Libraries and Museums

While we’re celebrating National Library Week, let’s consider the relationship between libraries and museums. The word museum comes from the Greek word “mouseion,” meaning “Place of the Muses.” The first museum in the world was established around 330 B.C. in Alexandria, a Greek city in Egypt. This museum was built to honor the Muses, nine daughters of Zeus who were believed to be protectors of the arts and sciences.

The Alexandria museum included temples, gardens, a zoo, and a library. What do these different types of spaces have in common? They are similar in that museums are collections of objects; zoos are collections of animals; botanical gardens are collections of plants; and libraries are collections of books and writings. Today, education is a strong component of libraries and museums, zoos and gardens.

In a paper titled “The Importance of Museum Libraries,” Jan van der Wateren, Chief Librarian of the National Art Library at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, goes into more detail about the history of museums:

“So where did museums come from? In its most basic form what we call a museum, has come to mean a collection of something. In fact the notion of a museum, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica, springs from the passion for collecting which is deeply rooted in human nature. All civilisations, from the most primitive to the most advanced share the desire to accumulate objects that are beautiful, costly, rare or merely curious.

Religious communities, rulers and magnates set up the first collections open to the public, or at least to certain members of it. An early example is the Athenian Treasury at Delphi. Another early ‘collection’ was in fact books, Aristotle’s Library.

The term ‘museum’ arises with the Musaion, the temple of the Muses, in Alexandria. This Musaion, however, is also known as the Great Library of Alexandria which was established in the 3rd century AD and which provided the final resting place of Aristotle’s famed library. This musaion was in fact a place dedicated to the muses and to study where one engaged oneself in noble disciplines.

Thus in its origins a museum was an institution of research, a library and an academy. In time the term museum became strongly identified with a building type, namely, according to the Oxford Dictionary of the English Language, «a building used as a repository for the preservation and exhibition of objects illustrative of antiquities, natural history, fine and industrial art». The term also became to be applied to the collection of objects itself.

Collecting blossomed in the middle ages in the great religious institutions which each contained libraries. But collecting here was by commission, in addition to accumulation, both of objects and of manuscripts. The manuscripts of those times survive in the great modern libraries of today.

With the Renaissance, collecting as an activity perse reflected the meaning of the word renaissance, rebirth. After all, in classical times Aristotle first collected books, and the dispersal of his library, politically inspired, was experienced as a source of sadness. This rebirth manifested itself in collecting. Collecting became a mania. However, it was a very select mania in that connoisseurs collected for themselves and not for the general public.

From the basic satisfaction of the collector’s instinct we progressed in time to making use of the collections of objects to suit the needs of study and museums started to open their doors…” Read more at

[The above paper was presented at the international conference, “Museums in Libraries – Libraries in Museums,” May 17-20, 1999 in Moscow. Published in INSPEL 33(1999)4, pp. 190-198.]

I’ll end with this fitting quote by Norman Cousins: “The library is not a shrine for the worship of books. It is not a temple where literary incense must be burned or where one’s devotion to the bound book is expressed in ritual. A library, to modify the famous metaphor of Socrates, should be the delivery room for the birth of ideas – a place where history comes to life.”

The same meaning can be applied to a museum, as in this paraphrase: “The art museum is not a shrine for the worship of paintings and sculptures. It is not a temple where artistic incense must be burned or where one’s devotion to the artwork is expressed in ritual. An art museum, to modify the famous metaphor of Socrates, should be the delivery room for the birth of ideas – a place where art comes to life.”

Check out the Virtual Library museum pages, a directory of museums supported by the International Council of Museums (ICOM), many of which have online exhibits.

For a fun and educational field trip, plan on visiting a museum or library near you!

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