Central entrance Brooklyn Public Library (image courtesy Brooklyn Public Library)

At a time when museums are being held accountable by a variety of publics for every aspect of their operations — from programming and exhibition-making to financial support and governance structures — perhaps it is useful to look at parallel institutions that are doing similar work for guidance on alternative ways of working.

I have spent a great deal of time thinking about the relationship between museums and public libraries, to understand what makes libraries feel different from museums. Why do they have a public spirit that most museums don’t? Why are there lines around the block at some NYC library branches at 9 am? I’ve been reading about the roots of both institutions in the United States, and they have evolved in similar ways; so how do they diverge? And is this divergence relevant to the ways in which a stunningly broad swath of society feels welcome within a public library and not a museum?

The grand lobby of the Brooklyn Public Library (all images courtesy Brooklyn Public Library and all by Gregg Richards unless otherwise noted)

John Cotton Dana, the Progressive Era thinker and radical re-imaginer of public libraries, wrote a particularly important essay in 1917 titled “The Gloom of the Museum.” It includes a section about expertise that is particularly germane today:

They become enamoured of rarity, of history … They become lost in their specialties and forget their museum. They become lost in their idea of a museum and forget its purpose. They become lost in working out their idea of a museum and forget their public. And soon, not being brought constantly in touch with the life of their community … they become entirely separated from it and go on making beautifully complete and very expensive collections but never construct a living, active, and effective institution.

Museums and libraries in the US originated in similar places and via similar patronage models with their foundational collections coming largely from wealthy collectors of books and art objects, sometimes in conjunction with institutions of higher learning. However, the word “public” remains embedded in what we call the library. And while some branches are named for generous funders, these are secondary to the overall system. In fact, the Queens Public Library system, the largest in the nation, boasts of a branch within a mile of every Queens resident.

Kameelah Janan Rasheed: “Scoring the Stacks” (2019)

It is with these thoughts in mind that I spoke with Cora Fisher, Curator of Visual Art Programming, and Jakab Orsos, Vice President of Arts and Culture, at the Brooklyn Public Library (BPL). Orsos and Fisher center accessibility within an intellectual framework, which seems to me a core tenet that makes an indelible imprint on all their work. This focus is also related, perhaps, to the ways in which the BPL audiences see the library as a repository of ideas, and of public information, rather than one of expertise. In this way, when BPL explicitly presents issue-driven programs, audiences might encounter these as participants rather than as recipients of knowledge. In Fisher’s words, when she and Orsos imagine programs for the library, they are “visioning an active civic body,” that not only desires engagement with the subjects explored, but also expects the library to engage particular issues with intent and via a specific perspective.

Kameelah Janan Rasheed: “Scoring the Stacks” (2019)

This clarity around intention and transparency of outlook is an essential aspect of the distinction between museums and libraries, and is based in a particular poetics of engagement. Take for example Kameelah Janan Rasheed’s project, Scoring the Stacks, which was displayed at BPL’s Central Library from January through April 2019. Rasheed is an artist, a poet, and a pedagogue, and therefore among the most ideal artists to be embedded within the library. Her project knit together the infinite possible paths of knowledge that can be charted with the resources of a library. By creating a repository of colored index cards with some simple instructions, she invited library patrons to create their own skein of knowledge, partially by chance, as they followed the instructions interspersed throughout the library’s collections and stacks. They noted their paths on the note cards, carbon copies of which preserved their paths for others to peruse. Each became a “score” of a particular experience informed by artistic suggestion, chance encounters, personal interests of the participant, and myriad other vagaries that shaped each strand of the work. She also conducted numerous workshops that brought people together in co-authoring pop songs and poetry, as well as choreographing movement, all by using texts found in the stacks.

Kameelah Janan Rasheed: “Scoring the Stacks” (2019)

To my mind, this kind of effort is about more than participation and co-creation. Orsos says,

As a public space our job is about enhancing people’s willingness to raise questions and feel uncomfortable. A true public space is constantly negotiating knowledge or the lack of it, rather than presenting a position of expertise. And we in turn have to be open to pushback.

In this context, intentionally conceived programming draws a person into the library as a space of collective public knowledge — not only as a reader but as an author as well. In this sense, the library is a space of collective knowledge creation as well as a site of exchange and storage. One example of how this works is a forthcoming initiative taking place throughout 2020. Envisioned as a civic exercise in advance of the US presidential election, the 28th Amendment Project will invite the people of Brooklyn to imagine what should be added to or omitted from the US Constitution. Comprising negotiations and workshops that take advantage of the dispersed conditions of the library branches, participants will think together about the role of the US Constitution historically and in the present day. They can collectively critique and augment existing documents, while forging a possible alternative, which would not only be compiled but then ratified by the participants. This new 28th Amendment will then be released to the public a few weeks before the elections on behalf of the people of Brooklyn alongside a participatory art project by Sheryl Oring titled, “I wish to say,” a performance which invites people to dictate postcards to the president.

From Score to Speculative Lit. Participants collectively author a text.

I imagine these 28th Amendment Project workshops, among other projects constructed by the Brooklyn Public Library, as spaces of mutual learning and engagement, around the civic, the personal, and the poetic. I am increasingly convinced that cultural spaces can, should, and must host these kinds of gatherings, acknowledging not only how institutions choose to relate to the issues at hand but also intentionally engaging with these issues so that they can be hashed out in public. Rather than spaces of abstracted expertise, the cultural sphere should perhaps be perceived by the public as a zone in which to negotiate what we may not agree on. Fisher aptly summed up this perspective when she said the BPL’s “goal and the ethos [in art and public programming] is about being subversive, cultivating curiosity, engaging in democracy.” How better to achieve this goal than to sit in the midst of millions of stories and histories, trying to collectively make some sense of the world in which we live? And with 59 branches throughout Brooklyn, the BPL seems an excellent place to start.

Laura Raicovich is a New York-based writer and curator. Most recently, she co-curated Mel Chin: All Over the Place, a multi-borough survey of the artist's work, and served as the director of the Queens...

11 replies on “Why Libraries Have a Public Spirit That Most Museums Lack”

  1. I greatly admire this commentary, for it is original, boldly suggestive and on first reading extremely plausible. Too much art writing repeats the cliches. Here we get a really novel account that opens up discussion. To respond personally, in Pittsburgh, yes I go to the Carnegie Museum but it’s the Carnegie library that warms my heart, for it has proven supple in serving so many people. It’s crowded whenever I visit, I love that students are there, older people using computers, and, yes, people reading. It’s the friendliest space I have ever visited. Stop for 10 seconds and you’ll be talking to a librarian. I love that! This gifted author inspires reflection, I’m going to look now for more of her writing and ai will reread what she says here. So I thank her.

  2. The contrasting fates of libraries vs. museums is explained in part by their funding models. States, counties, and/or municipalities accept the responsibility to fund public libraries.

    There is no corresponding consensus about funding museums. Most of them struggle year-round to cobble together
    enough grants, earned income, corporate support, and individual philanthropy to keep the doors open. Chronic precarity inhibits risk-taking and promotes inoffensive programming & exhibits.

    There’s another factor separating museums from libraries. The dominant museum ethic in regard to their collections is security and protection. The dominant library ethic in regard to their collections is access and sharing.
    The result is divergent if not opposing professional cultures, with divergent downstream effects in what should be allied institutions.

  3. I wish all libraries had “arts and culture” staff! I’m going to ask our library system if they will consider such a thing!
    Museums are, unfortunately, exclusive whereas libraries are inclusive. Museum need to take a page from the library playbook.

  4. Public libraries are indeed wonderful, accessible, and valued institutions. However, this article irresponsibly overlooks the important and inspiring work pursued by many museums throughout the United States working hard to address the issues raised here, and doing so successfully.

    1. Maybe you could name them and say what they’re doing. I can name the museums an ordinary person can get into free (except of bullying — even the Met does that) on the fingers of one finger.

    2. I would only add that, contrary to the author’s superficial discussion of the similar origins of museums and libraries and the exceptionally complex historical differences governing their evolutions (i.e. public versus private funding; central-city urban presence versus city branches and rural connectivity; conservation and permanence versus reprint and replacement), most museums today (as noted by Brian H) are more accessible and welcoming than ever before. Admission fees continue to pose significant barriers for many, especially families, but museums are increasingly committed to free days and hours, as well as outreach programs and online accessibility to their permanent collections, exhibitions and educational programs. A few innovative programs like the Terra Foundation and Crystal Bridges Museum “Art Bridges” initiative are developing models that one day might extend libraries’ inter-library book loans to sharing museum collections. And many libraries are engaging with their local communities in efforts to celebrate, preserve, protect, and present the arts. Rather than complain about the differences between these two complementary public educational institutions we need to find ways they can each be supported and celebrated for what they do in different ways to enhance lives and communities.

  5. Museums have a preservation mission, along with their education mission. In a public library, you can just grab something from the shelf, check it out and take it home. Public library collections hold very little that can’t be replaced.

  6. Instead of simply extolling what public libraries are doing, this author appears to have used the article to join in the open season on museums we’re currently experiencing. She quotes from a 100-year-old critique but apparently interviewed no museum staffers and offers no original insights on museums, at least not in this piece. There are numerous reasons why museums and public libraries have different public interfaces and perceptions. One reason why museums don’t typically have long lines outside the door is because they don’t have banks of public-access computers that are first-come, first served. And lumping all museums together as ivory-tower elite institutions is not helpful; museums are at least as varied as libraries.

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