A novel approach - Museums Association

A novel approach

Are flagship libraries, which combine archives, digital facilities and display spaces alongside books, the answer to today’s troubled institutions? Geraldine Kendall investigates
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Geraldine Kendall Adams
The brutalist concrete library that served Birmingham until last year was once described by Prince Charles as looking like the kind of place where books would be incinerated rather than read.

It is unclear what the prince’s feelings are on the new-look Library of Birmingham, which opened in October 2013 and has since become one of the city’s most prominent cultural centres, but hopefully its gleaming facade of aluminium rings appears a little less grim to the royal family.

The Library of Birmingham, which encompasses both a library and the city’s archives, is one of several flagship libraries to have moved to new buildings or undergone significant facelifts over the past couple of years – similar redevelopments opened in Liverpool in 2013 and in Manchester earlier this year.

Conceived and planned in a less austere era, these capital projects were intended to reimagine what a library could be in the 21st century: not just a lender of books, but a civic and cultural hub complete with cafes, exhibition galleries, lecture and activity spaces, and extensive digital resources.

As repositories of knowledge and learning, libraries, archives and museums have always shared much in common, but the opening of these flagship spaces underlines how the work of the three sectors is increasingly aligned.

All are focusing more on public impact and engagement as a means of staying relevant to their audiences. Libraries and archives have been finding more creative ways to showcase their collections, while many museums have taken inspiration from the more relaxed approach to lending and handling in the library sector, as well as innovations in cataloguing and digitisation. 

“We are keen to work closely with other cultural institutions and signpost the material they hold,” says Neil MacInnes, the director of Manchester’s Central Library. “There’s a new willingness to share archives and maximise cultural appreciation for audiences.”

At the same time, there’s little doubt that the financial hardship being experienced by many public museums is mirrored in the other sectors too; for every flagship that opens, tales abound of local libraries closing as councils consolidate all of their provision into a smaller number of buildings.

“We are not seeing just one or two closure proposals, but in some of the bigger cities, possibly more than a dozen libraries,” says Annie Mauger, the chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (Cilip).

A complementary relationship

Given these similarities, and the fact that policy for the sectors has for a long time fallen under a single body in England and Wales, what are libraries, museums and archives doing to collaborate and share their resources, practices and advocacy?

Mauger believes that there is much that they’ve already picked up from each other. “Libraries have learnt a lot from the voluntary sector and museums about entrepreneurialism and partnerships,” she says.

“Public libraries have developed a strong leadership and advocacy profile to government through the Society of Chief Librarians and have been successful in developing collaborative nationwide programmes to upskill staff, particularly in terms of digital skills and leadership,” Mauger continues.

“I am sure that it is a great model for leaders of museums to collaborate in defining their offer across the UK.”

But diminishing capacity is putting this shared learning under strain. “Arts Council England (ACE), while being very positive and supportive, does not have the depth of capacity or capability to devote to the sector,” Mauger says. “Under ACE, libraries and museums have less to do with each other.”

Though there may be a lack of strategic crossover at the top, many libraries have long had informal working relationships with neighbouring museums.

“We work closely with lots of community groups to help them develop skills and access our collections,” says Izzy Mohammed, the audience engagement coordinator at the Library of Birmingham. “The exhibitions they develop with us have gone on to be displayed at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, fully formed.”

Birmingham has run more formal partnerships too, such as Children’s Lives, a Heritage Lottery Fund project between the library, the museum and the University of Birmingham that used collections and research from all three institutions to trace children’s lived experiences from the 18th century to the present day.

“Whole-building approach”

A similar project between the same partners, Suburban Birmingham, brought each institution’s digitised collections together on one website so that audiences could access and search the material more easily.

“With digital it is now much easier to put stuff online in a joint space,” says Siân Roberts, the library’s curator of collections. “There are more chances to bring collections together so that people can see them side by side.”

The centenary of the first world war and the 800-year anniversary of the Magna Carta in 2015 represent opportunities for museums, libraries and archives to coordinate and share parts of their collections digitally alongside each other.

The valuable context that linking collections can bring applies in real life too. “We’ve collaborated with teachers to have schoolchildren here in the morning looking through the archives and then going to see related artefacts in the museum that afternoon,” Roberts says. “It gives them a more rounded view.”

The benefits of this approach are even more apparent in those boroughs that have combined their library and museum services. In Canterbury, the Beaney House of Art and Knowledge, which reopened in 2012 after a major refurbishment, houses the town’s library and art gallery.

“Part of our ethos is to make links under one roof – we take a whole-building app-roach,” says Jo Jones, the director of museums and galleries at Canterbury City Council. “We work together on joint programming to link in with each other’s work. The artistic, creative side is a more prominent feature of what the gallery does, and that can support creativity in the library.”

When the Canterbury-based Children’s Laureate Anthony Browne took a residency at the library last year, the art gallery ran an exhibition based on his stories. Another exhibition, Signs for Sounds, spanned the library and the gallery, displaying books alongside artworks exploring calligraphy.

The collaborative approach also results in a crossover of audiences; library users often add a gallery visit to their outing, says Jones, and the library’s story-time sessions for children now take place inside the gallery.

One institution that is taking a more experimental approach to combining practice is London’s Wellcome Library, which will opened its refurbished Reading Room in February 2015.

Return to the object

The Reading Room is tied to the institution’s academic research library, but has been designed as a dynamic space for the wider public, blending elements of library and gallery methodology to bring the print material held in the institution’s extensive medical collections to life.

Alongside books, prints and drawings, the room displays historical artefacts, such as a 1920s Omniskop x-ray machine, handling objects, games and contemporary artwork. It will also host events and talks that can be proposed by the public.

“We wanted the Reading Room to take the best elements of museums and libraries,” says Simon Chaplin, the Wellcome Trust’s director of culture and society.

“From museums, it’s the power of objects to excite and inspire, and the commitment to engagement that museums do so well. From libraries, it’s the idea that every object can be used – we’ve tried only to put things behind glass when absolutely necessary.”

Although the Wellcome is committed to digitisation, says Chaplin, the Reading Room was purposefully designed to bring the focus back to real books and artefacts.

“By and large we’ve resisted the temptation to fill the Reading Room with touchscreens, and we’ve actually turned many of the digitised prints, drawings, books and manuscripts back into really gorgeous physical facsimiles for our visitors to handle and read,” Chaplin says.

“Creating a place which will sit alongside the research library but will be much more sociable, energetic and active in the way it involves visitors will be a really great complement to our existing offer.”

From metadata…

Qatar Digital Library based at the British Library, London

“There’s a lot of crossover in what museums and libraries are doing with digitisation and a lot they can learn from each other,” says Richard Davies, the British Library’s digital approvals manager.

The British Library has just launched the Qatar Digital Library, a bilingual online portal that gives the public both in the UK and abroad access to the library’s vast Gulf history archives.

The portal’s search facility has been designed to include extensive metadata (such as category tags and keywords) for every single page, so that people can narrow down their searches much more effectively.

“The records from the India office alone take up 14km of shelf space, and you’re still talking percentage points of the overall collection. Metadata is absolutely essential – without it you’re really not maximising the benefits of those resources,” says Davies.

“It is all the information and metadata that goes with the pages that is making this really revolutionary.”

…to materials

Wellcome Library, London

Rather than just providing a straightforward guide to its digitised collections, the Wellcome Library wanted to draw visitors’ attention to its content in a different way.

The library has worked with authors Mike Jay and Anna Faherty, and web design company Clearleft, to create a series of interactive, online stories that act as agents of “provocation and curiosity” and draw out the themes and content of its digitised books and archives.

The first story produced by the library, Mindcraft, will focus on the theme of mind control. The short story blends animation, sound, text and digitised objects to explore how therapies such as mesmerism, animal magnetism and hypnotism developed from the 18th century onwards.

“We devised reusable ‘patterns’ like a Twitter conversation, graphic novel-style storytelling and an ‘infinite canvas’ of objects that could be used to tell the stories in an interactive and fun fashion,” says Danny Birchall, the digital manager at the Wellcome Collection.

“Commissioned animations and a soundscape running through the story make the experience more immersive and engaging.

“The digital stories also allow the curious to dive deeper. Each section of a story is complete with its own references that can be accessed in Wellcome Library’s innovative player.”


The article originally stated that the Wellcome Library's Reading Room reopened in November. In fact it is not due to open until February 2015.

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