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.
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.