Displaying Our Wealth: Exhibitions Make an Auspicious Comeback; New York Public's Meticulously Mounted Displays Demonstrate How to Tout Library Treasures with Style

Article excerpt

SUSAN F. SAIDENBERG

A member of the New York Public Library staff since 1984, Susan F Saidenberg became manager of the library's Exhibitions Program Office in 1988. She has an MA in history from Columbia University and an MS in museum education from Bank Street College She has taught m the City University system and worked in New York museums from 1976 to 1984.

New York Public's meticulously mounted displays demonstrate how to tout library treasures with style

In libraries across the country, exhibitions popular with the general public and vigorously supported by library directors are flourishing. A user survey conducted in 1989 at the Central Research Library of New York Public Library yielded a surprising piece of information. Of 2,300 people interviewed during a six-week period, over 22% indicated that the purpose of their visit was to see one of the library's exhibitions.

Considering that the central library maintains the nation's largest reference and special collections open to the public without restriction, this figure is particularly revealing. Public interest in library exhibitions is growing, and it reflects a commitment by library administrators nationwide to plan and mount exhibitions.

The purpose of this article is twofold: to present a snapshot of the current scope of exhibitions and, using NYPL as a case study, to see how one library has chosen to develop and implement such projects.

Gallery revival:

For over a century, librarians have mounted exhibitions devoted primarily to their recent acquisitions or rare treasures. The most magnificent library buildings constructed at the turn of the century all included gallery spaces. Unfortunately, most of these spaces have either fallen into disuse or were converted for other purposes.

The revival of exhibitions has been occasioned in part by a recent wave of renovations taking place in libraries across the nation. New and enlarged exhibition spaces are becoming a central component of building plans.

While it is difficult to isolate specific reasons for the expanding enthusiasm for exhibitions, informal conversations reveal a common trend in thought: For major urban centers-Boston, Baltimore, Chicago, and New York-exhibitions increase public access to library collections.

Katherine Dribble, special collections librarian at Boston Public Library, comments that "in a public library, most materials are hidden away, and institutions need to give people a sense of the strength of the library and, consequently, a sense of its value as a resource to the city."

Echoing this conviction, Averill Kadis of the Enoch Pratt Library in Baltimore states that "exhibitions make collections come alive, for there is no better way to let people know about the library's resources." Kadis also considers exhibitions to be a service to the community, celebrating its history as weB as that of other cultures.

Exhibitions also serve as a "hook" to stimulate reading. As coordinator of the national touring exhibition "Censorship and Libraries," I visited several metropolitan libraries in 1984. At each site visitors would make it a point to stop and ask questions about censorship and were particularly interested in the "formerly banned books" on display.

Most library directors are acutely aware of the potential role of visual displays as a means to encourage reading and to investigate further the topics presented, but they have also become increasingly cognizant of the connection between exhibitions and funding. In addition to the goals of public service and education, many directors have come to recognize that the inherent visual nature of exhibitions reaffirms the viability and importance of the library, beginning with the banner flying at the entranceway. Exhibitions attract desperately needed financial support from the private and public sectors.

Last year the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York City purchased the building adjacent to the original mansion. …