//Libraries, Museums, Archives – What’s the Difference?

Libraries, Museums, Archives – What’s the Difference?

The recent news about the Peabody and Essex Museum moving the Phillips Library collections offsite and the turmoil at the Boston Athenaeum reminded me of my internal puzzlement when I was studying for my master’s in public history, having already earned my master’s in library and information science.  Conflating libraries, archives, and museums is easy to do.  Some museums have libraries and/or public archives; some libraries have museums and/or archives.  Each of these entities have their own professional standards, relationships with the public, and revenue generation strategies.  Can a museum trained person manage a library or archives?  Or vice versa?  Yes, if the person understands the core professional standards and values of each type of entity.  A review of those standards and values will lay the groundwork for mutual understanding and hopefully better management.

[This post focuses on libraries, museums, and archives in the United States – primarily because the funding models are distinct and diverse.  The professional standards and values for each are more globally applicable.]

Libraries

We begin with libraries because they are the most public and the oldest of the entities.  The ancient Library of Alexandria sought to collect and classify knowledge across civilizations.  Americans may be familiar with the story of Gilded Age industrialist Andrew Carnegie, who funded the creation of public libraries across the United States in the late 19th and early 20th century.  Carnegie libraries were established in communities large and small across the United States, providing access to books and other materials without charging an entrance/access or membership fee.

Public libraries are supported by tax revenue, private donations, friends’ groups, grants, and fees; public library do not charge entrance/access fees.  Private libraries or libraries within other organizations, i.e. museums, may charge membership or entrance/access fees, as well as receiving private donations and grants.

Libraries do have collection policies that guide their purchasing.  Since libraries serve the community, those policies are broad in terms of subject matter.  Libraries are able to add and remove collection materials per those collection policies.  Libraries also provide programs, lectures, training, computer access, and meeting rooms to their patrons.

To become a librarian, you obtain a master’s degree in library and information science.  The American Library Association serves as the accreditation body for the master’s programs.  Academic librarians are usually required to have two master’s degrees:  the master’s in library and information science and a master’s in a specific subject area.  Professional associations exist for the various types of librarians:  academic, public, special, medical, law, etc.

Intellectual freedom, literacy, and privacy are the key values that libraries and librarians uphold.  The individual’s right to access information is the guide for library decision-making.

Museums

Museums are founded and guided by their mission statement.  That statement establishes the purpose of the museum and the parameters for its collection and programs – a narrower construct than libraries.  Objects donated to museums are considered held in the public trust – meaning that the museum will permanently maintain the objects in its collection. Removing an object from the collection, especially selling the object to generate income, is considered unethical – a violation of the public trust.  In specific instances, objects can be removed, known as deaccessioning, after a thorough review by the curatorial staff and the museum board.

The public trust concept and access to the collections are key values for museum professionals.  Exhibitions and programs showcase the museum’s collection to the public.  Museums also continually support internal and external scholarship of their collections.  Academics or the public should be able to study objects in the collection that are not on display.

Museums are supported by fees, income generated from museum stores or cafes or programs, private donations, and grants.  Public museums receive tax revenue.

Museums professionals include curatorial staff who manage the collection, operating managers and directors, educators, membership professionals, finance professionals, and marketing professionals.  People interested in museum careers may pursue master’s degrees or certificates in art, public history, museum studies, non-profit management, or education.  Consequently, no one entity serves as an accreditation body for museology.  The American Alliance of Museums, the largest professional association in the United States, does have an accreditation process for museums.  Other professional associations exist for different types of museums, i.e. art museums, and of museum professionals, i.e. membership managers.

Archives

Archives are the repositories of the records of an organization or person.  Archives can be found in corporations, museums, libraries, associations, and other entities.  Archives preserve records that are significant to preserving the collective memory/history and/or to protecting rights or property.  Records can be paper, physical objects, audiovisual materials, and digital materials.  Archivists assess incoming materials and are able to remove items that lack lasting value.  Archival records are irreplaceable and rare or unique.

Preservation of and access to records are guiding principles for archivists.  When archives are located within an institution, its records will reflect the missions or collection policies of the main institution, as well.  Funding may come from an institution’s budget, grants, and/or private donations.

Archive professionals may have begun their careers as librarians, curators, historians, curators, or records managers.  Library and Information Science master’s programs may include an archives concentration.  Professional associations like the Society of American Archivists and AIIM provide certificate programs.  The Society of American Archivists provides a Directory of Archival Education but does not serve as an accreditation body for any master’s or certificate programs.  Similar to museology, archivists may join professional associations for specific types of archives.

In addition to facilitating collection access to researchers, archives create programs or exhibitions to share their collections with the public.

While all three professions coalesce around collections, public & scholarly access, and preservation, each profession has its own standards, ethics, and priorities.  To grossly oversimplify, museums focus on their specific objects, collected according to certain parameters.  Archivists collect the records, which may include objects, for their institution or for a relatively narrowly defined entity/person.  While having collection policies, libraries are more broadly committed to the public’s intellectual freedom than access to specific objects/items.

Coming back to the Peabody and Essex Museum’s choice to move the Phillips Library collections offsite, from the librarian point of view, the move creates access barriers.  A library should be close to its patrons to facilitate access to all of its collection.  Archivists will be similarly inclined, but regularly manage access restrictions to their collections.  Museums operate within a curatorial model – an expert tells a story through collection objects.  The museum implements its mission through its programs and exhibitions, not by providing access to its entire collection.

Would understanding all these points of view change the decision to move the Phillips Collection offsite?  Probably not.  However, the access issues could be more thoughtfully addressed or acknowledged.  Since libraries, museums, and archives have and will continue to overlap, each set of professionals, especially people at the manager or director level, should understand the basic standards, ethics, and values of the others.

Interested in learning more about libraries, museums, and archives?  Check out the professional association websites.  Here are some fun books to balance out the deep thoughts:

Libraries of the Ancient World:  paperback or ebook

The Most Beautiful Libraries in the World:  hardcover

The Library:  A World History:  hardcover

The Architecture of Art Museums:  paperback or ebook

Treasure Palaces:  Great Writers Visit Great Museums:  paperback or ebook

2018-03-17T15:23:21+00:00March 17th, 2018|ThinkPiece|

About the Author:

Samantha Chmelik, principal of Preston Argus, uses her background in operations management, benchmarking, and strategic planning to help cultural and history organizations implement their missions. She has worked and volunteered at libraries, museums, and non-profit organizations for two decades. She is also the author of Museum and Historic Site Management: A Case Study Approach, Rowman & Littlefield, 2015 and Museum Operations: A Handbook of Tools, Templates, and Models, Rowman & Littlefield, 2017.