Libraries as Museums

Libraries and museums have similar roles in society: both are third spaces (neither home nor work) in which a collection of resources gives the public access to knowledge and ideas. The existence and mission of the Institute of Museum and Library Services reflects the complementary roles that the two share in society.

We think of museums as places to view art or other objects, and libraries as places to borrow books for three weeks at a time. Georgen Gilliam Charnes writes of the seemingly distinct roles of libraries, museums, and archives, “Museums focus on objects; libraries on books; archives on graphic records,” but continues on to say that the three are “estranged siblings” and the distinctions are often blurred. In Washington, DC, Folger Shakespeare Library and the Library of Congress help to blur those boundaries.

Folger Shakespeare LibraryThe publicly accessible portion of Folger Shakespeare Library is comprised of an exhibition space, theater, and Elizabethan garden; the Folger’s website bills the institution as a “world-renowned research center” with a “collection of Shakespeare materials.” Because so much of the collection is literature, the term library makes sense, yet visitors also experience the space as a museum with exhibits featuring a variety of objects. When I visited, I saw the exhibition Lost at Sea: The Ocean in the English Imagination, 1550-1750. This show included objects such as globes and model ships along with print materials. The photo on the right shows a book, which was part of the exhibit, titled Great Britain’s Groans: or, an Account of the Oppression, Ruin, and Destruction of the Loyal Seamen of ENGLAND, in the Fatal Loss of their Pay, Health and Lives, and Dreadful Ruin of their Families.

Great Hall at the Library of Congress

Great Hall at the Library of Congress

Nearby, the Library of Congress’ Jefferson Building is a work of art in itself, considered by many to be the most beautiful building in DC, filled with sculptures, paintings, and a domed ceiling. The exhibits are largely about books (such as the display of Books that Shaped America on view right now), but exhibits about musicians and cartoonists are a reminder that the LOC contains a variety of resources (periodicals, compact discs, etc.), just as your local public library probably does, too.

For the average visitor who walks through the door of the Folger or the LOC, the visit is for all practical purposes a museum visit. The visitor is looking at exhibits and reading wall text; the visitor is not choosing a novel to read on the train and is certainly not touching the books, which are behind glass cases. A serious researcher, of course, can gain access to these institutions’ books through the appropriate channels – and could do the same at the Smithsonian Institution’s libraries or the library at any other museum.


August’s blog theme is Museum Categories.


About Laura

Paralegal with Master of Arts in Teaching in Museum Education, frequent museum visitor, based in Washington, DC. I care about what museums can do, both in terms of public offerings and internal practices, to make the world a better place. I blog about museum education ("informed"), the social work of museums ("humane"), and visitor experience ("citizenry").
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