Welcome to Round 2 in the cage match between libraries and museums.
In March 2019 in a post called “Libraries Versus Museums,” I discussed an article from CityLab about how public and private data should be handled by the highly trusted public libraries because there was no other model out there for handling such data … except that there is. History museums regularly handle public and private data. That, apparently, was Round 1 in the cage match between libraries and museums.
The tweet above is Round 2 in the struggle for dominance between libraries and museums. According to the tweet, there is a Pew Research study* that shows libraries rank number 1 in having earned the public’s trust and museums rank number 2. Christy Coleman, @HistoryGonWrong on Twitter, is the author of the tweet and wonders how museums can surpass libraries in earning the public’s trust.
It’s a good question insofar as the competitiveness it engenders shakes museums out of our complacency in serving the public. How do museums become even more trustworthy? How do we expand our audiences and earn the trust of those we haven’t been serving?
There are many good suggestions in the thread that accompanies this tweet, things like have free admission (like libraries), let people touch stuff (like libraries), let people interpret information on their own rather than serving up a curated experience (like libraries), have free internet access (like libraries), and have museums more centrally located and easier to get to (like libraries).
My comment on the thread, because of course I had to comment, is that libraries encourage repeat visits because they allow people to check out their collections (books, media) and they have to come back to return them and check out more. Libraries trust people to return materials and that trust is repaid by those who use the library. Trust begets trust.
What if museums used such a model? Yes, there are museums that have study collections that can be handled or traveling trunks that can be sent out to schools (the Minnesota Military Museum has a great traveling trunk program), but do these types of programs encourage repeat visits?
Repeat visits seem to be key in increasing trust. Think about this on a personal level. The more familiar you become with a person, business, or institution, so long as you are treated well, the more likely you are to trust them. Being treated well is also key because if you are treated poorly, why would you come back for more?
As long as museums use being number 2 in public trust as a prod to improve their customer service, remove barriers, and find ways to encourage repeat visits, trying to replace libraries in the number 1 position is a positive thing. However, I’m not convinced we need to be adversarial in terms of public trust. Being number 2 in public trust is a reasonable place to be, as would sharing the number 1 spot, or having libraries and museums switch back and forth between the two.
We are not adversaries! Museums and libraries complement one another beautifully. Can museums improve? Absolutely. Can libraries improve? No doubt. Can we learn from each other, each maintaining our unique traits that make us special? Of course we can.
Healthy and robust libraries and museums are assets to their communities. We don’t need to be in a cage match with each other. Instead, we can shake hands and get on with the business of being highly trustworthy together.
*Try though I did, I could not find a Pew Study that ranks libraries and museums on levels of trust by the public. I found one comparing libraries to health care providers, family and friends, news organizations, government, and etc., but museums aren’t listed. I also found a Pew report on library services that is instructive, but it doesn’t mention museums. In fact, when I went to Pew Research’s list of topics, I couldn’t find museums listed at all, though libraries shows up on the list. Makes me wonder if Pew doesn’t find museums worth the effort to study them. Which makes me ask, “Why not, Pew? Why not?” (Do I need to write Libraries Versus Museums, Round 3?)
I did, however, find that a study on trust and museums was done by the Institute for Museum and Library Services in 2001 for the American Alliance of Museums, but it seems focused on museums, not a comparison of museums and libraries.
If someone can provide me a link to the Pew Study comparing public trust of libraries to museums, I’d be most grateful.