Museums and Libraries as Community Catalysts

Posted by Institute of Museum and Library Services on January 16, 2017


The report includes case studies and a discussion of conceptual frameworks that can guide libraries, archives, and museums that seek to spark catalytic change in their communities.

Museums and libraries have long served as place-based hubs for members of the public to engage in informal learning, access collections for educational or aesthetic purposes, and participate in civic dialogue. Across the country, changing community needs and priorities along with new modes of engagement have created an imperative to connect with and serve the public in ways that extend beyond traditional institutional formats and settings. Museums and libraries have begun to respond to this imperative. In so doing, they are connecting with the public in new and deeper ways, strengthening the social and institutional networks that support community well-being, and even acting as catalysts to spark positive change. There is great variety in the museums-and-libraries field that affects how and why any individual institution serves its community and the resources it brings to the table. There are sectoral differences, a primary one being a public-private distinction that has consequences for fiscal stability and the types of engagements institutions pursue. Public libraries are free resources, open to and funded in large part by the public, and typically part of municipal or county governments. On the other hand, museums are often private organizations that charge admission.

There are also important commonalities across the two sectors. Many museum and library professionals noted that sectoral divisions can feel less consequential than staff size, location (urban, rural, or suburban), relationships to other local institutions, and other elements of institutional structure or setting. Institutions also define the communities they serve in different ways: from a strictly geographic understanding (zip code, neighborhood, and city) to communities of experience (new Americans) to communities of interest (historic-car enthusiasts). Despite this diversity, museums and libraries of all shapes and sizes share a number of features that make them well situated as catalysts for positive change: they are embedded in local communities; they have a public service orientation; and they are viewed as community assets.

Together with the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), Reinvestment Fund and the University of Pennsylvania’s Social Impact of the Arts Project surveyed the range of ways museums and libraries of all types strive to address community challenges, on their own or through strategic partnerships, and even spark change.

Read more:

More in "New Resources"

Stay Current in Philly's Higher Education and Nonprofit Sector

We compile a weekly email with local events, resources, national conferences, calls for proposals, grant, volunteer and job opportunities in the higher education and nonprofit sectors.