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Primary Source Acting Director's Message -- July 2010

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Wednesday, July 21, 2010

A not-surprising finding of the 2008 IMLS report, Exhibiting Public Value: Government Funding for Museums in the United States (PDF, 2.4MB), was "the lack of reliable data on the size and scope of the museum sector." The lack of these data hampers efforts to describe the field accurately; to account for and track the various funding streams that support the sector; to examine the scale and scope of museum collections, programs, and services; and to measure the breadth and depth of its impact. Not knowing more about the dimensions of U.S. museums is a considerable barrier to bringing the sector into significant policy discussions.

The IMLS museum data project is intended to provide a coordinated strategy of data collection and analysis to provide greater understanding about cultural participation in the United States. Last summer, IMLS convened museum leaders, researchers, evaluators, and representatives from other funding organizations and museum service organizations to review past IMLS efforts to describe the "state of play" in museum data collection and gain insights to inform future action. Participants agreed that, while the diversity of U.S. museums and the myriad interests of the research community create significant challenges, there is a need for valid, accurate data that can help build our museum knowledge base.

As a government agency, IMLS has a particular interest and statutory responsibility in this area. Federal data collection efforts must focus on issues relevant to policy, have credibility among data users and the cooperation of data providers, result in publically available information, and produce "gold standard" data for secondary analysis.

During the past year, IMLS has worked with a contractor to create an open-source web-based portal with contact information about U.S. museums. We have also issued a request for proposals for the development of specific data elements and standard definitions that will eventually be used to further populate the database. This effort will be a collaborative one, and its success is dependent not only on museum involvement but on museum champions who recognize the value of accurate, credible information about museums and their services.

We know from our role in collecting and disseminating data on U.S. public and state libraries that the success of our museum data collection will depend on close and continuous collaboration between IMLS and the field. Every public library in the United States collects data every year and provides it to its state and to IMLS. The data is used at the local library level to track services, at the state level to inform library development and statewide services, and at the national level to inform federal policy. Click here to explore more about the Public Library Survey. You can search for information about staff, finances, collections, and services for any public library in the country.

From my vantage point at IMLS, I’ve seen many examples of the power of the agency’s library data collection efforts to expand knowledge and understanding of the roles that libraries play in such core areas as workforce development and access to the internet. I invite you to review such recent reports as Opportunity for All: How the American Public Benefits from Internet Connections in Public Libraries (PDF, 2.0MB) and Catalyst for Change: LSTA Grants to States Program and the Transformation of Library Service in the US (PDF, 1.9MB), as well as a series of data notes and policy briefs, for example, Service Trends in Public Libraries 1997–2007 (PDF, 305KB).
These reports, and more to come, provide a preview of the information and insights possible with the full implementation of the IMLS museum data collection program and the use of these data by the museum sector, researchers, policymakers, and the public.

We will be hosting webinars for national, state, and regional museum associations to further describe the project in late August, and we plan sessions at upcoming museum conferences on this work. We will also provide regular updates in Primary Source.

I urge the museum community to get involved in this effort; together we can produce the data needed to understand the power and potential of the broad and diverse U.S. museum sector.

—Marsha L. Semmel, Acting Director, IMLS

Click here to read the full July 2010 issue of the Primary Source e-newsletter.

                      IMLS Press Contacts
Jeannine Mjoseth,
Mamie Bittner,

About the Institute of Museum and Library Services
The Institute of Museum and Library Services is the primary source of federal support for the nation's 123,000 libraries and 17,500 museums. The Institute's mission is to create strong libraries and museums that connect people to information and ideas. The Institute works at the national level and in coordination with state and local organizations to sustain heritage, culture, and knowledge; enhance learning and innovation; and support professional development. To learn more about the Institute, please visit