LIS Degrees in Museums


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LIS Degrees in Museums

  1. 1. Jennifer WileyMUS 500Final Paper LIS Degrees in Museums When choosing a graduate program, many men and women with interests in a variety ofsubjects find themselves drawn to the idea of getting their degree either in museum studies orlibrary science. However, it is not unusual for students to find themselves torn between the twopotential fields of interest. They spend hours doing research, pouring over their options byprogram, school, specialization, and even then are not entirely sure they have made the rightdecision by the time their first semester starts. What many of these students do not realize is thatthe reason they have such a hard time making a decision has much to do with how much librariesand museums actually overlap in the real world. Though the programs in school are separate andthe subjects may seem drastically different, many museums today use libraries or people withlibrary backgrounds to supplement their staff and collections. Depending on the style of themuseum, the role of some one with a library science degree may vary drastically, but many willbe able to find that there is a style out there that will allow them to meld their particular interestsof museums and libraries together into one harmonious career. From institutions as small andintimate as the Brooklyn Historical Society to those as large scale at the Metropolitan Museumof Art and those as specialized as Ellis Island to those as diverse as the Museum of the City ofNew York, people with degrees in library science are finding an environment that not only worksfor them, but also needs them to function at full capacity. Many museums today have a dedicated library within the institution, primarily used bythe staff but sometimes also available to the public. Very often, “[t]he activities of a museumrequire the support of a library, no matter how small the institution.”1 A library becomesnecessary when the collection of the museum develops a significant amount of items appropriatefor a library. Although the nature of the library within a museum is dependent on that of theinstitution it is a part of, much is the same between museum libraries and any other kind oflibrary. For this reason, it is important the library is its own department within the institution andthat it has the support of the administrative staff. A museum library cannot be effective withoutrecognition and support by the administration.2 Though policies should reflect those of the_____________________1 Larson, John C. 1985 Museum Librarianship. Hamden, CT: Library Professional Publications, p. xii2 Larson, p.xii-5
  2. 2. museum, they should be specific to the library and the basic library duties of research andreference, interlibrary loans, records management, circulation, statistical work, checking waitand want lists, and photocopying. It should also be kept in mind that research activity bypatrons, be it the staff of the museum or the general public, is the “fundamental process forwhich the library exists.”3 Curators, research scholars, and students all have the same basicneeds from the library, regardless of how professional those needs may seem. Through thelibrary, all levels of researchers gain an understanding of search methodology, the importance ofdocumentation, and the variety of resources available to them to best fit their specific needs.4 However, of course there also must be some differences between traditional librarianshipand librarianship in museums. While catering to the public is an essential part of any library,working in a museum library also brings a responsibility of balancing that attention between thepublic and the curator, who can often feel that the librarian caters too much to the public insteadof the museum.5 The skills that a librarian brings specifically to the museum supplement theexisting collection, bridge gaps between departments, and complete the “informationenvironment.” The library is responsible for supporting research for objects and their context aswell as the methods of conservation, display and exhibition. Together, this combination offocused research materials allows for a context in which the objects can be researched,documented, and interpreted. This niche of related material provided through the libraryenhances and enriches both the collection and the mission of the museum. Additionally, whilethe staff may find themselves restricted in the amount of examples of objects they are able tocollect at one time, the library can collect a variety of books illustrating further examples andprovide in depth documentation of the objects in house. Unlike other libraries, a book inmuseum libraries is more than a device to carry information, but “an object in its own right.”6While some museums may give the management of books as objects to other departments withinthe library, there are those who believe that this does not serve the books for the best and thuslets down the collection as a whole.7 The library further succeeds at enriching the museum it serves by developing elaborate___________________3 Larson, p. 694 Larson, p. 68-705 van der Wateren, Jan 1999 The Importance of Museum Libraries INSPEL 33(4):190-198, p. 196-1976 van der Wateren, p. 1927 van der Wateren, p. 191-194
  3. 3. networks, both with other museums and between other departments within the same museum.Through building an in depth catalogue of its own museum’s collection and then collecting thecatalogues of other museums, the library is able to do extensive cross referencing and finddocuments that may normally slip through the cracks. While public and academic libraries mayalso do something similar to this, in general the extent to which museum libraries collect othercatalogues surpasses that norm, describing them individually and in detail. Altogether thisallows for the most in depth research for the museums individual collection. Within its ownmuseum, the library is not bound by departmental borders and thus is able to make materialsavailable across all departments within the museum. Many of these materials may be of use tothe research of more than one department, though that may not always be obvious.8 Similarly, the librarian’s training to breakdown barriers between subjects coupled with anunderstanding of a variety of sources and the ability to manipulate information systems helps thelibrarian to aid the staff, who may be trained in one subject-field, to get the most out ofinterdisciplinary materials. Additional library training that become of great use to museumsinclude the knowledge of copyright and the training to collect and circulate information in astandardized format. Copyright is a subject that many are unsure of, but librarians deal with it ona daily basis. The librarian’s ability to advise or alert the museum staff to potential issues couldbe invaluable to a museum. Equally valuable is the long tradition of standardized description inlibraries due to centuries of dealing with materials of mass-production. While museums have notalways been as keen to use standardization as a way of preserving their collections uniqueness,the rise of mass communication through technologies has made it a necessity to reach the publicwho may be using the Internet to search for specific collections or objects. The way a libraryuses standardization to catalogue a collection thus becomes the best way to make collectionsaccessible beyond the physical museum.9 Not all the useful training of librarians has been so traditional. Since the 1990’s, therelationship between libraries and information technology and multimedia departments withinmuseums has grown in importance as the need for a web presence has grown. The library’scatalogue, special collections, and archives, which often hold documentation of the institution’shistory, became of great interest for web content. The materials in these collections had great___________________8 van der Wateren, p. 1949 van der Wateren, p. 195-196
  4. 4. potential to peak public interest with their uniqueness and supplement the collections the publicwas already generally aware of with additional information. This change required severalconsiderations by the institution. Should collections now be organized under technology or wastechnology to be perceived as a tool to serve the needs of the collection? If technology didovercome the collections, was it the IT staff or the library staff that should become in charge ofcollection development, cataloging, and other traditional librarian tasks? This is a primeexample of how the evolution of the museum can change the organizational structure of thelibrary, realigning the staff with new departments and thus redefining the mission and purpose ofthe library.10 Especially when a library staff is small, it is extremely important that the staff isflexible to meet the ever changing needs of their museum, which are inevitable. Changes shouldnot necessarily be feared because there may be, as there was with the growth in technology, thepotential for a rise in the visibility of the library, which is a huge advantage for both the libraryand the museum.11 Although these are the general roles of librarians in museums, the wide variety ofmuseum types results in a large spectrum of different jobs available for people with a mastersdegree in library science. From the most traditional library positions to jobs in labs instead oflibraries, different museums have different needs but most require some amount of staff with alibrarian background. Some museums are historical centers, some are focused on art, and stillothers are part of national parks, but all have a goal to develop their collections as much aspossible and to serve the public, the same goals that drive libraries of all varieties as well. The Brooklyn Historical Society is not the type of institution many think of when theyfirst consider what a museum is. The intimate museum serves its direct community by bothpreserving the history of Brooklyn and showcasing art from the community today. The OthmerLibrary and Archives, the museums onsite library, is itself a reflection of these dual roles. It is ahistorical landmark in and of itself (one of three interior historical landmarks in Brooklyn) aswell as a research library housing special collections, manuscripts, archives, images, and oralhistory collections. While it serves to preserve local and national history, the collections extendinto documentation of the present day community. Altogether, the library as a whole “serves the___________________10 Benedetti, Joan M. ed. 2007 Art Museum Libraries and Librarianship Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, Inc., p. 4-611 Benedetti, p. 9
  5. 5. mission of the Brooklyn Historical Society by supporting research into the history of Brooklynand Long Island and by collecting, preserving, and promoting access to our library and archivalmaterials.”12 The librarians here develop their collections with the thought toward supportingand enriching the exhibits, programs, and education activities at the historical society. Theyhave also built an in depth online catalog in order to both make their collection accessible to alarge public and to help patrons prepare themselves before venturing to the library in person forresearch. This will save valuable time for both the staff and the patron and will be just asvaluable to the average person at home starting a personal project as it will be to the museumstaff organizing a large scale exhibit.13 This type of institution lends toward research librarianship. Like in the previousdiscussion, this is a library within which it is extremely important for the library staff to have anintimate knowledge of the collection and to add to the research about the objects. The historicalsociety keeps a running blog that documents the projects at hand, including those happening inthe library and archives. This is written by the members of the staff associated with each projectand not only gives insight into the inner workings of the society, but also promotes the currentprojects and encourages the public to come see what is happening now. Additionally, there areposts that examine items in the collection, though they may not be a part of any current project,as a way of showcasing what kinds of things are available through the historical society, peakinginterest, and lending to the education goals of the society. The library staff have researched theseitems including photographs, maps, and more not only to write these blog posts, but to achievethe goal of better understanding their collection.14 It is important for research librarians to not only know what is physically in thecollection, but also to have an understanding of those items in order to best serve both the publicand their museum. Through this understanding, they are able to find items to help with aresearch project or to add to an exhibit that may not seem relevant without understanding thebackground of the item. It is also important when dealing with collections like photographs andmanuscripts because these collections can be comprised of many small pieces and it may be veryeasy for an item of great value to slip between the cracks. In these cases, the librarian plays a___________________12 Brooklyn Historical Society 2010 About the Othmer Library June 8, 201113 ibid14 The Brooklyn Historical Society Blog 2011 accessed June 8, 2011
  6. 6. crucial role in making sure that whatever project is being worked on, big or small, professionalor personal, is as complete as possible. The blog entries kept by the librarians at the Brooklyn Historical Society alsodemonstrate the relationship between the librarians and the museum staff. One such entrywritten by the “Project Map Cataloger” begins with an explanation of how she discovered thesubject of the current entry. “Recently, I was speaking with Julie Golia, our public historian, who wanted to know if we had early maps that showed different spellings of the name Brooklyn. As I was looking through the collection to identify the most interesting spellings, I was surprised by the variations in nomenclature for our area.”15Not only does this introduction show how a member of the library staff might ask a member ofthe library staff for help and what kind of information the library staff has access to, but it alsoshows how helping the museum staff actually helps the library staff do their jobs better as well.Because understanding the collection is so crucial to librarianship in these institutions, beingasked to look into something the librarian is not already familiar with also serves help theirunderstanding of the subject in a way they might not have even realized they were missing. On the opposite end of the size spectrum are the libraries associated with theMetropolitan Museum of Art. Not only is subject matter different here, but the size is drasticallydifferent. The Met is a world-renowned museum and a major tourist destination for people fromall around the world coming to New York City with a collection of over two million works ofart. Interestingly, the role of the library within the institution was recognized as a vitalcomponent all the way back to the very beginning of the museum’s life by its founders. Rightalong with the name of the actual museum, the Thomas J. Watson Library of the Met shares “thedistinction of being among the world’s greatest treasuries for the study of the arts of manycultures.”16 Additionally, due to the enormous size of the institution, there are severalspecialized libraries dedicated to one curatorial department each. Together, these librariesmaintain exhibition, collection, and auction sale catalogues, books, periodicals, electronicresources, and a number of rare titles notable for their historical and scholarly value.17___________________15 Hansen, Carolyn May 20, 2011 Brooklyn by an other name… accessed June 8, 201116 Thomas J. Watson Library N.d. Library History accessed June 8, 201117 Ibid
  7. 7. The services provided by the library staff at the Met are more along the lines of atraditional library. Patrons can acquire a library card, check out books, request for interlibraryloans, and more. Because of this, the library staff, at least of the main Thomas J. WatsonLibrary, perform the more common library tasks for the public such as circulation, reference,photocopying, and program development.18 The amount of people who use the museum and thelibrary as compared to an institution like the Brooklyn Historical Society is dramaticallydifferent and the general rules of supply and demand come into play. The historical society willmost likely never get the kind of traffic that the Met sees and thus does not have a need to offersuch services. If the Met, on the other hand, tried to take their patrons needs on an individualcase by case basis like the historical society, they would never be able to accommodate everyone who requests their services. Examining a job posting for a public services librarian at the Met further confirms that,although there is an expectation to “encourage engagement with the library and the Museum,”19the major role of the librarian would be like that of a librarian in a more traditional library. Suchresponsibilities and duties listed include “provide high-quality reference service and instruction/develop programming initiatives to enhance and expand Nolen’s reach/select and manage materials for the library collection/work collaboratively with Education staff to coordinate Storytime and other joint initatives”20If these are the responsibilities and duties outlined in the job description, it can be assumed thatthey are the major roles that will be fulfilled by the librarian. Although there will most likelyalso be some collaboration with the museum staff, it is clear that that is not the focus of position.Although this is only one job within the library, in a smaller institution like the BrooklynHistorical Society, almost every member of the library staff will work with the museum staff ona regular basis. The Met did at one point maintain a blog to showcase its exhibits, but the blog has notbeen updated since early 2008. This could be a casualty of a larger, less collaborative staff orcould be an example of how much less the Met needs to stir up interest. However, many___________________18 Thomas J. Watson Library N.d. Services accessed June 8, 201119 January 11, 2011 Job Posting: Public Services Librarian, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York accessed June 8, 201120 Ibid
  8. 8. traditional libraries do not maintain a blog and this could also just be more evidence of the moretraditional library role of the libraries at the Met. With less focus on research and more focus onpublic access, there are few projects to update the public on and the focus instead is on informingthe public of the services available to them through the library. Since these services rarelychange, this is role fulfilled by the static library website. Ellis Island is yet another drastically different example, though at the same time hasaspects of both the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Brooklyn Historical Society. Like theMet, Ellis Island is a major tourist destination for people visiting New York City from all overthe world. However, like the Brooklyn Historical Society, it is a small, specialized institutionwith a finite focus. Unlike either, though, Ellis Island Immigration Museum is a part of theNational Park Service. The National Park Service believes that each of the 400 national parks inAmerica are parts of history and so many national parks today have museums onsite with a focuson the specific park it is associated with as well as files related to the National Park Service.Because the size of these parks and so also their museums is drastically different on a case bycase basis, the roles of librarians in the National Park Service range from the traditional to thenontraditional like the range of any classification of museums. In general however, thoseassociated with the history projects within the National Park Service work to “preserve, protect,and share the history of this land and its people.”21 The Bob Hope Memorial Library located within the Ellis Island Immigration Museummaintains files, books, manuscripts, oral histories, periodicals, photographs, and video related toboth Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty, as well as immigration history (though no originalimmigration files) and of course materials related to the National Park Service.22 According toGeorge D. Tselos, the supervisory archivist on staff at the library, his job primarily consists ofperforming oral history interviews and fielding reference questions from researchers. Becausethe focus of the museum and the library is on historic preservation, it is not surprising that manyof his tasks are directly related to that goal. Because of the museums dedication to immigration,many researchers interested in genealogy contact the library and archives for information abouttheir family history on the island. Though all records of immigration have been moved from the___________________21 National Park Service N.d. Discover History accessed June 13, 201122 National Park Service 2010 Bob Hope Memorial Library accessed June 13, 2011
  9. 9. island to the National Archives, there is still a great deal of record of general immigration historyand information from the oral history interviews as well as other personal materials such asphotographs and manuscripts that could be of great use to researchers. Additionally, the librarymaintains the most diverse collection of images of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island in theworld as well as many records of both that are valuable to researchers interested in either subject. Like Tselos, much of the library staff on Ellis Island is dedicated to researchlibrarianship. Like in the Brooklyn Historical Society, they often receive requests for researchfrom both the public and the museum staff. Although no appointment is necessary to visit thelibrary, a fact that is not true in all museums, research requests are expected to be made prior to apatron visiting the library in order to save valuable time for all.23 At this point in time the oralhistory project appears to be the largest regular project to occupy the staff’s attention. Accordingto Tselos, part of the problem is that the project has been going on so long that some of the oldermedia is out of date and needs to be reformatted. This requires that the librarians on staff arealso knowledgeable of both old and new technologies or are able to do the additional researchnecessary to bridge the gap. Librarians in many cases must be problem solvers, especially inuntraditional library environments. However, not all museums have are able to provide library services. The Museum of theCity of New York employs men and women with degrees in library science, but due to “currentstaffing and budgetary contraints”24 has had to close its research room to the public. Instead, thestaff directs patrons to the New York Historical Society, the New York Public Library, theLibrary of Congress and the Municipal Archives with their questions and requests that involvefurther research. While they do plan on eventually being able to restore this service, the fact thatthe statement of closing says that the research room is closed to the public, not just closed ingeneral,25 it can be assumed that some small amount of library staff has been maintained.However, there are other departments within the museum that also employ those with librarydegrees. The prints and photographs department among others utilizes the skills of librariansoutside of a library environment to aid in preservation and digitization of the collection. This___________________23 Ibid24 Department of Collections Access N.d. accessed June 16, 201125 Ibid
  10. 10. takes the options of careers with a library degree to a completely new level of “nontraditional.”While many librarians with interests in museums can easily find an environment that allowsthem to be a part of both worlds, it is also possible to work entirely in the spectrum of museums. No matter what avenue a librarian chooses to take to use their degree within the museumworld, there is support both on a legal and peer level. A federal grant-making agency called theInstitute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) was created in 1996 through the FederalMuseums and Library Services Act. It supports non-federal, not-for-profit museums, libraries,and archives across the country and has consolidated programs for libraries and museums. TheIMLS aims to “resolve the blurred boundaries between libraries and museums in the digitalworld”26 and has been a driving force for promoting library-museum collaboration throughpolicy and National Leadership Grants. In 2003, the Museum and Library Services Act waspassed, reauthorizing the IMLS through 2009 and declaring that activities should stimulate evengreater collaboration between institutions so that resources may be shared and communitiesstrengthened. These types of actions recognize that libraries and museums both provideeducational and recreational services to the local community and play important roles in culturalpreservation.27 The Special Libraries Association (SLA) is a nationwide organization for librarians ininstitutions that do not fall under the basic categories of public, academic, or school libraries.The Museums, Arts, and Humanities Division (MAHD) within the SLA specifically representslibrarians working in museums and similar institutions. Like in most special library fields,librarians in MAHD are a small and specialized population. According to a survey performed in1987, most students do not go into library school with the idea of entering the field of museumlibrarianship.28 There is a great deal of encouragement for those who do know they want to gointo museums to pursue “joint degrees or programs that include the study of preservation,archives, NFP organizations, and nonbibliographic information systems and control.”29 Becausethe population is such a small one compared to the more traditional library fields, it has been aslight struggle to get library science programs to offer the kind of services that would best___________________26 Gibson, Hannah 2007 Links between Libraries and Museums: Investigating Museum-Library Collaboration in England and the USA Libri 57:53-64, p. 5427 Gibson, p. 54-5628 Bierbaum, Esther Green. 1988 Museum, Arts, and Humanities Librarians: Careers, Professional Development, and Continuing Education Journal of Education for Library and Information Science 29(2):127-134, p. 12829 Bierbaum, p.133
  11. 11. prepare a student for entry into the world of museum librarianship. However, the SLA has madeeducation a priority within its list commitments and has been willing to work with library scienceprograms to help alleviate the issue. Finally, the promotion of Continuing Education has alsobeen a priority within MAHD in order to lead to the highest degree of professional developmentin museum librarianship.30 Museums and libraries do no exist in entirely separate worlds and there are many routespossible to bridge the gap for those who are interested. Today many library science programsmake that bridge even more easily accessible through the offerings and promotion of jointdegrees and certificates of advanced study. Often upon entering library school, students havevery little idea of what kinds of library jobs are really available to them. Their perceptions areoften limited to the traditional roles of public, academic, or school librarian. However, ifsomeone pursuing a masters degree in library science has even a slight interest in museumstudies, it is becoming easier and easier for them to explore that interest. In a tough economylike the one facing America today, the wider the possibilities within the job market, the lessstressful graduation can become. Even more importantly, however, the opportunity to combine adegree in library science with a position in museums can lead to a much more enriching careerfor those interested. While the actual role of the librarian can be drastically different frominstitution to institution, the possibilities for students with degrees in library science are asdiverse as the students who fill the programs.___________________30 Bierbaum, p.133-134
  12. 12. ReferencesBenedetti, Joan M. ed. 2007 Art Museum Libraries and Librarianship Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, IncBierbaum, Esther Green. 1988 Museum, Arts, and Humanities Librarians: Careers, Professional Development, and Continuing Education Journal of Education for Library and Information Science 29(2):127-134Brooklyn Historical Society 2010 About the Othmer Library accessed June 8, 2011The Brooklyn Historical Society Blog 2011 accessed June 8, 2011Department of Collections Access N.d. accessed June 16, 2011Hansen, Carolyn May 20, 2011 Brooklyn by an other name… accessed June 8, 2011January 11, 2011 Job Posting: Public Services Librarian, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York museum-of-art-new-york/ accessed June 8, 2011Larson, John C. 1985 Museum Librarianship. Hamden, CT: Library Professional PublicationsNational Park Service N.d. Discover History accessed June 13, 2011National Park Service 2010 Bob Hope Memorial Library accessed June 13, 2011Thomas J. Watson Library N.d. Library History accessed June 8, 2011Thomas J. Watson Library N.d. Services accessed June 8, 2011van der Wateren, Jan 1999 The Importance of Museum Libraries INSPEL 33(4):190-198