Stewardship Note

archive storage box

Differences Between Archives, Libraries, and Museums

The History Trust is composed of a variety of organizations, and they hold diverse historical collections. We have libraries that hold archives, archives that include small objects, museums and historical societies that have libraries, nonprofits that have collected records of their own history, etc.

What’s the difference between libraries, museums, and archives anyway?

In the article The Museum-Library-Archive, Howard Besser provides a simplified explanation of the differences. They are: mission, what is collected, how works are organized, and how the institution relates to its users.

  • The traditional library is based upon individual items (generally not unique) and is user-driven. Areas are accessible to the public for browsing
  • Archives manage groups of works and focus on maintaining a particular context for the overall collection. Archives tend to be research driven and public access is restricted.
  • Museums collect specific objects and provide curatorial context for each of them; they are curator driven.

So, when sitting in your library or museum or archive the differences matter; follow the article link above for more, or check out resources at Preserving Collections. Besser observes, however, that digital repositories—like Digital Archive—”offer the possibility of users navigating through a vast number of representations of objects and cataloging records on their own, making their own links between works, and in some ways challenging the previously exclusive power of the curator to juxtapose and interpret. . . . All these technological changes begin to blur the formerly sharp distinctions between libraries, museums, and archives in an online environment.”

It doesn’t matter what your organization is called! We’re in this together, sharing our historical collections with all.


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