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The Museum Universe Data File: A New Release and Update on Progress

December 29, 2014 ET

December 29, 2014

By Carlos Manjarrez, Director of Planning, Research and Evaluation, IMLS

In April 2014, the Institute of Museum and Library Services released the Museum Universe Data File. It was an important step for the agency, signaling the first time we provided data about the universe of museum entities in the United States.

IMLS plans to update the Museum Universe Data File twice annually, and we have now released an updated version. The file has benefited from input from across the museum sector. More than 450 people sent feedback to correct their records, and associations provided new lists of organizations to include in the database. In addition to incorporating feedback from the field, we have taken other steps to improve the file. Since the first release, we have employed over a dozen coders to manually review it and identify duplicate records, look up Employer Identification Numbers, and fill in missing or incorrect address, phone and website information.

Although the current release has about the same number of records as the first release, it provides updated information for 13,125 records. We will continue the process of manual review and will complete a full pass through the file before our next data release. The Museum Universe Data File was created with data drawn from IMLS administrative records (2009 – present) and with data from the Department of Treasury, which collects financial information for all active nonprofit organizations on an annual basis. IMLS used two different types of records (IRS Form 990 and IRS Form 990-N) to identify nonprofit museums that filed from 2009 through 2013.

This source provided 77 percent of the entries in the original file. In addition, IMLS drew information from third party commercial vendors. The estimated number of museums used for many years before the Museum Universe Date File had a very different methodology as its source. It was based primarily on information from state museum associations and their membership records. We’ve learned a lot since we first released the file. Importantly, we learned that the debate over what exactly constitutes a museum continues. A careful examination of the file will show that it includes many organizations that some may not consider museums. Our approach was to cast a very broad net, include data from many different sources, and keep the records open to the public so the issues can be explored and discussed.

Although we are still in the early release stages of the Museum Universe Data File, people are beginning to use the data in interesting ways. In an earlier blog post, Patrick Murray-John talked about his US Museums Explorer tool that establishes a connection between the Museum Universe Data File and structured organizational data found on Wikipedia. Programmers and hackers have converted the file to Neo4J graphic formats so that it could be easily incorporated into GraphGist educational and training materials and mobile applications. IMLS has used the data file to map museum organizations across the country and to contrast the locations of these entities in relation to a variety of social indicators and community based resources such as Head Start Centers and early childhood service organizations.

IMLS is committed to continuing the long-term process of cleaning, enhancing, and updating the data file to make it a robust resource for research and analysis on the museum sector. We will continue to consult with experts and museum service organizations across the museum sector. In the spring of 2015, we will convene representatives of museum service organizations, museum studies faculty, and museum professionals to discuss next steps in the development of the Museum Universe Data File; review analysis plans for the Public Needs for Library and Museum Services Survey (household survey; discuss goals and objectives for the Museums Count institutional survey; and receive recommendations for future IMLS museum research.