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Sustaining Communities of Learners

Within and Across National Boundaries

Mary L. Chute, Deputy Director

Institute of Museum and Library Services

ILIAC Sixth International Workshop

Electronic Resources and International Information Exchange: East–West

March 12, 2004


Thank you for inviting me here today to talk about supporting and sustaining learners within and among our communities and nations. American libraries and museums play a critical role in the education of the public in the United States. There are over 122,000 libraries in the U.S.; they include public, academic, school and research libraries, and archives. The country is also home to about 15,000 museums. They include art, history and natural history museums, children's museums, science centers, zoos, and planetariums. America's libraries and museums preserve our cultural heritage and help to transmit it from one generation to the next. Libraries and museums play a significant role in the development of an educated citizenry and the Institute of Museum and Library Services is the primary source of federal support for these knowledge institutions.

Before I begin, I want to digress for a moment to talk about this agency that I represent, the Institute of Museum and Library Services. Since I became Deputy Director of IMLS almost 2 years ago, I have spent a lot of time meeting with and speaking to librarians all around the country. As I have in the past worked with and been a beneficiary of the programs of this agency in my capacity as a Chief Officer of a State Library Agency, I am always surprised to learn how many U.S. librarians do not know much about IMLS. I always find it useful, therefore, whenever I speak to devote at least a bit of time to talking about IMLS, explaining a little about who we are and what we do. While I am confident that some of you already may know about IMLS, I still would like to spend a couple of minutes talking about the agency and some recent developments in our programs and how we talk about what we do.

You may know that IMLS is an independent federal agency, and as I already stated it is the primary source of federal grants for United States’ libraries and museums. Our grants to museums and libraries build institutional capacity, support core library and museum services, and encourage excellence. Our legislative language even provides explicitly for IMLS’s role in developing digital content. However, it is noteworthy that the leadership and staff at IMLS do not see their role as simply that of being a grant-making institution. Over the past year we have been actively describing our purpose as being to “create and sustain a nation of learners by building the capacity of our museums and libraries so that they can better meet the needs of their communities.”

IMLS was created in 1996 by the Museum and Library Services Act, which merged the Federal programs for supporting the nation’s museums and the nation’s libraries, transferring the library programs out of the Department of Education and grafting them onto what had been the Institute of Museum Services.

This action by Congress in 1996 was reaffirmed last fall with the enactment of the Museum and Library Services Act of 2003, which reauthorized the IMLS and made minor changes in our mandate and structure. This legislation enjoyed strong support from the Administration and broad bipartisan support in Congress. Enactment of the MLSA is a major affirmation of the important role that museums and libraries play in our society, and the significant part that IMLS plays in strengthening museums and libraries.

The reason why the current Administration’s record of support is so strong and so sustained is simple. Education is the number one domestic priority for this Administration. And the Administration understands that, while we need to strengthen our schools, we also know that education does not start at the schoolroom door—and it does not stop there either. The central role that museums and libraries can play in achieving our goal to create and sustain a nation of learners is recognized. We are all extremely grateful for their continued and sustained support and that of Congress.

The majority of our funding for libraries is distributed in formula grants to the state library administrative agency in each state. In the states IMLS funds are used in a variety of important ways: supporting resource sharing, providing training and staff development opportunities, and statewide licensing of digital information services. In past years these funds have been used to support a large and diverse number of programs that enhance library services to communities and across the nation. So while even many U.S. residents may not be actively aware of IMLS’s role, the funding we provide to each state library is very important to the services that our libraries provide to their communities.

IMLS has two other library programs that although they utilize fewer dollars than our program of Grants to State Libraries, have gotten more publicity in recent years. Librarians for the 21st Century, a program initiated last year, was actually inspired by the First Lady, a librarian herself.

Our other frequently highlighted program is the National Leadership Grants program. These competitive awards to institutions foster innovation and creativity and develop best practices. It is in this ‘laboratory’ for cutting edge technologies that we find many projects that best support the concept of sustaining communities of learners across and among nations through the use of digital infrastructure and content.

In 2005 IMLS will be making some changes in the way the National Leadership Grants program is structured across the agency. Since 1996 when this program began, we have offered National Leadership Grants in four different categories in both the Museum and Library grant programs. In the Library programs, those categories have been:

  • Preservation or digitization;
  • Education and training;
  • Research and demonstration; and
  • Museum-library collaborations.

In the Museum program, those categories have been somewhat different. As our operations have continued to evolve, however, and our interactions with the museum and library communities have progressed, we have come to realize that it is time for these programs to evolve as well. So in 2005 we will be changing these categories for museum and library grants.

First, there will be a professional development education and training program in each of the two offices; one for libraries and one for museums. And secondly we now will be offering National Leadership Grants under three basic categories, and those three categories will be the same in both Museum and the Library programs. The categories will be:

  1. Research and Demonstration;
  2. Building Digital Resources; and
  3. Advancing Learning Communities.

Just one additional note about IMLS and collaboration: the elimination of a separate category for museum-library collaborations does NOT mean that IMLS does not intend to continue to foster collaboration between and among museums and libraries. On the contrary, it signals our conviction that collaboration is such a central strategy that it should not be separated out as a single category, but rather integrated into all aspects of our programs. Partnering and collaboration are becoming so much an integral part of what our institutions do that they have become means and not ends in and of themselves. Collaboration is indeed encouraged in all three of the National Leadership Grants categories, and evaluation of proposals will be based in part on a realistic incorporation of collaboration, where it is appropriate.

Digital technology

Libraries and museums are core resources in our quest to transform knowledge into economic value, meet social needs, and create civic engagement. A vital and state-of-the-art network of libraries and museums is the fuel that supports learning in all its aspects. Everyone who pursues knowledge from a child learning to read to a scientist pursuing high level research benefits from well-provisioned knowledge institutions. I would like to share with you a sampling of some of the ways in which The Institute using digital technology fosters leadership, innovation, and a lifetime of learning.

Admittedly, digital technology is just one possible medium for learner support just as paper is coming to be seen as one such medium. However, digital technology enables the full range of holdings in our museums, libraries, and archives—audio, video, documents, artifacts—to be catalogued, organized, combined in new ways, and made accessible to audiences as never before. The magnificent scientific, historic, aesthetic, and cultural resources in our libraries and museums can be presented—both within and across institutions—within a matrix of interpretive and didactic materials that enriches meaning and increases the audience’s understanding. New telecommunications initiatives allow learners to access more than our museum and library collections—they can bring learners “face to face” electronically with curators, scientists, artists, and scholars. Technology-based learning initiatives can also recognize and address individual and localized learning needs through customized programming and presentation.

The following examples are a series of digital historical atlases brought to life:

  • The University of Maine will create a digital archive of exemplary multimedia materials and interactive learning modules from Maine's history and science museums, libraries, historical societies, and public broadcasting for use in Maine public schools. This broadband technology project will train teachers to use digital resources in their classrooms.
  • With “The Making of Modern Michigan,” Michigan State University Library, in partnership with the Library of Michigan, Michigan Library Consortium, University of Michigan, Wayne State University, University of Detroit Mercy, Western Michigan University, Traverse Area District Library, and the Hiawathaland Library Cooperative, will enhance a digital collection on Michigan history for use in the K-12 history curriculum. It will also create regional digitization centers and provide training to libraries in techniques, metadata standards, and copyright issues to digitize their own unique collections.
  • The Oriental Institute, with two university collaborators, will develop, test, and implement “This History, Our History: Ancient Mesopotamia Online.” This interactive project about ancient Mesopotamia, now present-day Iraq, will be developed for nationwide educational use.
  • The Media Library of the WGBH Educational Foundation will partner with the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (BCRI) and Washington University to produce a prototype of a digital library collection focused on the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. This project will develop broadband solutions to the challenge of matching rich media archives with educational needs. Building on WGBH's Teachers’ Domain online platform, this initiative will feature multimedia assets of all three organizations, highlighted by extensive oral histories recorded by BCRI, the encyclopedic resources of the Henry Hampton Collection housed within the Media and Film Archive at Washington University, and broadcasts and video programming at WGBH. The archives include primary source interviews, dramatic recreations, and historical footage and supporting teacher guides and companion Web sites that significantly extend their educational impact.
  • The University of Washington Libraries, working with Olympic Peninsula Tribal Associations, the Claallam County Historical Society, and other partners, will design and carry out a digitization project that will document artifacts, stories, and events of tribal heritage in the Pacific Northwest through photographs, videotape, and oral histories. The community-based curatorial and exhibition project will create Web sites, kiosks for online and physical exhibitions, and workshops developed by the West Olympic Council on the Arts; a toolkit for creating a community museum; and curriculum materials developed by the University's Center for the Study of the Pacific Northwest.


In the U.S. there is no single plan to create digital libraries. While IMLS is the only Federal Agency that has the statutory requirement to support digitization of cultural materials, agencies at the Federal level and within the states and territories are creating digital content and supporting research in digital library issues. Universities, State Libraries, and consortia of libraries and educational institutions have created many digital libraries of varying scales. This means there is no formalized common infrastructure. However, some IMLS projects do indeed foster the development of best practices and standards to support an eventual infrastructure.

One such project resulted in the Framework of Guidance for Building Good Digital Collections, which provides a set of high-level principles as a framework for identifying, organizing, and applying existing knowledge and resources to collections of digital resources. The document was originally prepared under the auspices of the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) and released in 2001. It was intended as a resource for grant applicants to the IMLS and other Federal funding agencies. However, since its release it has received wide recognition in the library and museum communities and the endorsement of the Digital Library Federation.

In September 2003, maintenance of the Framework was transferred from IMLS to the National Information Standards Organization (NISO). An expert advisory group from the digital resources community has been appointed by NISO to review the Framework on a regular basis and contribute to its further development.

Another such effort is a three-year research project conducted by the Library of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, which will create a collection-level registry of digital collections created with IMLS funding from 1998 to 2005. It will research, design, and implement a prototype item-level metadata repository service based on the Open Archives Initiative (OAI) Metadata Harvesting Protocol. This OAI project is currently being looked at by the Minerva project out of the European Union as a potential tool for inclusion.


IMLS also has produced a series of publications dealing with current issues and trends. These publications are all available on our Web site, www.imls.gov, and include such items as surveys, tutorials, and white papers on the status of technology use in libraries and museums, outcome-based evaluation, studies on partnerships between schools and museums, and reflections on the 21st Century Learner.

One of our most recent endeavors has been an online tutorial on project management. And like all of our other Web-based resources it is available to the interested learner.


The potential for bold learning partnerships, rooted in our communities, offers unprecedented challenges and opportunities for libraries, museums, and other partners engaged in building learning networks for communities based on locale—as well as communities of interest that span geographical boundaries. Such collaborations are not so much “joined at the hip” partnerships, but rather recognition of intersecting nodes of interest, activity, and mission.

IMLS’s Director, Dr. Robert Martin, believes so strongly in this concept that he established an office of strategic partnership at IMLS. While encouraging partnerships among our constituency groups, he is also deeply committed to IMLS as a partner for others.

IMLS’s initial strategic partnerships focus was intended to be other government entities, some of whom are our partners already. We have our partner cultural agencies who share our building: the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities. We have the National Science Foundation, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. And of course we have the Library of Congress, with whom a couple of our more recent partnering endeavors are the National Book Festival through their Center for the Book and the International Children’s Digital Library project.


In the spirit of sharing information and access, IMLS regularly holds training for its constituents. There is an annual Fall Conference for the State Grant program coordinators, which provides opportunities for growth and technical support. IMLS offers assistance to all of its grantees in planning and evaluation. IMLS is one of a small number of federal agencies that provides grantees with resources and training in result-based planning, evaluation, and reporting. This year IMLS conducted 12 two-day evaluation workshops for grantees and provided introductory programs for constituents at state, national, and local professional meetings. Fifty-two of 56 State Program grantees have participated in intensive workshops. And over the past two years six states have participated in IMLS on-site training and technical assistance to facilitate adoption of outcomes measures.

And in this same spirit IMLS has acted as a convener to ensure sharing of information about advances in digital technology among cultural heritage organizations, both at the expert and practitioner level. In 2003, it convened workshops on Digital Resources for Cultural Heritage and on Research Opportunities on the Creation, Management, Preservation, and Use of Digital Content.

In addition, in collaboration with the National Science Foundation’s Digital Libraries Initiatives and the National Science Digital Library programs, IMLS co-sponsored a working meeting of principal investigators engaged in digital library research and development. More than 100 principal investigators and project staff shared their work in progress and discussed common challenges and opportunities.

And just last week IMLS co-hosted its fifth annual Web-Wise Conference on Libraries and Museums in the Digital World, which drew an audience of more than 300 participants nationwide. This year’s partner agency was the University of Illinois at Chicago and the conference was held in Chicago, Illinois. This conference is a forum in which many IMLS National Leadership Grants are highlighted. Web-Wise always seems to be a gathering place for great and innovative minds to share their learnings. I have yet to walk away without a memorable quote or two. This year’s most notable one for me was from Ken Hamma of the Getty Museum. In discussing the Getty’s new individualized museum guide, Ken said the cutting edge discovery that had made their innovation so important for their visitors was the realization that—as in everything—from the user’s perspective, IT IS ALL ABOUT ME. The Getty’s digital museum guide allows for in-museum and pre- and post-bookmarking of items for an individualized museum experience.

The learner

And is it not indeed about meeting the learning needs of the individual? Our vision of needs of the learner of the new century inspires much of our work in this area. We envision an ideal in which library and museum resources are used routinely by a learner who is self-directed, motivated by individual needs and interests, familiar with technology, unconstrained by time and place, and pursuing learning throughout his or her lifetime. Our work is also guided by a belief that our prosperity and individual achievement depend on the ability to learn continually, to adapt to change readily, and to evaluate information critically.

The responsibility for learning, we have come to know, is not the sole preserve of formal educational institutions, schools, colleges, and universities. It must be rooted as well in communities and in everyday living. Ultimately we see that the role of IMLS is to build the capacity of museums and libraries—individually, together, and with others—to serve their communities—communities of interest, not only those joined by geography and national boundaries. Through its grant-making, research, partnership, and leadership activities, IMLS encourages new models of leadership and governance that are attuned to broader social, technological, political, educational, and community realities. In each grant program and through our planning and evaluation activities we go beyond asking, “Are we building strong libraries and museums?” and ask, “Are our museums and libraries creating public value, are they helping to build stronger communities?” Because after all, is that not also a good part of the motivation behind what we all do as preservers of our cultural history? With that in mind, I would like to close with one of my favorite quotes attributed to poet Wendell Berry:

When a Community loses its memory, its members no longer know one another. How can they know one another, if they have forgotten or never learned one another's stories, if they do not know one another's stories, how can they know whether or not to trust one another? People, who do not trust one another, do not help one another, and moreover they fear one another.—Wendell Berry

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