Clock at Carnegie Library, Little Falls, MN, 2018.
history museums pragmatic historian

Libraries Versus Museums

Clock at Carnegie Library, Little Falls, MN, 2018.
Clock at Carnegie Library, Little Falls, MN, 2018.

A recent CityLab article caught my attention: Should Libraries Be the Keepers of Their Cities’ Public Data?

A quote from the article:

“As far as how private and public data should be handled, there isn’t really a strong model out there,” says Curtis Rogers, communications director for the Urban Library Council (ULC), an association of leading libraries across North America. “So to have the library as the local institution that is the most trusted, and to give them that responsibility, is a whole new paradigm for how data could be handled in a local government.”

Ahem, excuse me … county history museum over here … we have been dealing with public data on a city and county level for decades. Many of us have been working with our county governments to take in official records they no longer have room for, such as probate files. We also handle genealogical information, cemetery, church and school records, along with local newspapers. Some of us (judging by the museum I oversee) even have district court papers, files on local businesses (including city directories and phone books), jail ledgers, road ledgers, and township files. What do you mean “there isn’t a really strong model out there”?

Public libraries are known for having circulating collections of books and other media materials. Generally, their collections have a broader scope in terms of subject matter than county history museums do. (I’m not including specialized libraries in this examination, just average public libraries.)

Where county museums differ is that they have a wider range of materials in their non-circulating collections, including three-dimensional artifacts and many types of archival materials. Some of their collections include one-of-a-kind items, like personal letters or journals. While county history museums have variety in terms of materials, their focus is more geographically-based than public libraries. Because county history museums have three-dimensional artifacts, they typically have exhibit areas in which to display them.

Both libraries and museums have public programs, though in Minnesota, with the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund, libraries’ public programming has been supercharged by the funding. Meanwhile, museums tend to seek funding from the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund for desperately-needed infrastructure or collections-related projects.

You see, public libraries have been really good about banding together over the years to make the case for consistent public funding. Judging by how many part-time staff my local public library has, I’d say they still don’t get quite enough funding, but it has been far more than most county museums have received.

In my area, the public libraries are all part of a larger regional library system. Each county in the system provides funding for the larger system, while the cities within the region cover the costs of library buildings. Counties are not required to provide any funding to county history museums, so the amounts they provide across the state are uneven. Cities and townships are also not required to fund county history museums. That makes it very difficult for county museums to partner to take on larger projects, like creating a consistent cataloguing system for their collections. They barely have the staff needed to handle their day-to-day activities.

Libraries have had cataloguing systems, including regular digital upgrades, for ages because they have had the support needed to create and implement them. They have also been able to be future-minded in their thinking, adopting public access to the internet, maker spaces, digital books, and social service activities as times have changed and the public seeks these new services.

I love libraries, but when I see comments regarding how libraries ought to take on public and private data as though no other institution has ever handled it when I know full well county history museums do, that bugs me on many levels. Do libraries and governmental units not know what county museums do in this regard? Why not? Why do county history museums not receive the same funding levels as local public libraries? If their funding were increased, they would have the staff necessary to beef up their handling of public and private data, along with being able to make their collections more available. They could start thinking in regional ways, allowing their collections to speak to each other rather than staying in silos created by a lack of the resources needed to get them out there.

You see, my title, Libraries Versus Museums, is meant to be provocative. Libraries and museum aren’t adversaries at all; in fact, they complement each other. We need both because they each serve different but necessary community needs. However, when it comes to funding, they have been put into an adversarial position precisely because public dollars are limited.

County history museums and their supporters have got to work on increasing public support, along with getting the word out about how county museums already have a model for handling public and private data.

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