Soft power: how and what libraries can learn from museums

International Museums Day is celebrated in May 2019. Kenn Bicknell considers the lessons libraries can learn from museums.

Has there ever been a more challenging or rewarding time to work in the libraries? We are adopting new technologies, becoming more inclusive, showcasing inspirational architecture and design, solidifying our role as society’s ‘third place,’ and rising to the challenge of being one of the last trusted institutions in civil society.

But one thing I don’t hear much about amongst the buzz: how all libraries together can replicate the successes of museums in identifying and taking advantage of potential opportunities to leverage soft power.

Like libraries, museums seek to inform, educate, and empower users.  But many of our fellow cultural heritage institutions effectuate broad change at even higher levels, and libraries should be considering how they can replicate, customise, and sustain the same types of positive impact for themselves and the communities they serve.

Take for example, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR) ( in Winnipeg, the world’s first museum of human rights and the first national museum in Canada built outside the capital in a half century (both aspirational statements in their own right).  Its mission is to enhance the public’s understanding of, and respect for, others, and to encourage reflection and dialogue.  Aboriginal Canadians have been involved in every phase of the museum’s development, creating a place where people meet to dialogue, explore, and even to protest. 

The Museum’s part in bettering society goes beyond the traditional functions associated with collecting, interpreting, and providing access to resources.  It challenges preconceptions, fosters dialogue, and unabashedly holds a mirror up to the community.

At Brazil’s Museum of Tomorrow in Rio de Janeiro (, sustainability and climate change take centre stage. In this case, visitors interact with mostly digital exhibits, with a focus on ideas rather than objects.  Even its name plays a role in leveraging soft power:  Tomorrow is closer than ‘the future,’ highlighting a message of urgency. 

A focus on readily-available real-time climate and population data from space agencies and the United Nations harnessed into data visualisation and other contextual tools illustrates the impact of the ‘Anthropocene Era.’  Rather than traditional exhibits, it explains how man has negatively affected the planet more since 1950 than in the preceding 200,000 years -- and what we may still be able to do to arrest the accelerated extinctions, altered atmosphere, if not our irrevocably impacted Earth.  Like the CMHR, it leaves visitors with an experience consisting of more questions than answers, and hopefully a longer impact going forward.

Here in Los Angeles, The Museum of Tolerance ( seeks to remind us of the past, as well as to remind us to act.  Its mission is to prevent hatred and genocide in the future.  Over 130,000 students per year, plus corporations, educators, police agencies, and others of all backgrounds confront their most closely-held assumptions and assume responsibility for change.  Again, rather than merely documenting our darkest periods of history, it engages visitors at an entirely different level to maximise the potential for leaving the museum carrying its values forward.

This leads us back to libraries, where these lofty ideas can be scaled appropriately to libraries of all sizes and varying resource availability.

Great things are not achieved without dreaming big, even if we are operating at a small scale.  Libraries are already sitting on mountains of free data, accessible research, and a talent pool which knows no bounds.  They could promote important issues such human rights, sustainability, and diversity/equity/inclusion if they go beyond providing access to information and take a stand with universal values. 

But we may already be witnessing the seeds of a new golden age of libraries in both concept and application. 

Brian Pichman at the Evolve Project ( seeks to partner libraries with technology start-ups, believing that libraries should be creating stories rather than just providing them.  The small companies can share their technology, ideas, and resources with libraries who in turn provide access to user focus groups, meeting space, interaction and collaboration partners.  Engaging new audiences through strategic and innovative partnerships is one way libraries can easily amplify their impact.

In his recent work Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life (, noted sociologist Eric Klinenberg explains that “libraries are not the kinds of institutions that social scientists, policy makers, and community leaders usually bring up when they discuss social capital and how to build it.  But they are among the most critical, and undervalued, forms of social infrastructure that we have.”  Klinenberg argues that the shared space of libraries makes society better.  For example, the presence of homeless or mentally ill visitors is a positive feature of libraries since it compels us to confront our radical differences in a shared space.

In Finland, visionary librarians and others are living these values.  It may be challenging to create an organisation that stands out given that Finnish law requires every municipality must have a public library.  So what does the most literate country on earth do for its 100th birthday?  It gives itself a new national library named Oodi (, “a library of a new era, a living and functional meeting place open for all” on the most prestigious piece of land in the nation, across from the Finnish Parliament.

As the planning launched for Oodi, Helsinki residents were asked a question that library professionals should really be asking themselves: “What are you dreaming about?”

Kenn Bicknell is Digital Resources Librarian at the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority Research Library & Archive. Contact/follow him at: