Skip to content

The Future is Collaborative Part II: Early Exemplars

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog

This is the second guest blog post by Günter Waibel, Program Officer at OCLC Research on the convergence of libraries, archives and museums (LAMs.) Read part I here.

When OCLC Research recently studied LAM convergence through a workshop series (see the report Beyond the Silos of the LAMs: Collaboration Among Libraries, Archives and Museums), we found that every single institution we visited had the ambition to create a single search across all of the varied collections under its jurisdiction. The Smithsonian Institution, one of the locations for our workshops, recently released the Collection Search Center, where 2 million records with over 275K multimedia files from Smithsonian libraries, archives and museum flow into a common online space. The process of building this single search interface created a new understanding of LAM systems, descriptive strategies and curatorial traditions, and for the first time positions the Smithsonian to comprehensively communicate the wealth of its 19 museums, 18 archives, 1 library (with 20 branches), 1 zoo and 9 research centers beyond the boundaries of its individual unit websites. And lest you think that single search is only for largest museum complexes or the Minnesota Historical Society (a veteran of single search), check out the Magnes Museum’s LAM collection search, as well as the Historic New Orleans Collection and the Autry National Center.

While discussions around LAM collaboration often focus on access, the financial benefits of jointly shouldering infrastructure investments bear close scrutiny as well, particular in tough economic times. For instance, LAMs all have made a sizable investment in producing digital content—however, over time that initial investment is dwarfed by the costs of managing these assets, and preserving them for the long term. As the report by Sustainable Economics for a Digital Planet by the Blue Ribbon Taskforce on Sustainable Digital Preservation and Access demonstrates, preservation is costly and depends on mobilizing an intricate web of players with different incentives and capabilities. In recognition of the fact that joint infrastructure investments will move LAMs into the future, Yale University (depending on how you count, home to at least 22 LAMs, including three major museums) has created an Office of Digital Assets and Infrastructure, which currently investigates not only single search for the campus, but central digital asset management as well as digital preservation. The Yale Center for British Art, the Yale University Art Gallery and the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History are prominent players in all of these endeavors.

Digital as well as physical infrastructure has been a catalyst for collaboration at the University of Calgary, where a new building in the heart of campus (The Taylor Family Digital Library) will unite the campus LAMs, as well as various student services, under a single roof. The library, archive and museum staff have been administratively integrated into a single Libraries & Cultural Resources unit. Under the themes of staffing, research, learning services, technology, outreach and collections, cross-domain working groups created reports charting the possibilities of a converged future. You can find an overview of all this work in this article by Peggy White. Naturally, single search is on the top of the to-do list at Calgary, and OCLC Research facilitated a two-day discussion about the goals and features of one-stop searching. In the US, the State Libraries, Archives and Museums of Alaska are on a similar trajectory: the departments have been administratively integrated since 1991 – however, only with the imminent creation of an integrated facility did the LAMs finally come together around shared functions and interests, as Sarah Barton outlined during an MCN panel presentation last year. The University of Calgary and the State Libraries, Archives and Museums of Alaska are a striking example of the energy engaging in the vision of a shared future releases.

Skip over related stories to continue reading article

In summary, the model of a single library, archive or museum alone seizing the opportunities (access) or shouldering the burdens (example: digital preservation) of the networked age are doomed to fail. While you don’t all have to move in with each other right away, think about the benefits collaboration can bring to your institution: it is transformative because it will enable us to give our users what they are clamoring for – for example, access on the scale of the digital hubs which dominate their lives. It will leave your brain and pocket-book free to invest in what you do best, and let your collaborations carry you over the finish line for the rest. To flog my example one last time, museums aren’t in the digital preservation business, they are in the exhibition, education and jaw-dropping business. While we may not yet have the right policy and social conditions in place to make the leap to the national knowledge commons or related digital infrastructure investments, you should absolutely try collaboration at home, LAM or otherwise. The current activities in the local context of common administration are fertile ground on which broader common interest collaborations among independent LAMs can grow.

n.b.–On September 20-21, 2010, a forum on collaboration, created by OCLC Research, planned by library, archive, museum professionals, and hosted by the Smithsonian, will explore how to create a more collaborative culture.

AAM Member-Only Content

AAM Members get exclusive access to premium digital content including:

  • Featured articles from Museum magazine
  • Access to more than 1,500 resource listings from the Resource Center
  • Tools, reports, and templates for equipping your work in museums
Log In

We're Sorry

Your current membership level does not allow you to access this content.

Upgrade Your Membership



  1. Günter Waibel makes thoughtful observations in his guest posts about the political, policy and commercial barriers to building a global (even a national) knowledge commons.

    Equally, he properly recognizes that what can be done now is to nurture collaboration initiatives in the LAM space, and document that experience to forge "practice" level skills and thinking, preparing leaders to take more risk on larger initiatives going forward.

    But if we take the 2034 time window that CFM established for itself from its earlier research work, I believe that it useful to begin now to scope a global knowledge commons, as well as barriers to be faced in building it.

    In doing so, we hopefully can inform and energize the coming generations to overcome those barriers, build such a commons, and realize its promise…

    David R Curry
    Managing Principal

  2. While funding opportunities are often tied to national borders, I too feel that we should look past those borders in search of global collaboration and exchange.

  3. Hi David & George,

    you'll get no argument from me about that – cultural heritage doesn't stop at the borders. I was emphasizing local action particularly because that's where the incentives to individuals and their employers are the clearest. The incentives for global action as of yet are wrapped up in rhetoric about utility/users at the network level. As you know, I think that this rhetoric points to something real and vitally important, but we've got a little way to go before those arguments would spring senior administrators / museum directors / policy makers into actions. Until that time comes, don't delay – go out and tend to the LAMs in your backyard, your state, and whatever consortia you're a part of.


    P.S.: By the way, the global aggregation is already much more of a reality in the natural sciences, where the Global Biodiversity Information Facility, created by a governmental MoU of 17 countries (initial signators), coordinates activities.

  4. Very eye-opening. I was unaware of all these examples of single search but they're really encouraging, and as you say they're the necessary first steps before we try to leap to a grand global catalogue of everything.
    I really like your last paragraph, not least "museums aren’t in the digital preservation business, they are in the exhibition, education and jaw-dropping business." Bravo! We must always remember what we're all about and place that above the mechanisms for achieving that.

  5. great post, Günter…glad to see Magnes made its way into your vernacular…can't wait to see what unfolds in the University setting for them and the ripples on Campus.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe to Field Notes!

Packed with stories and insights for museum people, Field Notes is delivered to your inbox every Monday. Once you've completed the form below, confirm your subscription in the email sent to you.

If you are a current AAM member, please sign-up using the email address associated with your account.

Are you a museum professional?

Are you a current AAM member?

Success! Now check your email to confirm your subscription, and please add to your safe sender list.