Since its inception in 1962, the Magnes has strived to represent the Jewish experience in all of its manifestations: material culture, the visual arts, music, historical documents, and of course text. This has resulted in a multi-faceted collection that provides a wide-angled perspective on culture and history in the Global Jewish Diaspora. This diversity of holdings also presents a challenge. How can materials traditionally stored in distinct repositories – Archives, Libraries and Museums – all coexist under the same roof? How can they best be preserved? And, most importantly, what kind of access can be provided to them?
Access to a collection is determined by how the collection itself is described to the public. The question, then, is how can archive, library and museum collections be described within one and the same context. In this post, I am sharing with our readers a series of thoughts that were debated over the last two years among the Magnes staff: in which “collections” do the holdings of the Magnes belong? And, more to the point, what constitutes a “collection”?
I am sure that you will forgive the technical jargon, and instead focus on getting a glimpse into the “behind the scenes” – and in some sense the growing pains – of a cultural heritage institution in the era of global communications.
Background: Defining “Collections”
The term, “collection” (from the Latin, “tying together,” “gathering”), holds a variety of semantic connotations, typically ranging from monetary actions to the accumulation of knowledge. In the latter sense, the term relates not only to the objects of knowledge themselves (objects, documents, books, etc.), but also to a set specific practices of describing knowledge, typically applied to institutions like archives, libraries and museums. Within each institution, the term “collection” further acquires content-specific connotations that help defining its holdings on the bases of their origin, acquisition, and interpretation.
At the Magnes, we apply the concepts of collection to a variety of holdings:
- Holdings located in a specific facility (the archive, library and museum collections);
- Holdings reflecting the legacy of specific donors (e.g. the “Strauss” or “Satchko” Collections),
- The three collecting areas outlined in our Collecting Plan (“Modern and Contemporary Art,” “Ceremonial and Decorative art,” and “Historical and Archival Collections”);
- A wide array of intellectual and thematic organizational models reflecting typologies, geographic origins, historical events, etc. (e.g., the Textile, India, or Inquisition collections).
This semantic fluidity, which greatly enhances our ongoing interpretation of a unique gathering of cultural testimonies about the global history and culture of the Jews, has often been translated into ambiguous work practices: our archives store books and objects that would normally belong in the museum storage, archival and library materials are accessioned in the museum collection only when included in exhibition programs, registration records for the archive and the museum are kept separate, etc. Due to the overlapping of some these notions, we have often found ourselves wondering how to best organize our human and intellectual resources, both for internal purposes and in view of public presentation.
This post attempts to organize our notions of “collection” in conjunction with the adoption of the database management software, IDEA@ALM. This new system promises to allow us to catalog and manage our holdings by integrating the best practices of archives, libraries and museums (ALM), while maintaining a global perspective. The database project, which sets a new standard in the description of the objects of culture, is part of a broader plan to achieve a new level of internal organizational clarity, or vision, for the Magnes. The project serves a host of purposes centered on the presentation of a publicly accessible repository of reliable collection information, which offers historical and documental approaches to textual, visual and material cultures. In this document, which is conceived as a work in progress and as an integration to the Collecting Plan, we briefly focus on three topics: ALM integration; the place(s) of “collections” in the database; and the description of the cultural goals that await the Magnes staff in the months to come.
- Note: This post was preceded by a white paper prepared by Francesco Spagnolo (April-September 2008), with contributions by Alla Efimova, Lara Michels and Perian Sully.
The IDEA@ALM database allows us to describe the holdings of the Magnes as belonging to three distinct areas: the Archive, the Library and the Museum, each characterized by a separate “databank” (or “virtual database”), which is defined by content-specific templates that enable the creation of accurate catalog entries. Accuracy of information in the database depends to a great extent on ensuring that the templates conform to practices that are discipline-specific. Therefore, while the integration of Archive, Library and Museum records within the database requires a professional staff that is open and flexible in the implementation of a highly interdisciplinary approach, maintaining each ALM databank requires the following of proper descriptive practices, which are discipline-specific. Integrating the information about the Archive, Library and Museum items proceeds in two ways:
- Extension of discipline-specific notions and practices traditionally associated with one platform to the others; i.e., the Archive model to describe collections is extended to Library and Museum items; Library circulation practices are used to monitor research activities for the entire ALM collection; and the Museum notions of authorship/creatorship are extended to Archive and Library records.
- Integration of discipline specific notions and practices into new ALM models; i.e., notions of chronology and history that integrate dates and periods derived from Archive, Library and Museum practices; integrated local and global subjects and vocabularies; use of synonyms and preferred terms to create multi-lingual and multi-cultural collection information; etc.
The articulation of the relationship among the ALM databanks is crucial for at least three reasons:
- Defining which items in our collection belong in each area depends on a clear vision for our Archive, Library and Museum holdings, facilities, and best practices. This vision reflects that of our institution, and rests at its core.
- Articulating our vision for the ALM holdings bears a direct impact on our responsibilities as staff, our areas of expertise, and more generally on the workflow that allows an item acquired into our collection to become a publicly accessible, interpretable object of knowledge.
- The process of making knowledge accessible further enhances our institutional mission.
In general terms, by defining our three collection databanks in the database, we are determining the vision of our Archive, Library and Museum as follows:
- The Archive is the repository of unique documents, which include personal papers, documents, correspondence, and photographs of historical significance, which encourage a broad documental approach to culture.
- The Library contains a variety of published books and manuscript formats, including rare or reference volumes, illustrated books, periodicals, audiovisuals, etc., which encourage a broad textual approach to culture.
- The Museum holds a wide variety of objects that embody “material and artistic expressions,” which encourage a broad visual and material approach to culture.
These distinctions imply the affirmation of a clear vision, which is translated into the re-configuration of the holdings, facilities, practices and management of the Magnes. The main goal of re-assigning holdings to the Archive, Library and Museum is thus to clarify how the different approaches to culture they represent are expressed in the way the objects of culture are stored, preserved, accessed and described. Currently, the Western Jewish History Center’s archive includes Library and Museum items; the Blumenthal Library includes a host of archival collections; and similarly, several Library items are kept and described as Museum objects. A clarified vision for the three areas will be translated into the re-assignment of all our holdings, their registration records, their location and their catalog description to the integrated management of the Archive, Library and Museum areas. This process, which is further articulated in the Magnes workflow, must also include a host of collection “gray areas,” or the many cases in which the division according to ALM areas may seem insufficient in categorizing and describing knowledge.
Testing the ALM limits: Gray areas in the Collections
There are, of course, individual items and groups of items that can be assigned, on the basis of equally pertinent considerations, to the Archive, the Library or the Museum. A preliminary list of these “gray areas” includes:
- Audiovisual materials
- Illuminated manuscripts
- Ketubbot (or Jewish marriage contracts)
Items in these group may in fact be relevant both as historical documents, as texts and for their visual or material aspects. Each of these holdings, as well as additional ones suggesting multiple destinations in the database, requires a definite assignment to one of the ALM areas.
In determining the three ALM areas of the collection, we also acknowledge the fluidity of the varying concepts of culture. Our ultimate goal is to celebrate the objects of culture, by caring for them according to best practices, and at the same time to ensure their public accessibility, thus opening their interpretation to the community at large and allowing for the widest possible spectrum of intellectual interpretations to take place. The integrated ALM database of the Magnes promotes two “cultural narratives”:
- Primary sources: the ALM database of the Magnes offers the best, clearest access to the objects of knowledge in our collections, and attempts to present them as “the things themselves,” allowing for their open interpretation.
- Interdisciplinary approaches: the staff of the Magnes is capable, beyond each and everyone’s specific academic and professional training, to study and catalog (and thus to interpret) our collections across the ALM cultural spectrum, by constantly testing, improving and sharing archival, library and museological standards and practices.
The flexibility of the concept of “collection” is often the cause of ambiguity in our internal practices. As I have tried to explain here, this kind of ambiguity is a cherished one: it is the symptom of a multi-disciplinary, and multi-perspective, approach to cultural heritage. It is important to confront these concepts, so that they can be adequately address in the context of our descriptive practices. Currently, our concepts of “collection” can be grouped into three semantic areas:
- Collections determined by the hosting facility: The current existence of WJHC, RBR and Museum “collections,” which is due to the architectural configuration of the current location of the Magnes, can be entirely re-configured according to the ALM model outlined above: regardless of the actual facility in which they are stored, all holdings of the Magnes are conceived within the ALM parameters.
- Created/Donated collections: These collections are found in the Archive, Library and Museum (e.g. the “Strauss Collection,” the “Satchko Collection,” each single archival collection of the WJHC, etc.), and reflect a donor/creator-title relationship in the database.
- Interpretive collections and “meta collections”: These collections include a variety of holdings, grouped according to the following broad categories:
- The collecting areas described in the Magnes Collecting Plan, which are at times also stored together (Modern and Contemporary Art, Ceremonial and Decorative Art, and Historical and Archival Collections);
- Items grouped by “type” and typically stored together (Haggadah, Ketubbah collections, etc.);
- Items grouped by “topic” across the ALM divide, and not necessarily stored together (Western Jewish History, the Holocaust, Jews in China, etc.).
As in the case of created/donated collections, interpretative collections also reflect a combination of factors: while some of these factors can be defined as “subjects” in the database (and indeed correspond to universally accepted subject headings, i.e. Library of Congress) and made available to the public, others are created exclusively for internal, Magnes-specific purposes (like the organization of items for an exhibition, for internal research, or for storage-specific reasons).
Interpretive collections that include Archive, Library and Museum items are included in the database as “meta collections.” All Magnes “meta collections” are described according to archival parameters, which encompass the definition of their creatorship, a specific (and descriptive) title, and the history and scope and content of the holdings they include. As the Magnes database will go “live” on the Internet, more and more meta collections will be added to the description of collection items, allowing researchers to gain a better understanding of how our holdings were gathered over the decades.
The first category of collections (those determined by their current hosting facility) is destined to disappear with the implementation of the integrated ALM database. On the contrary, the two other categories are enhanced by a database approach: created and donated collections and interpretive collections will thus be tracked across the ALM divide, and will potentially include archival, library and museum holdings according to their provenance and to the interpretive paths created by the Magnes staff and made available to the public.