Monday, July 14, 2008

Notes from the Future: Reflections on the IMLS Meeting on Museums and Libraries in the 21st Century

What’s in the crystal ball for museums and libraries? The IMLS (Institute for Museum and Library Services) has commissioned a preliminary proposal for an NAS (National Academy of Sciences) report on museums and libraries in the 21st century. The NAS publishes one such report every business day, and apparently these reports are seen as a gold standard of objective, well-researched content on a range of industries and issues. The goal, from IMLS’s standpoint, is for NAS to create a report that can address the fundamental issues facing museums and libraries in the 21st century, with an intended audience of industry professionals, trustees, funding sources, and government representatives.

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:

  1. How do you plan for the future?
  2. What are the essential differences and similarities between libraries and museums?
  3. How do you measure and articulate the value of museums and libraries?
  4. How can our expertise and assets be applied towards new ends?
  5. Who owns the stuff? Who controls the experience?
  6. 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:
  1. 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.
  2. Some leaders are more conservative than I feared, and these people are alternately smug and desperate about maintaining their power.
  3. 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.

9 comments, add yours!:

Anonymous said...

Thanks Nina for a posting on this meeting.

I'd like to see this group of people (or perhaps others) be told to imagine that they had all of the resources in the world and their task was to create a real "third place" museum/library/cultural gathering spot that serve communities members and connects those with the ideas and treasures of the world in accordance with how community members want to connect with those treasures. In order to do this, these thinkers would have to use their imaginations to vision the future. If the vision was bold enough, someone would figure out how to fund it. I wonder if the thinkers would agree to participate.

As I see it, the current chaotic pace of change within communication technology is far too great for most to comprehend and manage. This issue alone makes it is so much easier to stay with what we know.

To really get our institutions to shift is going to require a tricky balance between honoring insider institutional knowledge and selecting the best of the outside advancements to get us to the next level.

As frustrated as this post reads, at least someone is trying to address some of our future concerns. Keep pushing for that better future.

POW! (Paul Orselli Workshop, Inc.) said...

Woo-hoo! Our tax dollars at work!
(At least I hope they gave you decent meeting food.)

Is there/will there be an executive summary and participant list of the meeting(s) online anywhere?

Is it too radical (or back to the future) to suggest that the governmental powers that be separate the library and museum funding agencies again?

IMLS has always seemed a bit of a "shotgun marriage" and I think both museums and libraries could benefit by becoming more vibrant and distinct rather than heading for some mushy common ground dictated more by funding schemes than community reality.

Adam said...

Maybe this will end up off topic, but here are some thoughts:

"Retraining staff to be translators and hosts instead of experts and authorities is both technologically and philosophically tricky (and necessary)."

Nina, I wholeheartedly understand this quote. I work at a living history museum ( and in the last five years we have moved from a 'post goals' method of conveying information and facts (expert and authority model) to a method of facilitating guest experiences (translating and hosting model). Rather than monologue at people what we want them to know, we now try to follow the guests interest and fill in around their own desire to learn, which seems to be awfully similar to what Joshua Greensburg talked about in "transitioning from teaching information literacy to information fluency—helping visitors navigate and harness the vast world." We are attempting to transition from teaching history by fact (information literacy) to helping them navigate and harness the vast past (information fluency).

A conversation we've had around here deals with the 'how do we implement that vision on the ground level?' Often times, those who work in museums and libraries have an authority background; they have degree(s), years of experience, and the notion that the masses are uninformed and need to know the things they know. I personally have found that this sense of authority often times gets in the way, that it actually creates an inability to connect with guests on a meaningful level. So the question begs, do we need to rely less and less on so called 'experts' at the front lines? Should we cultivate a new field of experience facilitators, people who know more about creating community and building relationships than the actual subject matter (that's not to say that subject matter isn't important, obviously)?

One mantra we have around here is that "Comfort leads to conversation." I just wonder if museums and libraries would have a brighter, more successful future if they were manned by people who wanted to create experiences and conversations (not Q and A's, but actual dialogue) more so than to convey specific facts. We should look to inspire more so than we look to be informative.

Paolo Amoroso said...

Name 3 of the most important pieces of Internet infrastructure. Your choices may come close to: 1) domain name resolution 2) email delivery 3) web serving.

About 80% of #1 is handled by "bind", 80% of #2 by "sendmail" and 60% of #3 by "Apache" (quoting from memory, but you get the picture). These software systems have something in common: they were developed under an open, collaborative process similar to Wikipedia's.

I don't know whether Wikipedia is authoritative or authoritarian. It just works. It is based on the Nike approach: just do it.

Anonymous said...

Very juicy and provocative posting!

Two thoughts:

1. Forecasting the future is a risky business, but it's something science fiction actually does reasonably well within certain constraints: identify a current trend that seems especially powerful and inexorable, plumb the human desire it seems to want to serve, and then project out to the logical place it will want to go. For a common example, in the 19th century we could already see human effort being replaced by machines. Humans are drawn toward anthropomorphic simulacra, especially those who might, without moral ambiguity, serve us as slaves, so a robot and/or artificial intelligence is where the thing is headed and continues to head.

Trendlines that will certainly impact libraries and museums are the pluralization of information (the info = power equation will erode, as will information ownership,) the growth of new communities based on mutual affinity (eroding to some unknown degree those based on geography,) and a constriction of the planet's capacity to sustain traditional human activity in every possible sense.

2. The critical distinction between museums and libraries is the stress on emphasis. Libraries facilitate the acquisition of information first and foremost and this might make them more vulnerable as bricks-and-mortar civic destinations in the information age because there is little information a library can provide that can't, in the foreseeable future, be provided through electronic dissemination vehicles--if the pluralization trend sustains to the point where virtually all human populations can gain access.

In museums, on the other hand, information is actually secondary. In fact, if all you seek is information, museums are probably the least efficient way to find what you are looking for. And this is not new.

So are museums all about "the real?" Hmmm, sorry, I don't think so, at least not entirely. For a start, "real" defies adequate definition. If you stop to think about it, museums (and zoos, and historic sites) are chock full of simulations of reality and have been for a very long time, much to the delight of the general public I might add. If the only criterion of real is that we say it is, well, I don't think even the public will buy that. But museums are social spaces, diversions from work, from home, meaningful in ways you get to control. They are not at all devoid of information if you count the serendipitous experience as information of another sort, and include museumgoing BYI -- Bring Your (own)Info, the info in your head, what you want to bring to it.

The best libraries are already making the adjustment to becoming more experientially astute, more comfortable, easier to hang out in, to socialize in. Museums and libraries could be like copiers and scanners used to be, fated to converge.

So I don't think the future for meatspace destinations is so dim actually, barring some worldwide cataclysm (they do happen,) people still have to get out of the house and museums are still a pretty good deal for the price of admission. But this doesn't mean that every museum will survive either. Or deserves to.

Unknown said...

Thanks for posting these notes, Nina!

I'd be interested in hearing more about the motivation behind this report - is the agenda to determine how much of a convergence the future for libraries and museums holds? While some of the questions addressed made me feel that way, most of the questions didn't seem particularly tuned towards that end. If there is no joint destiny between these two communities, then why investigate them within the same report?

If library and museum convergence is indeed on the agenda for this report, then it seems odd to confine the exercise just to those two communities. For a vision of a future of how we should provide access to our cultural heritage, the study would need to at least include archives as well. (No need to explain how this happened, of course, since IMLS is behind the study.)

So it seems that I just can't be pleased, or maybe I would be pleased if I understood better. :-)

We've recently held workshops at organizations which contain libraries, archives and museums under one roof (so to speak) to tease out what their future as converging departments could look like, and what kinds of projects they'd like to engage in to get closer to that future. When we asked workshop participants to vision about the ideal information landscape they'd like to be a part of building, they immediately adopted a users perspective. They didn't want their users to have to tease apart our administrative distinctions to access materials they're interested in. Not surprising, but a good indicator that the desire to work more closely together is fueled by a recognition that currently, we're not doing a good job providing access to our materials online.

I've blogged a good bit about this project at hangingtogether, in case you're interested - most recent post at We're currently writing a report summarizing our experience with the workshops.

Tim K. said...

It seems to me that museums are really, more than anything else, entertainment venues. Sure we educate, and as a museum professional, I'd certainly like to think that museums server a greater purpose, and certainly I do think they do, but when you come right down to it, why do people pay to come to museums? They, (or often their kids) want to see the dinosaurs, the planetarium show, the historic and not-so-historic art. We can't loose sight of the fact that as a business (and non-profit or not, you have to pay the bills) we have to get paying visitors in the door. As information, the bread and butter of the education industry becomes available online, we have to provide services (and fun) that people can't get online. We have to let people experience in the real-world the dinosaur that they read about online or saw on TV. We have to let kids play with real clouds, touch the starfish, see themselves on the moon. The experiences that people remember (and pay to see again) are not just about networking, or about learning, they're fun. While we prepare ourselves to provide the next generation museum experience, we have to remember to remain a place that people like to be, a place that isn't too much work to visit. Let visitors interact, create, connect. But make sure they're having fun while they're at it.

Nina Simon said...

The lack of archives at the table was discussed. I think there was a palpable sense that the fit between museums and libraries was shaky at best--good perhaps on the information systems side, poor on the intended user experience side. This was my first exposure to IMLS so I admit I don't know too much about the reasons, except to guess that they wanted to serve as much of their constituency as possible with this exercise. The questions I noted were not the prescribed questions for discussion but rather the themes that emerged again and again. The prescribed questions were more along the lines of "what skills will library + museum professionals need in the 21st century?," "what cultural and technological trends will impact our services and audience?" etc.

I agree that many museums are functionally entertainment venues (and that that's not a bad thing). But if they are, I question whether they should receive public money. I imagine a future with two (or more) kinds of museums--entertainment venues that are privately funded and some other kind of new civic space that is publicly funded. Do you think entertainment venues should be paid for with tax dollars? I don't... except parks. I think parks are everything venues. I guess I think the govt should support everything venues. What do you think?

Tim K. said...


I certainly agree that government funding should be used to support public services and not simply entertainment venues. I do not mean to detract in any way from the societal good that a publicly-funded museum can provide through public services, even through interactive, social content. But I think it's important to remember that, barring completely funded museums, most institutions need to be at least somewhat self-sustaining, and need to keep that in mind when planning exhibitions and services. as it stands, unless you can get enough grants (government or otherwise) to pay overhead costs, admissions fees are what keeps our doors open. Perhaps we in the museum world can (and this is certainly your area of expertise) connect our role as entertainers with that of a public forum, using interactive services (read: coffee talks, web/real world discussions, community events as a marketing tool as well as a public service, drawing people back to come as admission-payed visitors or museum members.

On a side note:
A local natural history/art museum often has evening community events with bands, breweries, and local radio stations/magazines, but doesn't seem to be able to overcome its "don't touch, no food and drink" old-fashioned image, at least as I see it. The answer is, I think to separate the rock-concert venue from the artifacts, and establish a venue for people to interact with and discuss the history/art in a more natural way, rather than just looking at a glass case. I totally understand the need to protect and preserve collections, but this museum, and certainly others, need a way for the audience to feel that the collection is accessible, rather then separated. The glass and the patrolling museum guards are not just a physical barrier, they are psychological, too.