From Custodians to Disseminators:

Libraries and Digital Exhibitions

Richenda Brim

Fall 2001 IS 209 Howard Besser



Role of Exhibitions in Library Functions

Advantages of Digital Exhibitions

Disadvantages of Digital Exhibitions

Survey of Library Online Exhibitions



Digital Exhibits Consulted





Like many university libraries across the country, the Utah State University Special Collections department believes in the potential of digital technology to help fulfill the traditional goals of the library. Next to the Digital Exhibits link on their website they have posted the following text:

 “The materials housed by the Special Collections & Archives have been collected for the benefit of the public and are available for use by researchers. Historically, however, the public has not been aware of the research possibilities of archival material. Making digitized collections available through our website publicizes the many opportunities for use of our materials. Many of the materials in Special Collections are too fragile to allow repeated close examination. With digital technology we are able to provide access to these documents over the Internet and to avoid inevitable wear and tear on these  fragile resources.”[1]


The promise of broader access without endangering often fragile materials makes digitization projects very attractive to libraries and archives. Many are supplementing existing exhibition programs with virtual exhibits in an effort to reach wider audiences, while a few libraries, where physical exhibits had not been a previous option, are implementing virtual exhibition programs.

In 2000, the Exhibitions Award Committee of the American Library Associations Rare Books and Manuscripts Section accepted virtual exhibits into competition, noting that many libraries had ceased to produce traditional catalogues and other libraries had begun exhibition programs. Has there been an increase in digital exhibitions as libraries have developed web sites? How do these exhibits help to fulfill the mission of libraries and archives? What are the specific promises of online exhibitions? What are their advantages and disadvantages?


Role of Exhibitions in Library Functions


Historically, libraries perform multiple roles in their respective communities, whether they are the center of a university campus or a small town. They often function as community centers, perform an educational role, preserve and maintain materials, and provide access to information. For many libraries, especially academic and special, exhibition programs help to fulfill these roles. Many writers have sung their praises over the years. In favor of exhibits of archives and manuscripts, Gail Farr Casterline wrote: “Among the benefits are a greater and more imaginative use of archival materials by a wider clientele and the reinforcement of a favorable public image that reflects the archivists interest and involvement in the larger community.”[2]

It is true that without exhibitions many patrons and community members might never see the collections. College students researching an essay topic have little need for special collections and archival materials. Primary sources held in historical society collections or government archives are rarely consulted by anyone uninvolved in some manner of historical research.

Exhibitions can, and have, served institutions well. They serve as advertisements, informing the community of an institution’s holdings. They are often used as public relations tools, reminding the community of the institution’s larger custodial purpose. As Bowen and Roberts argued in 1993: “They allow us to speak in a new language to a wider audience.”[3]


Advantages of Digital Exhibitions


Eight years later the proliferation of the World Wide Web, in conjunction with advances in digitization, mean that exhibits have the potential to reach a much wider audience than Bowens and Roberts imagined. Since 1994 a number of articles in the professional literature have touted three main advantages of digital exhibitions: community outreach, preservation, and access. The writers contend that digital technology can help libraries “build on traditional strengths while extending the library’s role from custodian of the culture to disseminator.”[4]

Exhibitions are an outcome the library’s traditional educational function. In addition, physical exhibits have been used to promote the library as a community center. By attracting visitors to the physical building with exhibits, libraries have been able to highlight their collections and services, reinforcing their position as a vital community institution.

Using digital exhibitions to strengthen the library’s image in the community is a viable plan for some libraries. The University of Arizona at Tucson, for example, has enthusiastically embraced this use of digital exhibitions. In a 1998 article describing the university’s digital exhibition program Glogoff and Glogoff asserted that: “…libraries and archives can create a vehicle for outreach and establish a powerful presence in their communities.”[5]

By virtue of the World Wide Web, online exhibitions have the potential to reach individuals who may not be regular library users, thus providing another opportunity to educate about the library’s collections and services. In addition, local history exhibits can be a powerful tool for fostering a deeper sense of community and forging a stronger relationship between the institution and the public. The University of Arizona at Tucson’s online local history exhibits have been very successful in documenting the different ethnic communities and events that shaped the area. Glogoff and Glogoff maintain that the digital exhibition program has been instrumental in achieving a “…highly visible presence in the community, showing libraries working directly with individuals and community organizations.”[6]

Preserving collection materials is another much-touted advantage of online exhibition programs. In the University of Arizona case, community involvement in exhibition development uncovered important historical materials in need of care. This a traditional benefit of physical exhibition might now be transferred to digital exhibits.

 However, the most frequently cited benefit of digitization projects is the creation of digital surrogates. As the Glogoffs argue: “Digitizing material that is fragile or requested frequently can … preserve the original for those few instances when a researcher requires physical inspection.”[7] Ideally, digital surrogates created in the course of exhibition development allow access to the intellectual content without physical interaction with the artifact.

Creation of digital surrogates can come about in two ways. Collections materials may be digitized upon inclusion in a physical exhibit with a complementary online exhibit. Or, as suggested in Robert Skinner’s article “Multimedia Resource Access: the ‘Last Frontier’,” materials may be digitized in lieu of physical display: “…objects that for reasons of condition cannot be subjected to potential damage of “real exhibits” may be amenable to exhibition on the Internet.”[8] The former uses digital surrogates as an access method, extending the exhibition and collections to virtual audiences. The latter functions as a preservation tool, protecting fragile materials from the environmental and physical dangers of exhibition preparation and display. In either case, the digital preservation of the artifact becomes an automatic byproduct of the exhibition of process.

But more than the artifact itself is preserved. In the case of physical exhibits with complementary online exhibits, the exhibit itself is preserved. The online version ensures that the intellectual content remains long after the displays are changed.[9] Some library exhibitions online include photographs of the physical exhibit, documenting the event as well as the content. Virtual exhibits, those developed digitally without any physical manifestation, may be saved and archived, thus making them “permanent”.

Access is the third in the triumvirate of advantages of digital exhibitions. Mounting an exhibit on the Internet expands intellectual access to the material geographically and temporally. While some physical exhibits may travel to other parts of the city or country, a library exhibit traveling to another part of the globe is exceedingly rare. In this capacity an online exhibit “…offers an opportunity to further scholarship beyond its own walls.”[10] Interested parties unable to visit the physical exhibition can enjoy the treasures virtually, no longer impeded by physical distance. In addition, access to online exhibitions is not constrained building or personal schedules, as noted by Schnell: “…The networked environment of the Web means an exhibit can be viewed by anyone, at anytime…”[11]

Improvements in geographic and temporal accessibility aside, digital exhibitions can expose unique and archival materials to an audience without previous knowledge of their existence or lacking reason to consult such materials. Items and collections once limited to advanced researchers may find new audiences on the Internet. Glogoff and Glogoff write: “…materials heretofore inaccessible to most of the community are merely a mouse click away…”[12]

In addition to increased access, promises of preservation, and broader community outreach, writers contend that online exhibitions offer functionality that physical exhibits simply cannot. In a review of an early Library of Congress digital exhibit, Edward Valauskas reported: “The online “Rome Reborn” exhibit is incredibly richer than the static and now long-gone analog exhibit …”[13] Like so many others that followed, the digital exhibition “Rome Reborn” includes items not displayed in the physical exhibit due to their fragile condition, or lack of exhibition space.[14] Other libraries may include hypertext links from their online exhibitions to other websites of interest; direct links to special collections and archival finding aids; and digitally enhanced image files to provide detailed views.[15]

In a paper on the benefits of digital exhibits for museums, Diane Vogt O’Connor argues: “Electronic exhibits are good value, as they allow museums to test out innovative ideas in a relatively low-cost and low-risk environment. Electronic exhibits also provide an exciting new forum for museum professionals, particularly younger curators, archivists, and librarians, who might otherwise have to wait decades before mounting a more costly traditional exhibit.”[16] While the economics of exhibits in museums and libraries may differ, the promise of digital exhibitions as low-risk environments for experimentation from all staff is universal. For libraries (and even museums), the biggest obstacle may be implementing a viable digitization program in order to create digital surrogates and mount exhibits online. But, with such a program in place, it would be possible to sponsor multiple exhibitions by inspired staff members without concern for exhibition space and scheduling.


Disadvantages of Digital Exhibitions

            While the promises of digital exhibitions for increased access and preservation are well documented in the scant professional literature on the topic, the disadvantages of such endeavors are not as widely discussed. The benefits to access, and especially preservation, have drawbacks that have not yet been fully examined.

            In her 1996 article, O’Connor briefly covers the issue of digital longevity, citing Jeff Rothenberg’s 1995 Scientific American article on the subject. How long will digital files last? In 1996, O’Connor reported that digital files had a life expectancy of 10 to 20 years. But within that life expectancy, files may require migration to new formats with improvements in software and hardware. Information may be lost during a migration, as result of earlier file compression, or difficulties during the migration process. In other cases, digital exhibitions may be lost simply because institutions decide to sacrifice the files instead of maintaining them indefinitely. In either case, the fragility of digital files weakens the argument that online exhibitions have a permanence lacking in physical exhibits.

            None of the writers cited above reflects on the topic of how digital preservation for artifacts will negatively impact access to originals. For all concerned, the ability to provide electronic access to the intellectual content of the piece is a win-win scenario: preserving the artifact without completely restricting access. Most envision a system where only the most advanced researchers would be allowed to interact with the physical item, while all others would make do with the digital surrogate. 

But what of the mystique of the original artifact? Will electronic exposure to a manuscript or rare book whet the public’s appetite for a glimpse of the real thing? Few writers in the profession are reflecting on the possibility that electronic access to special collections may increase the public’s desire to use those collections, perhaps even requiring that libraries mount special exhibits showcasing those items on display electronically. Certainly the profession would benefit from more studies of how electronic access to library collections may negatively impact services.


Survey of Library Online Exhibitions

A survey of library websites around the country was conducted in order to assess the impact of the positive press on digital exhibitions in the professional literature. Have libraries continued to implement online exhibitions since Robert Skinner reported that “over 30 institutions, museums, galleries or other entities” had mounted virtual exhibitions on the Internet in 1994?[17] The following questions were also considered:

What types of libraries mount electronic exhibitions? Do the exhibitions complement physical exhibits, or only exist virtually? What is the purpose of those exhibitions? Do they showcase collection treasures; explore themes; present local and/or institutional histories; or, serve library public relations programs?

While several websites compile online exhibitions (including both museums and libraries), this survey visited library websites compiled on the Library Index page at Library Index was chosen due to its focus on library websites and its clear organizational scheme. Library websites in the United States are posted by state, grouped according to library type, and arranged alphabetically by library name within their type. Due to time constraints this survey is not exhaustive and did not visit every website posted on Library Index. At the conclusion of the survey, 559 library websites had been visited: 457 academic and special library websites, and 102 public library websites, in 18 states. Eventually, public library websites were excluded from the survey when only 2 of 102 sites mentioned exhibitions. However, it should be acknowledged that some major metropolitan public libraries, like New York Public and Los Angeles public, do host online exhibitions.

The search for online exhibitions on each website proceeded as follows: upon successful connection, the homepage was searched for a direct link to “exhibitions” or “events.” If no such link existed on the homepage, the “What’s New” and “About the Library” sections were searched. Next, any Special Collections link, or section outlining departments, was searched. Finally, if no exhibition links were found by the above methods, the site index was consulted.

Of the 559 library websites visited, 54 hosted online exhibitions. 24 were linked directly from the homepage. 22 were linked from the Special Collections page, and 7 were found in either the “What’s New”, “About the Library,” or Site Index sections.

            A random sample of 25 exhibitions was visited. Though it was sometimes difficult to determine whether the online exhibition was created to complement and document a physical exhibit, or only existed virtually, best deductions show that 7 of the 25 accompanied physical exhibits, while 18 only existed virtually.

            Prior to the survey, four general exhibition themes were isolated: library public relations, showcasing treasures from collection, exploring a scholarly theme, and institutional or community history.

Exhibitions devoted to library public relations aimed to educate the public about the role of the library in society and the use of collections for scholarship. 2 of the 25 exhibitions were dedicated to library public relations.

Exhibitions focusing on the treasures housed in the Special Collections department offered images and didactic material related to the object, often explaining the importance of the object in the collection and, sometimes, in society. 11 of the 25 exhibitions focused on treasures from the collection.

The next thematic group performed the traditional exhibition role of exploring an historical, aesthetic, or social theme, using a selection of materials from the collection. This thematic group does not explore the history of the sponsoring institution or the local community. 10 of the 25 exhibitions explored scholarly themes.

The final group presented institutional and/or local community history using special collections and archival materials. These exhibits were often mounted in conjunction with an anniversary or specific commemoration. 2 of the 25 exhibitions presented institutional and/or local community histories.

Due to the small sample of library digital exhibitions studied for this survey, only tentative observations can be presented. Of the 54 libraries hosting digital exhibitions 2 were on a small college campus, 2 were special libraries (art and performing arts), and 4 were historical society libraries. The remaining 46 were medium and large research libraries. Overall, exhibitions of any kind remain a staple of special collections departments in large research. This would explain the few digital exhibitions sponsored by public libraries. Those public libraries hosting digital exhibitions are usually large metropolitan institutions with special collections, like New York Public Library and Los Angeles Public Library.

Smaller libraries may lack the staff and the budget to mount digital exhibitions from their collections, special or not. Perhaps lack of an existing exhibitions program due to space restrictions precludes other libraries from implementing a virtual exhibition program? A more in-depth study of different library organizations schemes and programs is needed to fully answer these questions.

The breakdown of exhibition themes reveals that libraries with digital exhibitions programs explore similar themes as traditional exhibition programs. If the majority of digital exhibits complemented physical exhibits this would not be as surprising. But, since 18 of the 25 exhibitions studied were virtual, this could suggest a number of things. Perhaps these libraries are grasping the opportunity to mount multiple exhibits free of physical constraints. Or, perhaps exhibition developers are not yet comfortable enough with the relatively new technology at their disposal to explore new models and themes for exhibition. It may be that the promise of broader dissemination of traditional library exhibition themes to non-traditional audiences is sufficient at this time. Whatever the underlying cause for the reliance on standard exhibition themes, it is clear from this small sample that libraries are using the Internet to disseminate, not re-fashion, their exhibition programs.

While the creation of these digital exhibitions does promise to aid in the mission of their hosting institution, their placement on library home pages does not. 24 of the 54 libraries with digital exhibitions had visible links from the homepage to the exhibitions site. The remaining 29 were often 1, if not 2, levels into the web site, with one level corresponding to one mouse-click. Though statistically this is not a high percentage of difference, it is curious that products with such a high potential for positive public relations should be buried on department web pages. Is this an example of the institution’s belief that exhibitions are a non-essential activity, as discussed in Bowen and Roberts “Exhibitions: Illegitimate Children of Academic Libraries”?[18] Or, are exhibitions links victims of website politics, where departments battle over placement and design.


            While the library profession’s web presence continues to steadily increase, with more catalogs and finding aids available over the Internet, digital exhibitions are not proliferating at the same rate. True, there are some enthusiastic boosters of digital exhibitions programs and their benefits for library and community relations. However, in reality, exhibitions and, as an offshoot, digital exhibitions remain the domain of large academic institutions with special collections departments. Whether the impediments to adoption of digital exhibitions in smaller academic and public libraries are the result of funding, staffing, or functional issues requires more study.





Bowen, Laurel G. and Peter J. Roberts, “Exhibitions: Illegitimate Children of Academic Librarians?” College and Research Libraries 54:5 (September 1993)


Casterline, Gail Farr. Archives & Manuscripts: Exhibits. 1980 (Chicago: Society of American Archivists)


Glogoff, Louise G. and Stuart Glogoff. “Using the World Wide Web for Community Outreach: Enriching Library Service to the Community.” Internet Reference Services Quarterly 3:1 (1998)


Library of Congress, [digital exhibition] “Rome Reborn: the Vatican Library & Renaissance Culture,” Available [ONLINE]: [December, 7, 2001]


Lord, Lissa. “Keeping our Word.” College and Research Library News (Sept. 1999)


O’Connor, Diane Vogt. “Exhibitions in Cyberspace: Museum Exhibition Documentation at the Millennium.” Art Documentation 15:1 (1996)


Schnell, Eric. “Using the World Wide Web Medium for Library Exhibits. MC Journal: The Journal of Academic Media Librarianship 4:2 (1996)


Skinner, Robert. “Multimedia Resource Access: the ‘Last Frontier’.” Resource Sharing & Information Networks 10:1-2 (1995)


Utah State University Special Collections Department. Available [ONLINE]: [December 3, 2001]


Valauskas, Edward J. “Digital Images over the Internet: Rome Reborn at the Library of Congress.” Database 17:2 (1994)



Digital Exhibitions Consulted


All links operational as of December 7, 2001.


Arizona Historical Society.


California State Library.


California State Polytechnic University, Pomona.


Feuchtwanger Memorial Library, University of Southern California.


Getty Research Institute.


Northern Arizona University.


University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa.


University of Alaska, Anchorage. http://www.lib.uaa.alaska.edua/archives/


University of Alaska, Fairbanks.


University of Arizona Library.


San Francisco Performing Arts Library.


University of California, San Francisco.








[1] Utah State University Special Collections Department. Available [ONLINE]: [December 3, 2001]

[2] Gail Farr Casteline. Archives & Manuscripts: Exhibits. 1980 (Chicago: Society of American Archivists):


[3] Laurel G. Bowen and Peter J. Roberts, “Exhibitions: Illegitimate Children of Academic Librarians?” College and Research Libraries 54:5 (September 1993): 413.

[4] Louise G. Glogoff and Stuart Glogoff, “Using the World Wide Web for Community Outreach: Enriching Library Service to the Community,” Internet Reference Services Quarterly 3:1 (1998): 25.

[5] op cit, 16.

[6] op cit, 17.

[7] op cit, 22.

[8] Robert Skinner, “Multimedia Resource Access: the ‘Last Frontier’,” Resource Sharing & Information Networks 10:1-2 (1995): 110.

[9] Eric Schnell, “Using the World Wide Web Medium for Library Exhibits,” MC Journal: The Journal of Academic Media Librarianship 4:2 (1996): 1; Skinner, 110.

[10] Skinner, 110.

[11] Schnell, 1.

[12] Glogoff and Glogoff, 16.

[13] Edward J. Valauskas, “Digital Images over the Internet: Rome Reborn at the Library of Congress,” Database 17:2 (1994): 58.

[14] Library of Congress, [digital exhibition] “Rome Reborn: the Vatican Library & Renaissance Culture,” Available [ONLINE]: [December, 7, 2001]

[15] Lissa Lord, “Keeping our Word,” College and Research Library News (Sept. 1999): 630.

[16] Diane Vogt O’Connor, “Exhibitions in Cyberspace: Museum Exhibition Documentation at the Millennium,” Art Documentation 15:1 (1996): 17.

[17] Skinner, 110.

[18] Bowen and Roberts, 407-415.