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IMLS Director Crosby Kemper Discusses Role of Libraries and Museums during COVID-19 Pandemic

Last Updated on June 22, 2020, 11:53 am ET

IMLS Director Crosby Kemper III
Crosby Kemper III

ARL executive director Mary Lee Kennedy talked with Crosby Kemper III, the director of the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), about the role of libraries and museums, and specifically research libraries, given COVID-19 and what the pandemic might mean for the future. This interview complements the latest issue of Research Library Issues on “GLAM Collaboration Opportunities and Challenges,” published June 19.

Mary Lee Kennedy: When you assumed your role as director of the IMLS in January, the world was in a radically different situation than it is today. In terms of your vision for the role of libraries and museums, what remains the same and what has been amplified by the pandemic?

Crosby Kemper: Before COVID-19, two trends were true in the library and museum world, and I suspect these trends were also true specifically for research libraries as well. The first is the trend towards the electronic distribution of information and services was accelerating (for example, e-books). The second, which was particularly true in public libraries but also true in some academic libraries and research libraries such as the Linda Hall Library, was the increasing use of libraries and museums as public spaces that bring people and ideas together.

The pandemic does two things contrary to the two trends. On the electronic side it accelerates the trend even more, and this is likely to continue. There are questions about the depth and whether it will have universal applicability. The pandemic stopped the use of libraries and museums as community spaces. That trend will have to rearticulate itself as we come out of the pandemic. We will come out of it in stages and with an ongoing discussion about whether the “old normal” will exist. Gatherings may be more controlled and much smaller. We don’t have the answer. I suspect we will find a way to gather in a community space. The great historical lesson from the 1918–1919 Spanish flu tells us that there will be pressure to convene in groups as people want to be together. Whether or not science, that is epidemiology, will let us, the pressure will be there to do so. There will be things we haven’t thought about. There will be a lot of conversations, over the next few months as we look at the future, that will have more intensity than our usual strategic and vision planning, as there is a more existential quality to what we are looking at now.

Mary Lee Kennedy: Libraries and museums have collaborated to varying degrees over long periods of time. Given the current context and the foreseeable future, where do you see opportunities for museums and libraries to collaborate even more?

Crosby Kemper: One of things that something like the pandemic does for us as a positive response to very negative circumstances, is it brings the community together to look at a community response. IMLS is doing this with its guidelines for grants in response to COVID-19. The intensity of a community response will decelerate as we come out of this, but the sense of community will remain in an even better way. Most institutions will be thinking of what they do in terms of the community as a whole rather than through their own professional lenses. This was a trend that was occurring even before the pandemic. I was invited to give a keynote to the art directors meeting that was held at the art museum in Kansas City. What I spoke about and got a good response to, was the increasing role that libraries played in civic engagement and how museums were beginning to do the same thing. Both had been great community institutions, but the organization around community events and civic events that libraries had pioneered in the last 20–25 years has been adapted by museums. I see that trend continuing with “civic” and “community” playing a larger role. There will be financial reasons. We will be influenced by the financially difficult time over the next few years. I believe the economy will come back. We did after the Spanish flu in the 1920s as well as after the Great Recession. It will be slower for us to come back, so alliances to share the financial burden, doing things together to share financial burden, will also be a trend.

Mary Lee Kennedy: Museums and libraries of all types—public, research, national—all serve their local communities. They are trusted sources of information and are anchor institutions in their local communities. The Association of Research Libraries (ARL) is an institutional membership organization of 124 research library and archive leaders. What would you ask of them as leaders as they engage with their local communities now?

Crosby Kemper: We’ve had a trend of libraries and research libraries playing a role in more community engagement as trusted sources of information. My local library that I have been involved in is a partner in a number of things, and the Linda Hall Library is a great example of a research library with a worldwide reputation and reach inside the research community. It has taken on a more public role of bringing scholars in to talk about issues of moment to large crowds, civically engaged crowds, dealing with important issues that science has a voice in. That trend will continue. We have a lot of problems around the use and misuse of information in this country. We’re seeing it right now in terms of the epidemiology of the pandemic. This is a new virus with new characteristics. We don’t really have an epidemiology around this—it’s developing—although our discussions tend toward the assumption of linear progression of a given statistic and a given moment. We need research libraries and the research community to help guide us in understanding how we work through something like this. We live in an information economy, in an information-saturated world. All libraries, and museums too, but specifically research libraries, have a role and a responsibility in the provision of trusted information.

Mary Lee Kennedy: The Association of Research Libraries has existed since 1932. We’re a collaborative partner in a broad research and learning ecosystem, bound by a shared commitment to advancing knowledge and stewarding the past, present, and future. ARL is in the process of formulating a collective plan for the next one to three years as we emerge from the world as we know it today. As a community of leaders of research libraries, museums, archives, and presses—what are strategically important ways in which we can inform and shape the future of the research and learning ecosystem?

Crosby Kemper: One of the great attributes of a great research library is that it thinks for the long term—both in terms of the preservation of research, research materials, and research history, and in provision for the researcher of today and for the future. Research libraries by their very nature have a long-term horizon—looking backward and looking forward. It is very important to have a long-term perspective, particularly at a moment like this when we are existentially concerned with our own daily lives and the threats to our daily lives. The role of research libraries is enhanced and the necessity is even greater.

There is a big opportunity for research libraries to highlight the importance of scientific information—of good, trusted information and of the aspects of research that make our lives better or preserve our lives. The challenge is not only our short-term thinking but the very polarized attitude to information. That will take careful navigation. This is something that the IMLS is concerned with and I know there are folks on both sides of the aisle, in Congress, and in the Administration who are concerned with this. We’ve got to make sure that we get this right. And research libraries with their highly professional attitude towards curated information will be important.