Monday, March 7, 2011

Museums and Libraries

Minneapolis Central Library public opening

When museums and libraries were brought together in one departmental home at the Institute for Museum and Library Services in 1996, the increased value of their pairing escaped me. Less than two decades of partnerships and collaborations have revealed the enormous potential in bringing these two sibling institutions together.

The numerous museum and library pairings that came across my desk and screen last week serve as a kind of snapshot of the two siblings at 15 years. On Monday, the Queens Borough Public Library sent a progress report on Science In The Stacks interactive exhibits in their Children’s Discovery Center. A CHILDMUS posting, also on Monday, queried about designing indoor and outdoor learning spaces for children in a brand new university library. On Wednesday, Maeryta Medrano explored the convergence of museums and libraries on Gyroscope’s Museums Now blog. At last Friday’s meeting of our Twin Cities Museum Collaborative, examples of museum-library partnerships across the Twin Cities and the state were highlighted.

This sampling in just one office suggests that museum-library partnerships are active, varied, and productive. The architects of a federal institute for both museums and libraries recognized the potential of this pair of civic stalwarts to accomplish more together. Recently IMLS leadership has deliberately encouraged this with projects such as the 21st century skills project. Local bases, institutional variety, extensive resources and expertise, shared agendas, and a commitment to increase access fuel a range of activities and public good. In the process, museums and libraries themselves are changing.

A quick scan of museum and library activities suggests clusters in three areas: partnering for impact, cross-pollinating, and exploring new territory. Not crisp-edged clusters, they nevertheless invite reflection and provoke thoughts on the next 15 years.

Partnering for impact
In joining forces, museums and libraries act on institutional goals and address community priorities. Bringing together complementary approaches, expanded resources, and overlapping networks, they focus on increasing community access to information and cultural resources to enhance social cohesion and develop 21st century skills.

  • Encouraging museum and library usage. Library systems across the country offer museum passes to check out at branch libraries. In Chicago, Boston, Manchester (NH), Tacoma (WA) and many other cities, library users can check out a museum pass for free or reduced admission at local museums, zoos, nature centers, and aquaria. Pass programs encourage library users to get a library card and use the library; they reduce cost barriers to visiting local arts and cultural attractions. The Museum Adventure Pass in the Twin Cities extends the museum experience with an invitation to pass users to share a story about their museum adventure on line.       
  • Building public value. Museum-library partnerships form to increase public value by building social cohesion and meeting local challenges. The Salinas Public Library and the National Steinbeck Center partnered with other Salinas (CA) organizations on a project aimed at reviving the community’s civic life. ECHO Lake Aquarium and Science Center (Burlinton, VT) partners with Vermont and Upstate New York Library systems and the Vermont Center for Folklife to facilitate public engagement to change personal behavior and reduce human impact on regional water quality. As part of a national Age in America project, museums and libraries in Hartford (CT) have developed a framework for understanding and engaging their changing community through art and oral history.
Book-based math in Go Figure!
  • Growing 21st Century skills. Museum-library projects like Go Figure! help both museums and libraries accomplish significant outreach goals as well as advance 21st century skills. In partnership with the American Library Association, Minnesota Children’s Museum created an interactive book-based math exhibit. Two versions of the exhibit, a larger one for museums and a smaller one for libraries, toured the country. Seventy libraries, many in small, rural communities, hosted their first exhibit; virtually all libraries hosted their first interactive exhibit.

The complementary approaches that traditionally have distinguished museums and libraries have also become qualities each institution has borrowed from the other to enhance its value. In the last decade, museums have grown their book-based assets. Libraries, especially children and youth divisions, have rethought experience and environments, taken a look at developmental approaches, and increased programs.
  • Creating an environment. Cotsen Children’s Library at Princeton University introduced Bookscape, a children’s library space and reading gallery around 2000. Sensory rich with life-size (and larger-than-life) characters, objects, and story settings, it shares similarities with the immersive environments, interactive components, props, and costumes in many children’s museums. With an interest in engaging children in play and exploration, as well as looking at and borrowing books, other children’s libraries, including Bloomfield Hills (MI), Toledo (OH), and Fairfield (CT) re-thought the environment’s role in sparking children’s interest in language, stories, and books. 

Fairfield, CT Children's Library; design and photo by Argyle Desing, Inc.
Many library projects show how the lively, experience- based design in museums is informing the design of public library spaces, especially for children and teens. Interactive science exhibits will be integrated with books on the same topics in the Children’s Discovery Center at the Queens Library. Play and Learning Stations (PALS) at the Rancho Cucomonga Library (CA) were designed by Gyroscope as self-contained activity centers among the stacks to bring play into the library . At the Evanston Public Library (IL) ArchitectureIsFun worked with teens’ design ideas to reinvent an underutilized space and create Teen Loft.
  • Adding a developmental perspective. When Minneapolis Central Library started to plan its new building in 2002, it also chose to rethink its children’s library. On that project, I worked with the children’s librarians and Michael Joyce of Argyle Design, Inc. to build a master plan around children’s literacy development and the critical role adults have in modeling, nurturing and supporting literacy–even with infants. The master plan and literacy development framework guided design of the children’s library in the Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects project.
  • Libraries in museums. On the flipside, museums have been adding book-based spaces as strategic assets since at least the early nineties. In 2000 The Children’s Museum (Indianapolis) opened InfoZone, a branch of the city-county public library. The Parent Resource Library at Children’s Museum of Houston is a branch of the Houston Public Library. In addition to these more extensive book-based assets are book nooks, designated reading areas with children’s book nooks, and more extensive resource areas like Boston Children’s Museum’s Center for Community Learning

Amsterdam Library's children's area
These examples suggest a kind of migration, perhaps the convergence that interests Maeryta. The best example of this I have seen is the new Amsterdam Public Library. In addition to the inviting stacks and computer stations, the Library also includes a cafĂ©, art work, comfortable reading areas, craft rooms, and natural history objects including a giant stuffed Polar bear. 

Exploring new territory
Partnering produces changes for partners and for their communities. Deepened institutional relationships, shared agendas, sharpened knowledge about the community and its priorities, and awareness of trends and societal shifts point to new ways libraries and museums can join forces and create value on behalf of their communities.
  • Becoming the Third Place. Socially-oriented institutions, museums and libraries are places where people meet and connect, access and share information. This is what Ray Oldenburg in The Great Good Place has called the Third Place, a public space neither home nor work, where people gather for social interaction and engagement. While museums and libraries somewhat readily exemplify the Third Place, their communities need them to be deliberate in deciding how to develop into the Third Place of the future.
  • Invigorating education. Museums and libraries are positioned on the learning landscape to be more visible players in the learning lives of children and youth. Attractive as informal learning settings with programs and camps and providing access to technology and homework help, museums and libraries contribute to out-of-school learning that supports in school learning as well as life-long learning.
  • Forming hybrids. Continued cross-pollination of museums and libraries is likely to produce greater convergence. Museums and libraries may be conceived of and planned differently to respond to changing community priorities. These may not simply be expanded partnerships, but actually incorporate a third or fourth component such as a lab, a think tank, a school, or a theater, or an, as-yet, unknown unit.

The territory ahead is wide open. It is as vibrant as the institutions themselves; as varied as their cities and towns; and as new as imagination and inspiration makes it. IMLS is thinking ahead about the future of museums and libraries …and so are museums and libraries. What about you?
-        What changes have you seen in your museum-library partnership(s) over the last decade?
-        Where do you see possibilities emerging for greater impact?
-        What new territory ahead inspires you?



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