The Museum-Library-Archive

by Howard Besser
(one section of Feb 2004 report to Canadian Heritage Information Network)

Though libraries, museums, and archives all look like similar repositories housing cultural resources, there are some fundamental differences in mission, in what is collected, in how works are organized, and in how the institution relates to its users.

The traditional library is based upon the individual item, but it is generally no unique. Archives manage groups of works and focus on maintaining a particular context for the overall collection, Museums collect specific objects and provide curatorial context for each of them. These distinctions of the fundamental unit that is collected and why affect each institutionís acquisition policy, cataloging, preservation, and presentation to the public.

Both libraries and museums are repositories, but libraries are user-driven. The role of the library is to provide access to a vast amount of material through which the user freely roams, making his/her own connections between works.  The user chooses which items to look at.  Museums, on the other hand, are curator-driven. Historically, they have only provided access to limited holdings, usually exhibited through a particular interpretation or context, as provided by curatorial and educational staff. The museum provides a framework of context and interpretation, and the user can navigate within that smaller body.

Archives tend to be research driven. They are accessible, often by appointment, in non-public spaces. The archivist has identified an area of the collection a researcher might be interested in, but s/he must go through it physically, item by item, to find out more information.

Digital repositories offer the possibility of users navigating through a vast number of representations of objects and cataloging records on their own, making their own links between works, and in some ways challenging the previously exclusive power of the curator to juxtapose and interpret**.  Similarly with archives. For example, the Online Archive of California provides users with a choice of navigating through works using context-dependent Finding Aids or of looking for individual items outside of any context (something that an Archive would never have considered if this was the sole method of access to its collection).

All these technological changes begin to blur the formerly sharp distinctions between libraries, museums, and archives in an online environment.  Functional distinctions remain. There is still a difference between curatorial context for an object and a MARC catalog record; there is a difference between collection level and item level cataloging, but the methods of access and presentation become hybridized and in the digital environment it is as likely to see fulsome context for certain library records as it is to provide unfettered access to museum records. These changes offer great opportunities for linking resources between these different types of collections, and may lead to exciting collaborations.  One needs to be careful, however, to not let the technology drive changes in missions for these various types of organizations; professionals need to consciously evaluate and adopt mission changes, rather than merely accept them because of mission-drift caused by technology.

**Besser, Howard (1987).  Digital Images for Museums, Museum Studies Journal 3 (1), Fall/Winter, pages 74-81; and  Besser, Howard (1987).  The Changing Museum, in Ching-chih Chen (ed), Information: The Transformation of Society (Proceedings of the 50th Annual Meeting of the American Society for Information Science), Medford, NJ: Learned Information, Inc, pages 14-19