The Missed Opportunity of the Museum Library

Natural History museums across the world for the most part are missing out on a tremendous opportunity for their guests and members. It may be bit of a surprise to many Natural History museum patrons that their museum usually also has a library. It is usually reserved for museum staff and is oftentimes stuffed away in some dark and dank room in a basement. If a museum is large enough it may even have a staff librarian or a clerk to maintain it. Why not bring this library material out into the open and make it available for museum guests and members to browse or borrow? Why not make it a display and a part of the exhibits? What better way to increase the knowledge of visitors than to give them access to books and journals on the very topics your museum is advocating for? It would also be an additional service that you could offer your members with their annual fees.

Yes, I understand the complexities of running even a small library and the fact that you will want certain parts of the collection reserved only for staff. Of course, you would also need to take additional care and precautions surrounding any Archival material. However there has never been a more perfect time to offer this service. Open-source library software has made automation much cheaper. ( This is coupled with the fact that self-circulation is also made much easier via open-source software. It may also be an ideal opportunity for a retired librarian to volunteer to administer the library in a smaller museum.

I am aware of only one Natural History Museum that has done this in the past and that is in Denver. Denver Museum of Nature and Science had a small, beautiful library on their upper floor that allowed visitors to sit, read and browse a well-stocked collection of natural history books! I believe that only members could borrow materials, but from what I could tell many of the visitors were enjoying the book bounty! It’s hard to tell if this library is still available as I can no longer view it on their floor plan. It would be a shame if not:

A national natural history museum that I plan to re-visit and review this fall is the Canadian Museum of Nature located on Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, While it has a beautiful building to visit, the museum library is closed for public visits and believe it or not, is located across the Ottawa river in Gatineau, Quebec in their collection facility! In other words, the library is for museum staff. You could try to access the collection via inter-library loan through your home library, however that would eliminate any ability for visitors to browse the collection (unless of course via the online catalogue which just isn’t the same).

I feel the best way to move this idea forward is for members and visitors to begin asking questions of museum staff and the board. Is there a library? Can I browse it? Is there any chance you could move this out into the open? I think if Natural History Museums (or any museums) begin to take this idea seriously and implement it, you will see an entirely new service that benefits all members and visitors! Most of all, these library resources will place more knowledge and awareness in the hands of museum goers, and isn’t this one of the biggest reasons why you exist?

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