About The Author

David Grabitske

David Grabitske is the manager of outreach services at the Minnesota Historical Society in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Phillip Torrone offers some insight into what he believes the future of public libraries may be. He begins with an overview of the current state of affairs that is drawn from published sources, and this is quite useful. He then points out other lending options that have existed since the 1970s and may be growing. His assessment after all is written for the e-zine “Make.”

His blog post calls to mind the admonition that so go public libraries, so also go museums. Historical organizations most often operate research libraries, which have some similarities to public libraries, but important differences.

There are some important differences, too, in the data. Whereas he estimates 9,000 public libraries in the United States, the American Association of Museums estimates approximately 17,000 museums. Whereas public libraries circulate most of their warehoused collection, museums generally do not circulate their collections – library, archives, or three-dimensional. Whereas public libraries generally facilitate access to a very broad spectrum of knowledge, historical research libraries are often highly focused.

However, with the advent of iPad, Xoom, Kindle, and other means of electronic reading, it is not hard to see public demand for access to historical collections through download. Digitization costs something, as does maintaining the digital files created. With historical research libraries often supported far more minimally than public libraries, how the cost of digitization might be absorbed is hard to imagine. It’s probably unlikely that the going rate of 99 cents per downloaded book will cover costs.

What Torrone points out, however, is not only applicable to historical organizations operating museums and research libraries, but it is what successful organizations have long been doing. Namely, people want to be able to do something at the organization. This is why the Local History News e-newsletter has a permanent feature called “Do History Here,” highlighting events at local historical organizations. People want to be participants – so what kinds of things will local historical organizations have to offer in the future?

The future is an undiscovered country. Certainly public libraries are forging a path into that wilderness ahead of historical organizations. That’s fine, just so long as historical organizations pay attention to lessons learned.

So, do you think the warehouses of historical evidence will become obsolete? How might historical organizations ensure relevance of their collections?

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3 Responses to Relevant Warehouses

  1. Mary Warner says:

    Okay, here’s a thought experiment for you.

    Let’s close all the museums in the United States, even the biggies like the Smithsonian Institution and the Minnesota Historical Society, and sell all their collections to private citizens.

    What will be missing from society at large? What will communities be missing? What would you miss as an individual?


  2. […] sparked by the Minnesota Historical Society regarding its Local History Blog post about “Relevant Warehouses,” readers were asked, “Beyond altruistic reasons, what kinds of hardnosed reasons are […]

  3. Several bloggers and columnists have taken on the issue of the information divide recently. While a book may only cost 99 cents to download, the reading device costs considerably more. Those who have will have more, those who don’t have much are likely to wind up with nothing at all. Although museums need to do more to attract people who have been under-represented in local history, I think that they have both the capability and the will to do that.

    And, as someone who frequents museums a lot, I appreciate having a lot of information on line. It is not, however, the same thing as looking at (and holding) the original.


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