I am attending a conference this week titled “Yours Mine and Ours: Leadership Through Collaboration”. Specifically, the topic is convergence of archive, library and museum collections, a trend that seems to have been developing over the past decade.
“We have no term in routine use which includes libraries, archives and museums” bemoaned Lorcan Dempsey, when he headed the UK Office of Library Networking(UKOLN) in 1999. In the UKOLN quarterly, Ariadne, Dempsey argued that such a term was needed as all three types of “memory institutions” faced the new challenges of representing their collections to researchers through the internet and of preserving digitized and born-digital objects electronically.
When he headed the US Institute of Museum & Library Services a few years later, Robert S. Martin agreed that “[w]hen we move from the physical to the digital world, the distinctions between text and image, object and artifact appear to diminish.” Recognizing this, in 2003 the American professional organizations for Archives (SAA), Libraries (ALA) and Museums (AAM) created a joint committee (CALM) in which common concerns could be discussed.
Speaking at the International Federation of Library Associations (IFLA) Conference that year, Martin reminded his audience that “[h]istorically the distinctions between and among libraries, museums and archives have not always been so sharp and clear.” Before industrial printing increased the volume of printed books exponentially and the bureaucratization of industry and government resulted in systematic record-keeping, “there was little practical differentiation.” Museums, archives and libraries all preserved unique and valuable documents from the past for the benefit of present and future generations.
When the British Museum (BM) was opened in 1759, it made available “for publick use to all posterity” collections divided into three types which later generations would recognize as library, archive, and museum. “Keepers” of “Printed Books,” “Manuscripts,” and “Natural and Artificial Productions” reported to the BM’s director, known as the “Principal Librarian.” In the British Empire’s premiere collecting institution, library, archive and museum materials remained under one roof for the next two centuries.
After industrialization, librarians became preoccupied with selecting, collecting and loaning mass-produced books; archivists with culling the most significant documentation from the mass of records kept by institutions and individuals; while curators focused on preserving scientific specimens, art objects and images, and making selections from them for occasional or permanent exhibition. The twentieth century was a period of divergence of the archival, library and museum professions. By the century’s end the British Library was moving the last of its collections out of the venerable BM, representative of the breaking up of comprehensive collecting institutions throughout the world.
If the twentieth century was one of divergence, however, the twenty-first seems to be leaning toward convergence. In 2004, Canada created a single repository, Library & Archives Canada, which included the former Dominion Archives, National Library and National Portrait Gallery. Other Canadian institutions, such as the University of Calgary followed suit. The Canadian model, “Common Administration” is just one of three to be considered in this week’s conference.
Another model is “Common Interest” an example of which is the Biodiversity Heritage Library, a collaborative between a dozen major natural science collections in the US and UK. The third model is “Common Values”, exemplified by the UK Collections Trust’s CultureGrid, a comprehensive catalog of British collections which will feed into the European Commission’s Europeana.