By Dr. Kathryn K. Matthew

Look up at the stars on a clear night. Look for the star Sirius within the constellation Orion. You certainly learned about it in school or by using an astronomy phone app. Or perhaps it was a telescope-obsessed relative who showed you this star, also called Alpha Canis Major.

Within a brilliant star such as Sirius, carbon acts as a catalyst to activate a fusion reaction. Particles randomly bouncing inside the star now collide, react, and produce a new substance, helium. The star continues to burn that helium, for thousands of years, emitting the energy as the light that we see. Sirius is so massive, close, and bright that you can see it rise in the east with the sun during the northern hemisphere’s summer.

Sirius has been used as a guide-star or story-telling inspiration throughout human history in varying cultural contexts. For example, named in Greek mythology as the Dog Star; and featured in Voltaire’s 1752 science fiction story Micromegas. Even in Harry Potter, the naming of Harry’s godfather as Sirius may imply a linkage to a celestial deity.

Like the stars, GLAMs (galleries, libraries, archives, and museums), too, form constellations.  In total, they impact thousands of community members daily, providing resources and services--“energy”-- that contribute significantly to the quality of life, education, economy, and cohesion within their communities. We want to enhance these essential contributions and so have begun the Community Catalyst Initiative to build upon, create, and test approaches and tools for GLAMs to support successful community work within local contexts.

The galaxy – communities’ needs and opportunities – surrounding GLAM institutions is becoming increasingly dynamic and complex. As part of our recent study on sustained community revitalization development by museums and libraries, we conducted a five-city tour late in 2015 and early in 2016 (see report). We heard from libraries and museums an eagerness to break down silos within communities and use adaptable and proven tools to co-create the future for their community. In response, IMLS’s new investment will build upon learnings from GLAMs and the related philanthropic and community investment fields.

To begin this process, we are working with Reinvestment Fund, a Community Development Financial Institution that since 1985 has funded neighborhood revitalization projects by combining expertise, analysis, and creative approaches to investing with a social purpose.  As part of an anticipated multi-year effort, we will conduct an environmental scan over the summer of examples of GLAM community partnerships and relevant research. We then plan to bring together experts from the field as well as representatives from communities to help interpret the findings. Depending on the findings and other factors, IMLS may provide support for a subsequent piloting phase.  A piloting phase could potentially test and evaluate frameworks, tools, and skill-building to enable library and museum staff to proactively and sustainably partner with their communities.  A community of practice will be an important outcome.

Our premise for this Community Catalyst Initiative is that a GLAM that is integrally linked within its community can help catalyze a reaction. As a catalyst, it can respond powerfully and purposefully to its community’s needs and visions. At IMLS, we want to help GLAMs be catalytic under the right circumstances and with the right partners to generate a community vision that burns brightly, attracting others. Stay tuned for a news announcement for more information about the initiative.  

Our ultimate goal is to support GLAMs in successfully fusing their resources and ideas with those of their communities to achieve collective results. And, like Sirius, your museum, library, or archive will be part of inspiring, reimagining, and sustaining new community stories and energies.


Dr. Kathryn K. Matthew was confirmed as director of IMLS in September 2015.