Of course, that audience is a long way from seeing such a report. Last week, NAS brought 25 people (including me) to Washington to discuss what issues might be appropriate to cover in the report, which is at least 3 years from hitting the press (assuming it receives funding). What follows are my notes from the meeting, separated roughly into six major topics of discussion.
The six topics are:
- How do you plan for the future?
- What are the essential differences and similarities between libraries and museums?
- How do you measure and articulate the value of museums and libraries?
- How can our expertise and assets be applied towards new ends?
- Who owns the stuff? Who controls the experience?
- How do we reimagine physical space and assets?
Please skip to the topics that interest you. The NAS has expressed high interest in hearing from interested parties who were not at the meeting; please share your personal 21st century issues as comments and they will get to the labcoats in Washington.
I introduce these notes with three general observations:
- Some leaders are more radical than I hoped, and these people have a hard time advocating for change when their accountability is to those who have not changed.
- Some leaders are more conservative than I feared, and these people are alternately smug and desperate about maintaining their power.
- Meetings about the future end up being about the present. We were much less creative and forward-thinking than we could have been. Dream big, share it in the comments, and help this be a more productive study.
1. How do you plan for the future?
Two related but contradictory truths reigned over talk about the future: (1) the future is already here in bits and pieces, and (2) most predictions about the future are wrong. The accelerating rate of technological change suggests that we have no way of determining what comes next on a ten-, twenty-, or fifty-year timescale.
But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t think about the future. Unfortunately, for some directors, “sustainability” means “finding long-term ways to receive funding to do the same things we’ve been doing.” This attitude is often self-serving: it’s also a practical problem for those who actually want to create change. To paraphrase Ginnie Cooper, innovative chief librarian of DC: “I have to serve two audiences: my current audience and my future audience. The problem is that my current audience is vocal and my future audience is silent. It’s hard to serve the future when the present demands certain services and accountability.” Serving the future audience is a crapshoot, and that makes it hard to fund and advocate for with confidence.
One of the most promising models for doing so (and a potential way to structure the NAS report) is scenario-based planning. In this model, rather than trying to answer a set of broad questions, you look at the spectrum of viable conditions and extrapolate useful strategies from those. For example, you could imagine a spectrum in the world of intellectual property from unlimited free access to assets to controlled costly access. At each point along that spectrum there are implications for how museums and libraries do business. What would your institution be in a world where you have more non-English-speaking (real and virtual) visitors than English speakers? Where homeschooling is dominant? Where few families own powered vehicles? These what-ifs aren’t just science fiction; they’re a useful way for us to break out of present paradigms, to silence the current audience for a few minutes and plan for the future.
2. What are the essential differences and similarities between libraries and museums?
One participant commented that the creation of IMLS twelve years ago was an arranged marriage between two grudgingly consenting agencies. The question was raised of whether we all belonged at the same table. From my perspective the line wasn’t between libraries and museums but public-facing and private/researcher-facing organizations. If it’s not open to the public, I don’t care if it’s a book or a fossil—the methods of interpretation and audience engagement are fundamentally different.
With regard to public-facing institutions, there were interesting distinctions drawn about the way libraries and museums provide information. Libraries are more customer-focused, museums, more content-focused. Libraries are in the “just-in-time” information business, set up to help visitors find the specific asset or information sought. Museums provide the information that we deem useful or interesting. Libraries’ direct service programs, from voter registration to computer classes, are focused on supporting citizens’ needs broadly, whereas museums’ direct services (programs, outreach) are focused on spreading museum content.
Both libraries and museums are (somewhat frustratingly) lumped with the K-12 public education system. They are seen as “add-ons” rather than alternatives, and in many cases are increasingly conforming to K-12 standards to justify their utility as sites for field trips and educational funding. Many expressed interest in aligning together as public spaces dedicated to informal learning, sharing research and a use case based on an alternative to rather than component of formal education.
3. How do you measure and articulate the value of museums and libraries?
There was strong interest in the NAS report addressing the specific value and use of museums and libraries as part of the cultural, educational, and civic landscape of the U.S. I’m skeptical of this endeavor: does it really help us understand and address the future to define what we do now? Isn’t this just another self-serving “here’s why you need us?” On the other hand, I appreciate the fact that research in the value of informal learning, and evaluation metrics beyond earned income, throughput, and educational outcomes are underdeveloped.
Many librarians cited Ray Oldenberg’s book The Great Good Place for its definition of “the third place”—not work/school, not home—where people can go to find community. Becoming “the third place” is vastly appealing and highly unrealistic given the current limits of our institutional support for communities. I’d love to see someone fully imagine an institution that would be that third place, and then see how we could adjust museums and libraries to reflect those (or not).
4. How can our expertise and assets be applied towards new ends?
There was lots of discussion about the relevance of our assets and interpretative methods. Some ardently clung to the ability of “the real thing” to trump all virtual versions of an artifact, but most acknowledged that museums and libraries will no longer be in the business of providing original information (except perhaps to researchers) in the next 30 years. Joshua Greenberg from the New York Public Library talked about transitioning from teaching information literacy to information fluency—helping visitors navigate and harness the vast world of digital information to their own ends. Of course, to do this, staff have to be not just fluent but masters of new information platforms. Retraining staff to be translators and hosts instead of experts and authorities is both technologically and philosophically tricky (and necessary).
He may have died eighty years ago, but John Cotton Dana was alive and well at the meeting, with a few folks citing his proclamation that museums should “learn what the community needs and fit the museum to those needs.” Many people gravitated to the idea that it is community “needs, not wants” that we should address. Unfortunately, it’s easy to cast community needs as wants if they are inconvenient to our plans. I would prefer us to try to “learn what the community does, map how we could improve or support what they do, and fill in the white space.” Joshua talked about a staff member at the NYPL who hosted an event for NYC knitters helping them understand the library resources that might be useful to them. Do they need knitting information? Maybe. Do they want it? Sure. Do they now think the library is more useful to them? Absolutely.
5. Who owns the stuff? Who controls the experience?
Maureen Whalen, Associate General Counsel of the Getty Trust, spoke eloquently and somewhat distressingly about intellectual property. I worry that museums are becoming increasingly closed-fisted with their assets; she worries that other content providers see museums as freeloaders and won’t allow museums to provide full access to loaned or purchased items in a way that supports institutional missions. If museum and library content is licensed, not owned, how can we work within those licenses to allow visitors to use and remix to their heart’s content?
Of course, there’s a less legal question here, one about authority and control. The most upsetting moment of the meeting for me was when some participants expressed a willful disregard and derision for participatory scholarship on sites like Wikipedia. One director stated that he wants his institution to be “authoritative, not authoritarian.” This sounded appealing until I realized that he was not willing to acknowledge other non-scholarly authorities … which sounds authoritarian to me.
There was an urgency about the extent to which major collections and research institutions are not “on the map” of online information sources frequented by the general public. This seems hypocritical given those same institutions’ unwillingness to engage in the neighborhoods of information they disdain. How can you get on the map if you think every other stop is managed and used by heathens? Following up on point #4, I think there’s a huge opportunity for research institutions to support and guide amateur scholars, to promote “research fluency” in a world of highly personal and social information gathering. But that requires acknowledging their existence.
6. How do we reimagine physical space and assets?
One of the most interesting differences between museums and libraries is the role of the physical place. Libraries have a shared physical and data infrastructure based on the primacy of loans and sharing to their functions. Museums lack that meta-infrastructure, and many argue that it is their distinctions and niches, not their similarities, that make them viable.
I feel mixed about this. The relevance of physical stuff to everyday information-gathering is going to keep diminishing, and if we want to be civic “conversation spaces” around content, it’s unclear what form physical institutions should take. What’s the best physical site for civic engagement? A museum, a library, or something else? Some discussed co-location of museums and libraries, as well as co-location with other civic institutions like post offices or parks. If the goals are similar, I like the idea of a powerhouse “third place” that is a part of every community, a central place that can rival Starbucks, malls, and other experience businesses as safe social meeting grounds.
Will museums become as indistinct from each other as libraries—and receive related benefits of a fluid, shared collection and access to resources? Or will they accentuate their idiosyncratic differences as experience providers and move away from libraries’ distributed service model? Some libraries are moving towards the museum model—creating heavily designed spaces, complementing information assets with increasingly sophisticated exhibits. What is the information institution of the future?
I came out of this experience feeling like we spent too little time talking about change. We talked a lot about what we are already doing and what is already happening. But we didn’t spend enough time on what might happen and how we might change to address it.
Let’s change that. Please share your vision and help our field get out of committee and into the great unknown.