On Sunday December 27, 2009 I was in the opportunity to visit the, otherwise closed, library of The Netherlands’ oldest museum Teylers museum in my home town Haarlem, together with a small group of Dutch library twitter people. We were very kindly shown around by librarian Marijn van Hoorn, who explained to us the library’s history and collection.
Now I’m not going to say something about the pleasant real life consequences of getting to know people in the virtual world (that has been done by @PeterMEvers already, in Dutch), or about the guided tour (already described very well by @underdutchskies in English and by @festinaatje and @ecobibl in Dutch). Also, none of the photos I made with my G1 phone are presentable; but you can have a look at the photos made by @Dymphie, @underdutchskies and @wbk500).
Instead, I will try to make a comparison between the old library’s course of life and the developments that modern libraries are going through, because I see some parallels there.
The museum was built in 1784 with money from the legacy of the wealthy banker and merchant Pieter Teyler van der Hulst, to preserve his collections and advance the arts and sciences. The museum’s library was established in 1826 to house a separate collection of books and journals in the field of natural history (botany, zoology, paleontology and geology).
One of the objectives for the library was to have a complete collection of all journals in the area of natural history. In the beginning the library was only accessible by invitation, and the honoured guests were welcomed and assisted by the “caretaker” or “landlord” of the museum.
By the middle of the 19th century the library opened up to a more general public, that is to say teaching and research staff members of the emerging universities.
But from 1870 the importance of the Teylers library for university staff declined drastically, because the universities in The Netherlands started to organise academic libraries of their own. So the library closed its doors for regular visitors. The collection continued to be maintained and expanded until 1987, when it was no longer realistic to pursue completeness.
During the 1970’s the privately funded museum and library faced the threat of closing down because of the cost of preserving the historical buildings and collections. In the written library catalog (created over time by a large number of volunteers and employees) all items were annotated with an estimated value in case of forced sale of the collection.
Fortunately the Dutch state decided to subsidise the historically and culturally valuable museum, and now Teylers is a very popular place, with a new wing with a large hall for temporary exhibitions, an educational section and a cafe.
The museum library is only open for visitors on request and on special occasions. The collection is not expanded anymore, but it is a very complete and valuable historical natural history collection, which is, among other things, used to organise temporary thematic exhibitions in the museum. Besides the natural history items there are also old maps and atlases and travel journals, like the James Cook journals by Sydney Parkinson that @jaapvandegeer drew my attention to.
The museum and the library are also looking to the future. Both museum objects and library items are being digitised, there is a European project for creating a website on ornithology that uses the library’s birds images, there is a new thematic website that combines documents, images, metadata from the museum, the library and external sources, the library catalog has been migrated to an Adlib system, and there is a Ning social network.
So, what are the parallels with modern libraries? First of all, it is clear that the influence of external developments on libraries is not something that is limited to the modern digital web age of Google. Just like Teylers library, modern public, academic and special libraries were at first targeted at a limited, well defined audience, and only accessible on location on specific times, after which their target audience and accessibility widened substantially. Catalogs and varying parts of the collection are available online to a global audience.
The external influence from competing university libraries is currently mirrored by the world wide web itself, with Google as one of the main external threats. I have written about this in my post “No future for libraries?“.
The two important issues here are: the effects on modern library collections and audience. Teylers library decided to stop building its own collection, but they keep using it in a number of ways: temporary physical thematic exhibitions, but also in new digital “mashed up” ways. This might be a good example for modern libraries to follow: make use of modern technologies to reuse existing collections to create virtual online thematic aggregations of data, texts, images, etc. See also my post “Collection 2.0“.
As for modern libraries’ response to changing audiences: proceeding with new ways of using their collections will draw new customers anyway. But it is equally important to find other ways to “go where your users are”, like being on social networks like the Teylers Ning site. One of the most important moves in the near future will be mobile presence.
Teylers library shows us that there may be a new life for old libraries.