Compare the following statements.
[These institutions] will be primary sites for civic dialogues about community interests and the policies that affect communities. They will be one of the most powerful agents in helping all children understand the future and ensuring they are prepared to take leadership roles in various sectors. . . . [These institutions] provide common experiences for diverse audiences, serving as safe public spaces for civic dialogue.
And this one:
Throughout the country, [these institutions] are rekindling civic engagement, promoting greater citizen participation, and encouraging increased involvement in community problem-solving and decision-making by developing community partnerships, facilitating local dialogue, and disseminating local data. These efforts are likely to garner greater community support and position [these institutions] as even more essential community-based institutions.
Which of the above is talking about libraries and which is talking about museums? This overlapping? competing? view of these institutions is something I think bears some further exploration.
I am absolutely in favor of examining the convergences of libraries, archives, and museums–there’s no doubt in my mind that there are huge areas of overlap and expertise to share among these institutions. That, I know from working the front lines of all three kinds of institutions.
But there’s still something that bothers me about the terrain that public libraries and museums seem to be staking out in terms of what they’ll “be” to their communities moving forward, especially with regard to what might be termed their non-traditional (which is not to say non-essential) roles in the communities they serve.
It’s as if planners (or marketers) for both kinds of institutions decided “Well, we’re not going to get anywhere if we stick with our core missions–what else can we offer our communities? Hey, we’ve got the space–we’ll bill ourselves as de facto community centers! That’ll bring the kids to our doors.” I find myself wondering if there is a demand for such a role, especially in regards to museums, or if it’s a “if we build [our idea of what we could be], they will come.” And if the latter is the case, are libraries and museums in danger of stepping on one another’s toes? Which should be the go-to organization to fulfil these needs? Is there such a thing as “should” in this case? Could it be both?
Having just said that, I do know it’s deeply unfair to many institutions that long have been and will continue to be very much at the heart of their civic life, as both participants and as venues. Public libraries, especially, have long served as meeting hosts for a wide array of organizations in their communities. However I would venture to say, though I’m certainly happy to be wrong, that a civic organization in need of a meeting space would probably think of their public library before their museum.
So does that mean museums shouldn’t try to stake a claim to that terrain, or that both museums and libraries are wrong to venture down the road of expanding their roles in their communities? Emphatically not! My main concern is really that museums and libraries might be trying to, as I commented to Suzanne Fischer, compete for the same piece of the civic pie instead of shooting for complementary pieces.
To be sure, museums and public libraries in every community will have different relationships to one another and to the communities they serve. Add to that the fact that each will also be able to offer different sorts of amenities, services, perspectives, and kinds of hospitality, and there is of course room for both kinds of institutions to be involved. Which is better for museums, libraries, AND the communities they serve.
So to the questions: is there a conversation worth having on this particular point? How do museums and libraries each serve as contributors to discussions of and as platforms for civic engagement? Is there a danger of collision?
Oh, and for the record, the first quote above is from the American Association of Museums‘ discussion paper, “Museums & Society 2034: Trends and Potential Futures.” The second is from “Libraries Promote Civic Engagement” by Nancy Kranich, Past President, American Library Association.