What Museums can Learn from Libraries

Museums and libraries are like sister institutions, descended of the same parent–the love of knowledge.  However, like siblings, there are as many things that connect them as separate them.  Both have collections. Both value education. Both serve the same general public. And, yet, there are so many differences.

Why Libraries?

First, let’s think about scale. There are 850 million visits  to museums annually.  If you take that attendance number spread out for all museums, museums have an average of 2400 people a year.   Public libraries, on the other hand, have 1.5 billion people visit their buildings, which is 4 million people a day, or an average of 166,660 people for each library. They circulated 835.6 million children’s books in 2013, or almost 12 books per child. In other words, libraries got museums beat in terms of sheer numbers, that also means, they have  a good deal of experience making patrons happy.  What can museums learn from these patron-serving powerhouses?

5 Things Libraries do Well

1. An Institution is Not a Building:

Most museums are a place where people go for a visit. they go to a special building to access special artifacts. The building itself is almost a stand-in for the institution. Libraries have a sort of franchise model. One library system might have dozens of buildings, mobile trucks, carts, etc. The built structure as a space might hold the collection, but it doesn’t contain it. The collection is beyond the building.

2. Collections are Shared: 

Museums collections are held in trust in the building of the museums, where visitors go to experience the authentic object. Library books, their collection, are meant to be shared. Far from being unique, these books are easily replaced (except special collections). A physical book can hold as much meaning as its digital simulcra.

3. One Size doesn’t Fit All and it’s Cool:

Libraries serve many people by meeting them where they are. They give you resources onsite and online.  Once you get your library card, you could be a weekly patron yet never walk into the library building. Yet, your digital checkouts still make you a member of the community. And, that e-book version of Moby Dick has as much whale-y goodness as the paper one.

4. Libraries are There for You:

Libraries are  often positioned as places that serve patrons. Librarians help you find books and help you get answers to your questions. Their programs are responding to the needs of patrons. In other words, libraries are the ideal user-centered  public institution.

5. Libraries are Free and You Know it:

You don’t hear people say they don’t “get” libraries, in the way that people say that they don’t “get” museums.  But, libraries have their messaging right. Most libraries have the word “public” in their name. There is no doubt who the audience is–everyone. People don’t wonder if they might need to pay.  People get it–libraries are free.