A new kind of access

Is it a good idea to invest in a closer cooperation between museums, libraries and archives? Some countries fervently believe so and have – like England and Norway – merged their respective national bodies, while others consider there is a reason for seeing, worldwide, a division of labour between those institutions who deal with different parts of the cultural heritage and knowledge institutions.

The question was the main topic at a European Conference earlier this year entitled ‘A new kind of access’. The conference was hosted by the Danish National Library Authority in cooperation with EU-project Calimera and the network of national public library authorities, Naple Forum.

The title expresses a vision as well as quite a number of local projects in practice dealing with one entrance to the collections of museums, libraries and archives. The conference focused on how national bodies might support and encourage local activities in the field, and discussed the challenges under two headlines, one being national policies and models for organising a closer cooperation between the three still quite different sectors, the other dealing with best practice in the field.

Not surprisingly the conference confirmed the basic dilemma: That across Europe there are so many different institutions, models and ways of organising and such different conditions for the work in terms of budgets and number of professional staff that just imagining a common strategy is very difficult indeed. But on the other hand, it is obvious that even if for centuries we have institutionalised the division of labour in the cultural heritage field, the changes in conditions in all three types of knowledge institutions are so profound and derive from the development of ICT as well as the growth of a knowledge society that we face a common challenge: How can we create a platform for knowledge institutions as strategic core institutions in the knowledge society? This convinces me that it is worth trying to bridge the differences and leap hand in hand into a more proactive role.

Knowledge institutions have a potential as institutions for learning, inspiration and innovation on a much higher level than hitherto recognised. They should change from institutions preserving the cultural heritage into active institutions delivering the raw material for the future, as stated by one of the conference participants.

What is needed? We all know that. Libraries, museums and archives should be even more visible, they should provide easier access to their holdings and collections, and they should display their materials better and tell more fascinating stories. The real question is: How do we do that? The Copenhagen conference dealt with the possibilities in a stronger national support to local institutions from national bodies.We had presentations of good virtual as well as good real projects. A remarkable place that offers one entrance to museum artefacts, archivals and literature is the Jewish Museum in Berlin. Thanks to a most extraordinary building this museum has gained world fame – and has been able to present a story of utmost importance to a peace-seeking world. A much less known example of offering one entrance is the Spanish web site ‘Silver age of contemporary Spanish culture’ the result of a cooperation on digitising materials from the period 1868-1936 as a means of giving access to Spanish culture before the Francoreign. This is just one of many examples of local or regional cooperation on digitising and presenting material on a topic, a period, an artist or whatever has a recognised audience. In the examples given you will find inspiration for redefining the knowledge institution, not only in relation to research and education, but also to identity building and social inclusion, creativity and general inspiration.

National bodies can indeed provide support for local activities. By providing frames and standards for hybrid institutions, by working out programmes to support provision of digital content, by creating frames for competence-building and, of course, by funding projects on local and regional level. The ultimate vision is a national strategy for seamless e-access to all knowledge institutions, leading to a coherent global system of ‘knowledge webs’ But there is a long way to go.

Jens Thorhauge Thorhauge Consulting, independent advisor