fields might have made sense one hundred years ago, it is rapidly losing its relevance.

Information as Thing

The most obvious difference between museums, archives, and libraries is the form of media that each handles. Museums focus on objects; libraries on books; archives on graphic records. All these materials can be considered "information." Information can be defined in a broad or narrow way. In the broader view, information can include objects and graphic records alike. Michael Buckland, in his article "Information as Thing," distinguishes three kinds of information: Information as process (the act of informing); Information as knowledge (facts); and Information as thing: (objects, data, documents). The information professions have not typically considered objects to be "information." On this he notes:

The literature on information science has concentrated narrowly on data and documents as information resources. But this is contrary to common sense. . . Objects are collected, stored, retrieved, and examined as information, as a basis for becoming informed. One would have to question the completeness of any view of information, information science, or information systems that did not extend to objects as well as documents and data. . .A printed book is a document. A page of handwriting is a document. A map is a document. If a map is a document, why should not a three-dimensional contour map also be a document since it is, after all, a physical description of something.1

This view of information was also held by Paul Otlet, whose documentalist movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was the precursor to information science. As Toni Bearman has stated: "The information professionals -- including archivists, records managers, librarians, software engineers, system integrators, and other information specialists -- are documentalists. . . A manuscript, a series of records, an artifact, a giraffe, a book -- they are all documents. Otlet's work reminds us that, although we may be in different specializations, we are all from the same family tree."2 From the beginning of his efforts, Otlet defined "information" very broadly. "As early as 1903 he began to call this ‘documentation.'3 Documentation involved graphic records as well as objects, because they had a ‘documentary' value." 4 Otlet wanted the catalogues of museums, books, parts of books, journals, newsletters, municipal archives, photographs, brochures - all knowledge - to be indexed and made accessible.5

Documentalists were very influential on legislative definitions of information. The League of Nations' agency International Institute for Intellectual Cooperation worked with French documentalists to adopt a technical definition of a document that included "Any source of information, in material form, capable of being used for reference or study or as an authority. Examples: manuscripts, printed matter, illustrations, diagrams, museum specimens, etc."6

Suzanne Briet, a librarian and documentalist, published a manifesto on the nature of documentation in 1951 (Qu'est-ce que la documentation?). In it, she pushed the boundaries of the concept of document beyond the text to include any material form of evidence. She considered that physical objects could also be considered documents when they are framed as evidence intentionally. The famous question she asked was "Is a living animal a document?" "An antelope that has been ‘cataloged' [i.e. in a zoo] is a primary document,"7 but not one that is in the wild. An animal in a zoo is there as an example, brought there with intention, framed as evidence for others living free. Objects, in this definition, would be documents when they become set apart in museums; they are historical evidence, evidence of society.8 From this theoretical perspective, museums, libraries, and archives are all institutions handling information.

An undifferentiated history: museums, archives, and libraries

Collecting information without regard to the form in which it is manifested predates the documentalists. During the late sixteenth, seventeenth, and early eighteenth centuries, it was common for the scholarly person (usually male and wealthy) to accumulate a "library" or collection that reflected, for his own study and for public statement, his intellectual pursuits.9 These collections were undifferentiated in the form of the information held within them.

Several writings from that era make clear the lack of conceptual division between what we would call museum, archival, and library materials in building these collections, or "curiosity cabinets" or "Wunderkammer."

First, the collecting of a most perfect and general library, wherein whosoever the wit of man hath heretofore committed to books of worth . . . may be made contributory to your wisdom. Next, a spacious, wonderful garden, wherein whatsoever plant the sun of divers climate, or the earth out of divers moulds, either wild or by the culture of man brought forth, many be . . . set and cherished; this garden to be built about with rooms to stable in all rare beasts and to cage in all rare birds; with two lakes adjoining, the one of fresh water the other of salt, for like variety of fishes. And so you may have in small compass a model of the universal nature made private. The third, a goodly, huge cabinet, wherein whatsoever the hand of man by exquisite art or engine has made rare in stuff, form or motion; whatsoever singularity, chance, and the shuffle of things hath produced; whatsoever Nature has wrought in things that want life and may be kept; shall be sorted and included. The forth such a still-house, so furnished with mills, instruments, furnaces, and vessels as may be a palace fit for philosopher's stone.10 [archaic spelling retained]

Antoine Furetiere's Dictionnarie Universale, published in 1690 a definition of a "curious man." This definition included the materials of museums, archives, and libraries as part of one seamless body of information. A "curious man" is one who "has gathered together the very rarest, most beautiful and most extraordinary works of art and nature. . . . There are book, medal, print, paintings, flower, shell, antiquities and natural object enthusiasts (curieux)." 11

These collections of manuscripts, books, and objects later served as the beginnings of many of today's major institutions. John Tradescent's Cabinet of Curiosities, which contained antiquities, a library, and a chemical laboratory, was inherited by Elias Ashmole, and ultimately became the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford.12 The British Museum was principally founded with the great motley collection of Hans Sloane. These collections were only later separated into collections of specialized forms.13

Ultimately specialization in collections and professions did develop. Collections expanding in size and complexity outgrew their physical housing. Specialization offered manageability. Each division has become a separate field, with a separate set of professionals, separate professional organizations, and separate training. This division does not necessarily equate to progress. The amount of interaction and cooperation between the institutions has decreased to the detriment of the researcher. As W. Boyd Rayward has written, "What has developed does not reflect the needs of an individual scholar or member of the educated public interested in some aspect of learning or life. For the individual the ideal is still the personal cabinet of curiosities that contains whatever is needed for a particular purpose or to respond to a particular interest, irrespective of the nature of the artefacts involved -- books, objects, data, personal papers, recorded image, government files."14

A Common Mission: Museums, Archives, and Libraries

Museums, archives, and libraries share many goals and functions. Susan Pearce, a museum studies theorist, clearly views the line between museums and archives to be very blurred: "The museum archive embraces the entire holdings of a museum service and includes both the material -- the collections themselves -- and also the entire associated record. The collections of most museums, depending upon their size and length of history, are likely to involve a wide range of material, even if theoretically this is concentrated in a narrow band of disciplines. . . . Associated with all this will be a considerable volume of written, printed, and pictorial record, including letters, manuscript note books, annotated maps, offprints from journals, watercolours, photographs and field notes, all in an enormous range of sizes and formats."15

The links have been recognized on a federal level. In September, 1996, President Clinton signed into law a bill to create the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), replacing the separate agencies of the Institute of Museum Services and the Department of Education, which administered library funding. Director Diane Frankel has said that "Museums and libraries address real needs in their communities. Beyond the basics, of caring for collections and organizing them so that they are accessible, museums and libraries share many core values."16 Frankel has also pointed out that they are institutions that acquire, catalogue, preserve, and interpret our history as well as the recorded history of other cultures and times.17 Leonard Kniffel, in his editorial on the subject, has written that "[t]he library and the museum capture a collective cultural knowledge, hold it for use, and expand it by allowing it to connect to our inward thoughts. . . They are all -- all libraries, all museums -- about the possibility to construct unrestricted knowledge, and to craft personal truths of individual design."18

The materials that museums, archives, and libraries collect echo the human spirit. Artifacts and books and manuscripts are all documents of the workings of human thinking and activity. They have been produced by people putting energy into telling their stories. Objects also have the power to summon forth stories and connotations of all kinds. Susan Pearce has written that "The potential inwardness of objects is one of their most powerful characteristics, ambiguous and elusive though it may be. Objects hang before the eyes of the imagination, continuously re-presenting ourselves, and telling the stories of our lives in ways which would be impossible otherwise" 19

Museums and archives serve as vehicles of individuals' identity preservation. They are places to which people entrust their most treasured items. Letters, diaries, a grandmother's wedding dress, scrapbooks, a collection of coins can be entrusted to a museum or archive, and the donor can be assured of professional care. Unruh found that people attempt to solidify their identity primarily through accumulating legacies of letters, journals, memos, and poems and also through collections of objects like photographs and jewelry. These are often distributed to those who will care for them in hopes that their memories will live on in these collections. Often libraries, archives, and museums are the recipients of these hopes and collections, standing as institutions conferring and guarding the personal immortality of the public.20

The shared educational focus of museums, libraries, and archives has received some attention by scholars. The IMLS has emphasized that "museums and libraries are central players in the non-formal education sector . . . these organizations form an important network on which communities rely to help them share experiences, and grow in their understanding of each other and the world around them."21 A former executive director of the ALA cited museums' expertise in education programs as something libraries might emulate.22

David Carr, chair of the Rutgers Department of Library and Information Studies details the similarities between museums and libraries in his presentation at the International Federation of Library Associations. He has a dozen points of comparison between libraries and museums, many of which concern education. He notes that both are institutions that offer individuals the opportunities to continue their education throughout their lifetimes. This education is informal, with no designed curricula, and requires each person to be an active participant and pursuer of his or her education. The physical design of both museums and libraries are such that they encourage independent use, with the assistance of trained professionals whose job it is to facilitate learning. Carr maintains that both are essentially information agencies: "At heart, both museums and libraries are institutions that give information to their users: through vision, words, comparisons, connections, or the powerful presence of a reorganizing concept. Libraries connect information to the processes of individual cognitive and economic life. Museums connect information to the experiences of awe and surprise that follow from seeing the unique thing."23

Similar daily concerns

The duties of museum, library, and archive workers are very similar. Jesse Shera states that the three components of a professional librarian are acquisition, organization, and interpretation and service.24 These are also the goals of museums and archives, perhaps with different emphases on different points for each institution. The Human Resources Development Office in Canada considers the employment duties and opportunities of library, archive, and museum workers so similar that it lists them together in its review of job futures.25 The fields share concerns that other disciplines do not: copyright, intellectual freedom, educational programming, nonprofit funding, outreach, preservation, volunteers, security, technical and public divisions,26 and stereotypes of being dusty and antiquated places of quiet.27

Attempts to delineate the three institutions merely reify their similarities. In "The Archival Profession," a publication of the Society of American Archivists, the work of the archivist is compared and contrasted with other, similar professions:

The librarian and the archivist, for example, both collect, preserve, and make accessible materials for research; but significant differences exist in the way these materials are arranged, described, and used. . . The museum curator and the archivist are associated; however, the museum curator collects, studies, and interprets mostly three-dimensional objects, while the archivist works with paper, film, and electronic records.28

The degree of similarity between the professions makes it clear that they are closely related. The Society of American Archivists further confuses the distinctions between the fields when it writes:

Archivists . . . are familiar with the nature and characteristics of all types of human documentation -- from ancient Egyptian papyrus to contemporary computer e-mail. . . Crucial information resides in contracts, minutes of meetings, maps, diaries, account ledgers, and artworks -- for example, . . . a tapestry may illustrate an event otherwise unknown.29

Tapestries, papyrus, and artworks: these examples of "archival materials" from the SAA are examples of the overlap between the fields. A more narrow definition of the nature of archival materials as solely administrative records has been used by several prominent writers in the archival field recently, a definition that has been challenged by some.30

Technology and digitization

Museums, archives, and libraries have similar technological needs. All three use computers to catalogue, track, and index materials. Many museums, archives, and libraries use the same database programs. The most talked about topic in the museum world is the virtual museum.31 The archival world is grappling with the issue of electronic records. Articles on digital images are appearing in museum, library, and archive journals.32 Conferences on the topic of electronic access in these disciplines abound and are attended by information professionals regardless of their institutional or disciplinary membership.33

As the use of computer technology increases in museums, libraries, and archives, the gaps between the three are shrinking.34 Digitization of images changes both objects and texts from their original state of two or three dimensions to zero dimensions as they exist only in the electronic memory of a machine. W. Boyd Rayward, in his far-sighted paper "Libraries, Museums and Archives in the Digital Future: The Blurring of Institutional Boundaries," notes that as more institutions present their collections online, museums, archives, and libraries are becoming a "seamless web." Hypertext connections between the virtual collections allows researchers to make connections regardless of the physical location of the object or text. As he says,

This new functionality as it emerges creates the need for new definitions of the roles and responsibilities of ‘collecting' institutions, network providers, users, and ‘authors' of the new kinds of resources. In sum, as collecting organizations become more and more concerned with electronic information they will take on the character of complex databases and information systems held locally for universal access through the Internet. . . . Being able to respond to contemporary challenges effectively may largely depend on how well the different kinds of ‘professionals' are able to transcend the limitations that their highly developed cultures impose on them so that they can work across the ever diminishing boundaries that separate them.35

As this happens, areas of research once exclusively used by one field are being required by the others. For example, while library professionals have researched the factors that influence access to collections, museum professionals, with their differing focus, have not. The creation of online museums has made patron access to collections an important issue in both museums and libraries for the first time. Donna Romer, in a paper presented in an online conference on Digitizing Technologies, wrote that "At the heart of all good database systems is the effort applied to understanding the needs of the people that will use the database."36 This is a sentiment any library professional would endorse.

Software and consulting companies have responded to the similar needs of museums, archives, and libraries with digital speed. USArchives serves "Archivist, Curators, Historians" with its digitizing services.37 Some have created new terms to encompass all the possible professionals who might use their products. "Information management profession" refers to "librarians, archivists, curators, researchers, and records managers."38 "Cultural heritage professionals" is the term used by the Archives and Museum Infomatics, a group founded by David Bearman in 1986 which organizes conferences, workshops, and seminars to facilitate communication between all organizations grappling with digitizing technologies.39

Professional training

Most educational programs for the training of museum, library, and archival professionals are located in different departments. Coursework in each field only very rarely includes instruction in handling materials from the others.40 This is unfortunate, as most repositories contain materials of a wide variety of forms. There are also a great number of historical societies, small colleges, businesses, and museums that rely on one person to be the "specialist" in managing collections regardless of form. Training that focuses on only one type of material will not prepare the professional for the broad range of responsibilities in these professional positions.

There have been some efforts to train cultural heritage professionals under a unified program. The National Council for Public History indicates that the field includes museum professionals, government historians, historical consultants, archivists, professors, and students with public history interests, and many others.41 University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse's Public History program sets itself as training: "archivists, museum educators, curators, and docents; editors, researchers, and writers; managers of historic properties, corporate historians, and policy analysts; and private consultants who work with architectural, legal, or engineering firms."42

Critics of these programs note that they focus the majority of their coursework on history, not on access, acquisition, service, and interpretation. Students being trained in public history are not being trained as information managers. Other criticisms of the field have been leveled. Richard J. Cox has stated that "the public history field . . . has arisen . . . with little regard for or understanding of the many professions it presumes to include within its own parameters."43 Tyler O. Walters suggests that public history programs hire archivists to expand their educational curriculum.44

Another educational model offered by a few programs in Europe is the program in Library, Information, Archival, and Museum Studies. The University of Zagreb45 and the Deusto University, in Bilbao, Spain46 are two such programs. University of British Columbia is investigating the institution of a double degree program between the museum studies and archival studies departments.47

Problems with the Boundaries

The conceptual boundaries between museums, archives, and libraries have had very real and practical consequences on the treatment of the historical materials. An example of the kind of problem comes from Lee Stout, University Archivist at Penn State, who found the lack of common knowledge between a local museum's representatives and the archives a barrier to communication:

I had an experience with the PA. Railroad Museum. They had all these railroad records just piled up behind some freight cars. No accession records, organization, access, preservation -- whatever. I recommended it all be moved to the Archives about 35 miles away where it could be properly handled. . . Those railfans acted like we were advocating the execution of their firstborn children. We finally negotiated a compromise whereby it went to the Archives temporarily to be processed, but then back to the museum, which still had no proper place to store it let alone reading room or any place for researchers to access it. Their whole approach did not comprehend people using this material for research -- it just had to be there for possible future display.48

In this case, the differing priorities of museums and archives resulted in poor care of a collection of graphic records. Museum training has classically focused on the interpretive aspects of their duties, namely display. To the archivist who wrote the above, there are other priorities that take precedence in this situation.


Museums, archives, and libraries seem to be siblings that have forgotten their common parentage. They share history and have recognizably similar features. Nevertheless, few researchers have explored the commonalities. This divisional outlook has resulted in a lack of communication and understanding between the three professions. The boundaries that exist between museums, archives, and libraries keep professionals from exchanging information and educational preparation that could result in better serving their shared goals of collecting and preserving our cultural heritage. As information professionals, charged with the important task of caring for our cultural heritage, we stand as muses to the future. Information in all forms must be collected and preserved for future generations. Maintaining boundaries between museums, archives, and libraries prevents us from fulfilling that obligation.




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