With the growth of the GLAM movement, there has been more talk about the convergence of galleries, libraries, archives, museums and everything in-between. Working in the Cultural Collections area of an Australian academic library I work at the intersection between these disciplines. Our team contains a hodgepodge of professionals: archivists, librarians, a conservator and an historian. We also regularly collaborate with the campus Gallery Co-ordinator. What do we all have in common? A passion for culture, people, curation and preservation. Our tasks can sometimes overlap but we all have strengths and skill sets that complement each other.
The similarities and differences between GLAM professionals makes for interesting reading. I particularly enjoyed the passion of Archivist Adrian Cunningham in Digital Curation/Digital Archiving: A View from the National Archives of Australia. In this article Cunningham strongly objects to the phrases ‘digital archives’ and ‘digital libraries’ being interchangeable. He states that they are different but both a form of digital curation. While his discussion starts with terminology, his main focus is on how archives work is different from that of museum or library work. He states that ‘archives implement and manage systems for carrying record keeping systems forward across time and domains of use’. Basically for archivists, it is not just about the records but also the contextual relationships surrounding them. Cunningham believes that losing distinctions between information professions is a problem:
“…broad cross-domain collaboration does not serve us well if it means we ignore the vitally important differences between our various professional missions”
– Adrian Cunningham (2008, p 532)
To look at it a different way, a librarian might search for a book that directly meets an information request. An archivist might go to that same book and think about how the book got on the shelf and who owned it before it got there and if there are any bookmarks in the book. A museum curator might think about which illustrations or spread of the book would look nice in an exhibition. A historian might think about the era the book was published in and what it tells us about that era. A conservator might look at the book and think, how much longer will this book last and what can I do to make it last longer? It is true, we are sometimes very different.
The issue here is they could all apply to me depending on what project I am working on. I’m not the only one, this is happening more in our industry than ever before and the word ‘librarchivist’ is starting to appear. It has been noted that this overlapping of tasks is an effect of the rise of digital resources in our professions, something called digital convergence.
A great paper I have recently come across on digital convergence is an essay in a 2014 issue of Library Trends by Paul F. Marty. In it, Marty highlights the ideas of W. Boyd Rayward who was one of the first academics to examine how electronic information is changing the traditional roles of information professionals. In 1998 Rayward predicted that as we move forward there will be less to distinguish between cultural institutions such as archives, libraries and museums. Marty points out the difference between our internal institutional identities and the external identities of how we are viewed by our users. The distinction I made in the above paragraph between how the archivist, the librarian and the museum curator would view a book makes sense to those in the information profession but does not register with our users.
To put us in this perspective let’s look at the example National Library of Australia, National Archives of Australia and National Museum of Australia. All reside in large, impressive buildings in Canberra, all hold items of historical significance and they all have both physical and virtual exhibitions. In fact, I’m sure you would find a large percentage of people employed by those institutions would have a professional equivalent in each of the three institutions. It’s important to point at here that they are NOT the same. They are all wonderful institutions that do fantastic work and each is important. However, what distinction would the average person on the street make between these three institutions? Users are more interested in what services they are provided with at these institutions than the professional title of the person providing that service.
Why is this a big deal? What does this mean for us a professionals? It means that we are all facing the same users and the same issues (Marty, 2014). What it means is:
We have more in common than we admit. We should SHARE more, COLLABORATE more, CO-OPERATE more.
In my professional readings on this topic, I came across an interesting study by Helena Robinson surveying institutions that have converged teams of professionals (2016). It is interesting to note that her research found many negative aspects of cross-disciplinary teams including a decline in specialist skill quality. Considering this perspective highlight’s Cunnigham’s (2008) view that we need to remember what makes us different. I can see that we can LEARN a lot from each other but we should not try to BE each other. There is a fine balancing point between keeping our professions too far apart and bringing them too close together. The good news is, there are already organisations at work doing just this.
The GLAM Peak body is working on finding common ground in joint advocacy of issues that effect all cultural institutions. I’ve also heard rumors of a 2020 GLAM conference in Australia, but what do we do until then? Personally, I’m not just going to keep track of library conferences and library journals, but have a look at what the archivists and museum associations are doing. I’m also going to take every opportunity to work on special projects with other GLAM professionals. Perhaps the easier way to keep track of GLAM issues is on social media. For example, I will be tweeting about this blog tagged with #GLAMblogclub (and I’m sure many of you reading this would have found it that way). I believe that by making these small changes in the way we think about our profession and the way we interact with other professions will help move all of our professions into the future.
Marty, Paul (2014) Digital convergence and the information profession in cultural heritage organisations: reconciling internal and external demands, Library Trends, 62:3, 613-627, DOI:10.1353/lib.2014.0007
Robinson, Helena (2016) ‘A lot of people going that extra mile’: professional
collaboration and cross-disciplinarity in convereged collecting institutitions, Museum Management and Curatorship, 31:2, 141-158, DOI: 10.1080/09647775.2015.1070368