The following report is the result of a two month period of research and shared knowledge with colleagues and many people who assisted me in getting documents and all sorts of information about the Smithsonian Institution's art museums, their libraries and information resources and their main uses.
This survey was addressed to the staff of the following art museums at the Smithsonian Institution, in Washington D.C.: National Museum of American Art, National Portrait Gallery, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, National Museum of African Art, and the Sackler/Freer Galleries. Its main goals were:
1. to identify the information needs and the information-seeking processes of the museum staff, as well as their use of the library's holdings and resources;
2. to evaluate their attitudes and feelings regarding the relationship between the library and the rest of the museum;
3. to examine the kinds of information about permanent collections and about museum programs provided by various museum departments, and to investigate how this information is disseminated within the museum.
This investigation was proceeded by visits to the libraries of the above mentioned museums/galleries and interviews with their librarians, including, whenever possible, the analysis of reports, texts about their projects, services, holdings and, in some cases, library observation and library use. The decision to conduct this survey derived from the idea that user needs, expectations, and opinions are the key elements in redefining the role of the art museum library and in structuring new information systems in this changing environment, during a time of expanding information sources in all forms, new technologies, staffing limitations, and financial constraints.
The four museum libraries included in this investigation are all part of the Smithsonian Institution, but they present different organizational relationships with their parent institutions, as follows.
The National Museum of African Art Library is a branch of the Smithsonian Institution Libraries (SIL), meaning that its staff and collections are maintained by the SIL, and that acquisitions and cataloging are all centralized as well as interlibrary loans. The library supports the museum's research and activities, but is not supported by the museum. The librarian's primary activity is focused on reference services.
On the other hand, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden Library and the Sackler/Freer Galleries Library are completely independent from the Smithsonian Libraries and they do not participate in their online cataloguing system, the Smithsonian Institution Research Information System (SIRIS). These libraries are maintained by their museums/ galleries and the staff is responsible for all technical and reference activities.
The Library for the National Museum of American Art and the National Portrait Gallery has a unique relationship with the Smithsonian Libraries: it participates in SIRIS and part of its technical processes are done there. The SIL also provides these libraries with some financial assistance, although it is maintained by both museums.
Those libraries that are maintained by their museums are differently positioned within the organizational structure of the museum. At the Hirshhorn Museum, the library is subordinate to the Administrative & Museum Support Services; at the Sackler/Freer Galleries, the library, as well as Collections Management, Conservation, Curatorial, and Publication, answers to the Deputy Director. The NMAA/NPG Library has a more complex situation: at the NMAA, it reports to the Research & Scholars Center, side by side with the Research Databases, Image Collections, University Liaison, and Fellowship programs; at the NPG it is subordinate to the Associate Director of Administration, separated from the Curatorial, Conservation, and Education departments.
The four libraries included in this study are very different from one another in size of holdings, staff, and services. The NMAA/NPG Library is the biggest in physical facilities, holdings, and staff, but it also has more users not only because their subject coverage is more extensive than the others, but also because of its policy to serve both staff and public. Other important museum libraries in Washington D.C, such as the National Gallery Library - which is very selective about its users - and local university libraries, send users to them, knowing that they will get good service.
The other libraries are more specialized in their subjects, consequently they don't have many users. In addition, some of them, like the Hirshhorn Library, don't facilitate public access. This sometimes reflects the museum policy, but other times is a consequence of the limitations of library staff and the necessity to prioritize in-house needs.
Some libraries are responsible for the visual resources and archives, such as the Sackler/Freer Library; others deal only with printed materials, such as the Hirshhorn and the African Art libraries, as their museums have special departments for those materials. The Sackler/Freer Library is responsible not only for physical care of the archival as well as the photographic collections, but also for the management and accessibility of information about those collections. In the NMAA, there is a special area, administratively separated from the library, for Image Collections, Slide & Photo Archives, but as it is located on the mezzanine of the library and is coordinated by a librarian, it seems to be very accessible to the users. The majority of the art-related archival collections are sent to the Archives of American Art, although the library does keep some archival collections that don't deal directly with American art, but which may be complementary to the collecting of both the NMAA and the NPG museums and interesting to the library users.
Regarding automation, the above libraries are at different stages of computer use. All of them are trying to make their holdings electronically accessible to the public either using SIRIS (NMAfA and NMAA/NPG libraries) or RLIN - the Research Library Information Network, widely used by American art libraries, and in use at the Sackler/Freer Galleries and the Hirshhorn Museum libraries.
The Sackler/Freer Galleries Library has selected an online public access catalog system with full capability of retrieving and displaying Asian vernacular characters (Chinese/Japanese/ Korean) and its local database has more than 120,000 records. The library is also a participant in the Research Libraries Group International Union Catalog of Chinese Rare Books Project. The bibliographic records are put into the RLIN database and downloaded into the local system on which they are accessible, gradually replacing the catalog cards.
The Hirshhorn Library is still using card catalogs, but has signed an RLIN Service Agreement for Technical Processing and started entering data on RLIN in 1995. According to the Smithsonian Institution Collection Statistics 1995, 2,000 records were already on RLIN.
The NMAfA Library's holdings are processed at the Smithsonian Libraries (SIL), and is responsible for an automated indexing project in African art and culture. The books and periodicals of the NMAA/NPG Library are available on SIRIS, and this library plans to make its vertical files also available online. This is an important decision particularly for contemporary art since it guarantees availability of the marginal literature that sometimes is the only information we can get on a particular artist or art movement.
At the NMAA/NPG, according to the Smithsonian Collections Statistics 1994, an Electronic Resources Center was established within the Library as a bibliographic, image-based and online resource of materials on CD-ROM and online format. In 1995, the library added Internet access for public and staff use at one of the computer workstations. This service is maintained in conjunction with the Coordinator of Image Collections, Slide and Photo Archives, who is also responsible for an online reference service and assists in the training of staff, fellows, and interns in using electronic resources.
The NMAA's Research and Scholars Center, to which are linked both the library and the image collections, offers important services and projects regarding art information and documentation that are relevant information sources both for the museum staff and for the public.
The services provided by the Collection Database Administrator are certainly a stimulus for the use and keeping of the database and also for the planning of new electronic facilities and projects as well as staff training to use the system. Two research databases are particularly relevant: the Inventory of American Paintings and the Inventory of American Sculpture. The former was begun in 1970 and comprises paintings from earliest colonial days to 1914. It includes approximately 250,000 paintings and accompanying photographs for 85,000 of those works. It can be searched online, on SIRIS, and researchers may also have access to the Inventory by telephone or by visiting its office. The Inventory of American Sculpture includes American sculpture in public and private collections and outdoor monuments. There are 58,000 sculpture records already online and approximately 20,000 to be entered, and it is a substantial database in its field.
The NPG administers the Catalog of American Portraits, which contains photographs and documentation for approximately 100,000 portraits of historically significant Americans or portraits by American artists. This information forms an interactive database that provides retrieval capabilities on almost every field of data. In addition, digitized images are being incorporated into the database, beginning with the more than 3,000 images of nationally significant Americans from the NPG's permanent collection.
Although gradually all the surveyed libraries are making their records available online, not all of them participate in the interlibrary loan system on a two-way basis; some libraries only borrow materials, but their publications do not circulate.
This introduction was meant to provide the reader with an overview of the privileged environment where this survey was conducted. Privileged not only because of the quality of the Smithsonian Institution's museum, archive and library collections, but also for the various information projects ongoing and for the competent staff who support them.
A questionnaire was sent to 84 people from staff of the six above mentioned museums and galleries. This sample was chosen mainly from curatorial, conservation, education, and publications areas. The survey was conducted in July/August 1996 and people had only two weeks to return the questionnaires, which might be one of the reasons why only 33% of the people responded to them. The other problem concerns the period in which the survey was conducted, when many people were on vacation.
Understanding the staff's interests and concerns, likes and dislikes, needs and wants, feelings and expectations is essential to providing successful libraries and information services, but the conclusions of this survey relate only to the particular samples chosen. These were, in some of the analyzed museums, too small to be statistically significant to the collected data. However, there was no need for statistical precision at this first stage as it might be viewed as a pilot survey. It is assumed that more important than statistical significance was the possibility of having staff people express their opinions on various issues concerning the library and information flow in the museum, which might be very useful information for art museum library managers and to museum staff involved with information production and dissemination.
Regarding the information needs of the museum staff, it appears that they are fully satisfied with their library's holdings and services, except for some very particular issues which might be easily improved with a more proactive attitude on the side of the museum staff in relation to the development of library collections.
Concerning the types of materials needed and used, it was observed that the staff still use conventional printed and audiovisual materials more than electronic resources for their research. However there are some indications that museum staffs are gradually incorporating new technologies into its work, both as finding tools, such as catalogs and indexes, and as information resources, such as web sites and CD-Roms. More intensive use of those electronic resources depends upon both access and confidence in the medium, which will naturally increase as more positive answers are obtained. The lack of consistency observed in the stated answers and opinions about the use of electronic resources also suggested a new role for the librarians to assume: the responsibility for the electronic resources literacy of the museum staff.
All of the surveyed museums' staff were library users and they all showed very positive feelings in relation to the libraries, frequently referring to them as competent and efficient services. The fact that the majority of them do not want to change their relationship with the libraries might reflect positive feelings about the libraries, but it also might indicate that they do not want their own records disclosed and shared.
The survey confirmed that there is a lot of information kept and produced in the museums that is still invisible to the majority of the staff and to the public: different types of information maintained by different people within the various museums.
As far as information access is concerned, the survey has revealed that, as a whole, the museum staff is not in favor of wider access to information maintained and produced by the museum, yet they are fully favorable to wide access to all library holdings and to library networks so that they can easily get both the information and the documents they need.
Many justifications were reported in this survey for not disclosing information about museum collections to the public. Some of the respondents alleged confidential reasons, others incompleteness of data. However, many of these arguments may be easily refuted: confidential information can be easily protected with limited access - you do not have to keep the whole record hidden! On the other hand, information is dynamic by nature, and that means that it may always be changed as new research and new knowledge are produced. Therefore, the information about the collection reveals what has been found/studied up to a certain moment; it is not the final interpretation of a given work of art! Producing knowledge is always a process: we are always adding new findings and/or modifying previous opinions, and the computer does not freeze information!
Viewing is an activity of transforming the material of the painting into meanings, and that transformation is perpetual: nothing can arrest it... The viewer is an interpreter, and the point is that since interpretation changes as the world changes, art history cannot lay claim to final or absolute knowledge of its object.1
A possible explanation for the reluctance of the curatorial and conservation staff to divulge data about the collections may come from the traditional isolation in which they worked, based in primitive filing systems, with not much information exchange and no commitment to public service. Ownership feelings may arise in a context like that.
Some surveyed people stated that the information produced in the various museum departments are available to researchers and, in some cases, to the public. We know, however, finding information in a museum sometimes means hunting for it at different offices, a situation that is time-consuming for both the staff and the user, and is not always effective, since it is subject to personal or case-by-case rules, schedules and availabilities.
If we do not facilitate access to the information kept by a public institution, we are denying people the right to know about the collection, which is a public heritage. If we agree that the museum is both its physical collections and the information about them - the intellectual collection, the knowledge upon which the museum rests2, we have to be committed to access, meaning that the museums should not only permit but encourage the use of information kept and produced by them.
If we assume this, the whole museum has to cooperate in order to have good information and services, which implies more access to information. This need is much greater today as the museums get larger and some of them turn out to be very complex organizations. As showed in this survey, information is being produced everywhere in the museum, and demand for information has significantly increased. Museum staff will have to change ingrained habits and work together in building this intellectual collection, allowing participation in what they considered to be their own core work.
Wider access to information helps to make that work more widely known, valued, and influential.
In addition, if the collection is recorded on a database, the search possibilities are significantly increased since information can be accessed by multiple forms. Access is provided not only through pre-structured fields, such as subject headings, but also by free searches, such as keyword searches.
It was observed in the survey that the art museums are not developing integrated information policies to face those issues that today have become critical due to easy access to information made possible through the computer and new technologies. Implementation of those policies would be a requirement to guide the information flow at the museum, from its generation to its dissemination, and would have to deal with information recording, control, and ownership.
This survey also showed that the librarians are not fully aware of their role in the museum information system. The libraries - and the librarians - are only a very small part of this information system. They have a very important role to play there, not only because they have been facing information issues like preservation versus access, standardization, and public service but also because they have been working in cooperative ventures since the 1960s. It does not mean that the library would control all the information in the museum, or even centralize it. The library would only be an acting part of an information system which would flow inside the museum and be connected to outside systems and services. This goal would require interdepartmental collaboration, breaking of professional boundaries, and the ability to view information as an integrated resource in the museum.
Information resources should be managed in conjunction with other parts of the museum, in order to avoid duplication of services and records, and to contribute to the museum's effectiveness, productivity and public image.
I wish to thank Nancy Fuller, coordinator of the Fellowships in Museum Practice program, for the confidence in my project, for all the initiatives required to make it happen, and for the friendly reception. I am also very grateful to my helpful and smart adviser, Cecilia Chin, Librarian for the National Museum of American Art/National Portrait Gallery, who was democratic enough not to impose her opinions but secure enough not to hide them, and who helped me a lot in perceiving the Smithsonian art libraries. I also wish to thank the staff of the Research and Scholars Center at the National Museum of American Art, especially Rachel Allen, Mary Ellen Guerra, and Christine Hennessey, with whom I learned about the museum's database projects, and Joan Stahl, who competently added new information to my digital life. I am also grateful to the staff of the NMAA/NPG Library and to other Smithsonian library staff, especially Anna Brooke, Janet Stanley, Lily Kecskes, and Valerie Wheat.
Maria Christina Barbosa de Almeida is Coordinator of the Database on Preservation of Cultural Heritage at the Universidade de Sao Paulo, Sao Paulo, Brasil. This article is based on her final report of her Fellowship in Museum Practice.
2Case, Mary. "What Registrars do all Day." Registrars on Record: Essays on Collections Management. Ed. Mary Case. (Washington, DC: American Association of Museums. 1988.)
Return to start
of Fellowships in Museum Practice
Go to start of the Smithsonian Center for Education and Museum Studies
Return to start
of Fellowships in Museum Practice
Go to start of the Smithsonian Center for Education and Museum Studies