How similar are libraries, museums and archives?

As Glushko writes, the GLAM sector shares many commonalities in terms of both purposes and aims, type of resources collected and ways of organising them (Glushko, 2013). However, I think these similarities are often overstated and you can often look at other organisations and institutions outside of the sector who share these, whilst there is so much variation within the sector. Here is some of my onservations!

Selecting resources:

I think some libraries share similarities with museums, archives and galleries in selection activities, but I believe there are also quite significant differences depending on the library’s overall mission. Both academic and public libraries hand control (to different extents) over to users to decide what is acquired through reading lists and suggest a resource services. Museums, archives and galleries don’t tend to engage with their users in terms of acquisition decisions. Furthermore, decisions around selection are taken usually upon utility in most libraries, whereas the rest of the GLAM sector appears to focus more on preservation of unique or rare objects. Special collections functions in academic and specialist libraries, may have more in common with museums and archives in this regard.

Organising resources:

Many libraries use standardised classification schemes for organising items both in terms of keeping records of them and where they are physically located, such as the Dewey Decimal System or Library of Congress Classification Scheme. Museums and galleries are notable for not arranging items intended for users to interact by classification schemas. They tend to be organised by individual curators and their teams, usually to tell some of kind of story or theme, or sometimes by physical type, such as the seemingly endless rooms in the British Museum of Greek pottery. This type of activity is termed curation and Glushko discusses curation in his section on maintaining resources (Glushko, 2013). I can’t help feeling that curation is part of organising, particularly since many museums and galleries have permanent exhibitions and galleries.

Interacting with resources:

Most libraries have open stacks and users are free to browse, read and interact with materials without mediation. Archives tend to require mediation and often supervision, in a similar way to the special collections held by some libraries. Museums and galleries tend to allow users to interact without mediation for some of their collection (other items may be in storage) but items are often behind glass or hanging on a wall, often semi-mediated via a description card.

Maintaining resources:

It feels like one of the biggest task in managing a collection in most libraries, particularly public and academic libraries, is weeding and removing stock to create room for new materials that users request. It seems that museums, galleries and archives are more likely to contain unique, rare or precious materials, rather than widely available copies of a work. These organisations tend to be trying to preserve items for cultural memory, whereas a lot of libraries are concerned with currency to support to study and learning.


Glushko, R. J. (2013). The Discipline of Organizing. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

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