Saturday, August 14, 2010

A Matter of Image

As a museum-ite, I was immediately drawn to a post on the Center for the Future of Museums' blog entitled "Librarians. Sheesh." This great title pretty much sums up the relationship between museum workers and librarians. In principal, our fields are very similar - we both spend our time ensuring the long-term preservation of things and making those things more accessible to people who want to experience them. In practice, we're pretty much different species. One sure-fire way to piss off a collection manager is to say, "Oh, I get it; you're like a librarian, right?"

Librarians and collection managers are uneasy allies. At some level, we collection managers have never really forgiven librarians for realizing the importance of information management before we did. I sit in meetings with librarians and sigh as they rattle off references to metadata standards and authorities in a manner suggesting that all confusion and randomness has been removed from their professional lives. I get round this by telling myself that my collections data are much more complex than theirs (it's a book, for chrissakes - how much metadata can it have?), as are the uses that we put them too, and that this makes them resistant to standardization. I don't say this with much conviction, because I can't get over the sneaking suspicion that librarians may just be better information managers.

Anyway, this delightful post by AAM staffer Lauren Silbermann was actually about how librarians have again stolen a march on museum-ites by spreading, virally, across cyberspace with a series of YouTube videos, blogs, etc., all promoting the idea that libraries and their guardians are a hip, trendy, pop-culture phenomenon. She illustrates this with a video produced by students and faculty at the University of Washington's Information School (boy, even the library schools have trendy names these days) in which they parody Lady Gaga's "Poker Face." I think they are supposed to be challenging stereotypes of librarians, although if you asked me to come up with a stereotype for a librarian I'd probably say "mostly female; highly-educated; liberal in outlook (personally, professionally, and politically); and more likely than not to sport some form of body modification (tattoo or piercing)" [see above for evidence]. In other words, not a million miles away from what's on display in this video.

Anyway, Lauren's contention is that it's high time that we museum people got on-line with some museum-orientated fun that would make us more accessible and pop-culture-friendly to Joe Public. It's a compelling argument, if only because of my secret desire to get in the face of librarians, but, with all due respect to Lauren, I'm going to offer a counter opinion.

To start, let me share a conversation I had with my brother some years ago. Pete, who is a physician, was asking me what I actually did at the museum, so I told him about a project we were working on to recurate our bat collection. We had around 125,000 specimens of bat and we were re-jaring fluid specimens, tying on new labels, checking IDs, updating our database records, etc. I remember a look of wonder spreading across his face, and I thought to myself (in the rather pathetic manner typical of younger brothers) "wow, he's really impressed." When I got to the end there was a pause. Then he said "let me get this straight. They actually pay you to do stuff like that?"

There, in a nutshell, is our challenge. I don't think we have a problem with convincing people that what we do in museums is "kooky," "eccentric," or even "fun." But I think we have a big problem convincing them that it's actually useful, let alone important. It's often an uphill battle, even within our own institutions, to argue that funds should be spent on collections care rather than, say, a big new blockbuster exhibit. Now imagine trying to argue that public money should be used for tying labels on pickled bats, rather than paying for a child's MRI. Not so funny anymore, is it?

In a bid to make ourselves more effective advocates for our field, the natural history collections community has spent the last 20-plus years trying to show that we are a group of dedicated and highly trained professionals who make a significant contribution to the scientific and societal well-being of the nation and who are worth listening to. As opposed to a bunch of loveable goofballs that muck around with dead animals. Like I said, it's been an uphill battle, but as I've mentioned in previous posts (e.g. this one) we actually seem to be gaining some traction. Under the circumstances, I'm not sure that parading our "geek chic" should be high on the list of our priorities.

Besides, try doing a Google image search for "sexy librarian." Then do one for "sexy collections manager." We're way behind the eight ball on this one.....

1 comment:

  1. I love you man. But seriously, a colleague sent me the "sheesh" post last night, and I've spent part of my Sunday wondering how to respond to it. I'm glad you so eloquently summed up my thoughts so that I didn't have to. This is a point that I bring up occasionally in venues like the SVP's Vertlist (and get lambasted for), but this is a problem that both paleo and museums in general have a great difficulty with, defending (or evening establishing) their relevance.