It's a Vision Thing :
A Modest Proposal Concerning General Libraries  Exhibits

by Victoria Beatty
Member, Exhibits Committee, 1993-1996
Report Submitted November 1996

Table of Contents

Library Exhibits...Why?
Visions of a Plugged-In, Switched-On Humanist
Taking Advantage of the Wonders
Exciting Exhibits or Exiting?
The Status Quo--What's Wrong with this Picture?
I.  Inexperience
II.  Duplication of Effort, Wasted Effort
III.  Unclear Responsibilities
IV.  Volunteer Work Force

Library Exhibits...Why?

The charge of the Exhibits Committee of the General Libraries is "to promote the marketing and public relations functions of the General Libraries...." And the exhibits slated for 1996/97 reflect that charge. However, the Exhibits Committee has traditionally created exhibits which use the resources of the General Libraries to support a larger mission:   that of the University itself. That mission is to educate, to introduce new ideas, to make connections between past and present, to promote cultural activities, and to produce leaders with vision for the future. Harry Ransom, former chancellor of the University, recognized this. Writing in the Texas Quarterly (Summer-Autumn 1958), he was eloquent on the subject:

We must take advantage of the wonders that science and technology have opened up to humanistic teaching.... We owe these new developments more than the empty compliment of talk about broader contexts for the communication of ideas and wider sharing of the arts and languages and literatures. In other words, we should participate in changes and not simply applaud them....We must not be concerned merely with the humanities, nor with education alone, nor with teaching simply as a process. We must combine these in the principle that in some respects the most important humanistic education must begin where students leave off their school or college education....We must assume that somewhere in our scheme there is a place -- not measured and calculated -- for the pleasures of the mind, for the instruction of the heart, for the reformation of manners, for the lifting of human sights, for the foundation of ideals, and for the cultivation of understanding among men -- all men....The immediate future of humanistic education...may well seem appalling, for we are living through a period as mind-rocking as the ages of Galileo, Newton, or Darwin. By many practical people the humanities have been invited to beat a retreat in the face of such formidable developments. Instead we should confront the developments and advance.

More recently, Harold Billings, Director of the General Libraries, expressed similar values in an article entitled, "The Tomorrow Librarian:"

Knowledgeable in library and information science, technologically informed, educated broadly in the basic precepts of art and humane concern, dedicated to public service, willing to be leaders and to take risks in shaping the future information society -- in whatever shape it comes -- the librarians of the future, like the best librarians of yesterday and today, should be conceived in the truest of renaissance traditions. (Wilson Library Bulletin, January 1995)

Visions of a Plugged-In, Switched-On Humanist

The General Libraries have participated in changes and have been, in fact, a model for other academic libraries in promoting new technologies for education and research. Harry Ransom would be proud if he could see us now; yet I think he would also feel that something important may be at risk.

While throwing all of its resources into the technical aspects of innovation, the General Libraries has allowed more humanistic programs such as the Ruth Stephan Poetry Series to fall by the wayside. When library exhibits begin to look like info-mercials, I begin to wonder whether academic libraries, which have always stood like wise islands in a sea of babel, may be slipping into the general commercial chaos. This is the common complaint one hears about the Internet. "Sure, there's a lot of information out there, but what good is it? There's nothing really of that much value." I think people feel instinctively that raw information is very far from being knowledge, much less wisdom.

Taking Advantage of the Wonders

Yet those of us who are trained as librarians, information specialists, and Internet consultants know that there is a wealth of information which we are uniquely qualified to share with a new, worldwide public. We, more than any other group, have the combination of education, scholarship, research expertise, and teaching and interpretive skills to lead the way in "[taking] advantage of the wonders that science and technology have opened up to humanistic teaching." We, more than any other group, have the ability to gather, select, arrange, and interpret information so that, with this value added, it ceases to be merely information, but is transmuted into knowledge. And we, more than any other group, have a history of standing for liberty and democracy and literacy. We have been the bridge builders, helping to transform a nation of immigrants into an informed populace.

It is interesting to juxtapose two relevant quotations. The first is from Harry Ransom, writing in the Winter 1959 Texas Quarterly :

[The Academic Center's] planners have resisted all influences to make the place a mausoleum of dead ideas attended by the undertakers of polite scholarship. No amount of planning can anticipate the opportunities and obligations which a dynamic education program will produce from year to year. Equally important inhabitants of the mere building, of course, will be both the immortal words and the growing, mortal minds. The really significant changes that lie ahead will therefore be mental rather than architectural.

The second is from Gary Chapman, Director of the 21st Century Project at the LBJ School of Public Affairs. In a recent speech to the White House Conference on Libraries and Information Services (Greenville, S. C., August 1996), he said:

Many libraries through the U.S. have become essentially professionalized institutions that house two things: structured information and professional librarians. And like other professionalized institutions in modern society, like universities, the original social mission begins to be overwhelmed by the survival instinct of the institution itself....What's wrong with this picture? ...If libraries are to take seriously their role as part of a community's 'social capital,' they can't be just four walls around a lot of books, or even a lot of computers. They have to be part of the community, part of the community's life, extended into the community, and the Internet is a new way to make that social mission come alive again. But this means making the Internet itself a community resource, a lively part of community and neighborhood life, and not just a digital update of TV or a graphically rich version of Lexis/Nexis databases.

There is a place for exhibits advertising library services, of course, but these are not the kind of exhibit likely to get students excited. I wish the library administration could hear all the comments we hear while putting up or taking down exhibits. In the Main Building, people have walked up to me and said, "Who is responsible for doing these exhibits? They're really great! I always read every word. Thank you so much!" In PCL, people call up to check on the library hours because they want to bring a date to look at the exhibit. Or people protest as we're removing an exhibit, "But I just called up my friend and told her she had to come see this!" They hover over us, trying desperately to read it before it disappears.

Exciting Exhibits or Exiting?

This is the kind of thing I always got excited about as a student: the marvelous synergy of the University, in which material I was introduced to in one class would then miraculously come up for discussion in my other classes. Connections -- the present considered in relation to the past.. The humanities are what allow us to transform information into knowlege and ultimately into wisdom.

Unfortunately, the combination of cuts in staffing levels combined with unprecedented pressures to learn and master new technologies in a rapidly changing environment have effectively squeezed these programs out. All these programs have been almost entirely volunteer efforts by visionary library employees who believed in them enough to make them work. The General Libraries has provided materials and supplies but has expected almost all of the bulk of the organization, planning and creative work to be done by staff on top of their regular duties. The time has come when there is no more blood to be squeezed from this turnip.

The Status Quo: What's Wrong with this Picture?

If the General Libraries wishes to continue producing exhibits (as I think it does, if for no other reason than that the Main Building cases represent a bully pulpit), it should reconsider the costs involved. The committee process is an extremely costly one, and there is much truth in the adage, "too many cooks spoil the broth." I believe I can demonstrate significant costs resulting in lost productivity in four major areas: inefficiencies due to inexperience and continual reinvention of wheel; inefficiencies due to duplication of effort and wasted effort; inefficiencies due to unclear responsibilities; and inefficiencies due to a volunteer work force.

I. Inexperience

Many past members of the committee have devoted much time and effort to improving efficiency of the exhibit production process through better communication. Jim Retherford has created detailed scale drawings of all of the exhibit cases, as well as standard sizes and shapes of photo and text blocks, also drawn to scale. George Cogswell has painstakingly created timelines of all stages of the planning and execution of an exhibit, and distributed schedules based upon these timelines. Previous committee members have defined and redefined the various roles of author, team leader/liaison, and artist in order to clarify the duties of each.

Despite all this, exhibits continue to go up late, after much midnight-oil-burning by everyone involved, and the entire experience remains so traumatic that each new author vows never to volunteer to do this again. Thus the learning curve has to begin anew with each new exhibit, and valuable time is lost again and again as we reinvent the wheel. This makes for a certain inherent lack of organization due to the inexperience of each new exhibit author.

II. Duplication of Effort, Wasted Effort

In several recent exhibits, much time was lost due to the fact that the exhibit authors had minimal experience using word processing software and thus had great difficulty manipulating their files. Because of this, the liaison member of the committee had to spend a great deal of time simply organizing the information before the process of editing and formatting could even begin. Giving the job to someone who is adept in these skills would save many hours in which committee members are currently redoing each other's work.

In other recent exhibits, the author spent a huge amount of time and effort in writing lengthy text which subsequently had to be reduced by half in order to fit the exhibit space. This is another reason to hire an experienced writer/editor who is accustomed to writing to fit a given space.

III. Unclear Responsibilities

The practice of relying upon volunteer authors leads to many problems, some of which have already been outlined. Because of the wide variance in abilities of the volunteers, certain problems of artistic control arise. Some authors have no graphic ideas about how their exhibit should be presented; some have definite ideas but (not to put too fine a point on it) no taste; some have definite ideas as well as artistic sensibilities but no experience in exhibit production and consequently unrealistic ideas about the process; others have definite ideas, good taste, as well as considerable experience. All of these discrepancies lead to problems and confusion in the area where the roles of author and artist intersect. Because of the authors who are lacking in one area or another, the artist must be given control over the final look of the exhibit, but this can lead to frustration for the authors whose ideas differed. Hiring an exhibits coordinator might not completely eliminate this problem, but it would go far towards alleviating it.

IV. Volunteer Work Force

Finally, it is completely unrealistic for the General Libraries to expect a largely volunteer work force to adhere to a published schedule. Cuts in staffing have resulted in heavy workloads for everyone, and volunteering to research and write an exhibit adds a huge burden. Primary responsibility for writing and executing exhibits should be given to a salaried staff member. Employees who wish to take on an exhibit project should work in partnership with this person.


For all these reasons, it makes sense for the General Libraries to streamline its operations and hire a qualified, experienced writer/editor/designer to take responsibility for this important outreach function. The amount of productivity lost through the inefficient involvement of so many people is simply staggering. This is a perfect example of a system which is penny-wise but pound-foolish. In a slower, more prosperous time -- a time when most library employees still had reasonable workloads -- the committee process, though inefficient, worked well enough. Now that employees have much less flexibility in their schedules, it is time to look for more efficient ways to further the goals of the General Libraries.

The University stands on the threshold of a new era in which distance education will transform the role of the traditional university. The General Libraries should lead the way in this new arena, as they have led the way in expanding digital literacy within the University. Expanding exhibits onto the World Wide Web, promoting their use as educational tools, and building a broader community audience would seem to be an ideal way of accomplishing a number of important goals for the General Libraries, as well as for the University.

Expanding the scope of library exhibits would afford an opportunity to expand our audience by untold orders of magnitude, introducing not only the university community to the educational programs of the libraries, but also prospective students and their parents, not to mention children who may never have even dreamed of attending a university -- who may never before have experienced the thrill of learning. As Harold Billings has pointed out (Wilson Library Bulletin, January 1995), "Demographics suggest how much society will be at the mercy of the plague of illiteracy unless those of us at every level of educational responsibility work to mitigate this problem." Moreover, updating the traditional image of the academic library would make it more appealing to a demographic group whose support will become increasingly important.

As transmission speeds increase exponentially, the web will become an even more important communications medium than it is today. In his 1993 book, The Electronic Word: Democracy, Technology, and the Arts, Richard Lanham wrote, "Librarians of electronic information...must consciously construct human attention-structures rather than assemble a collection of books according to commonly accepted rules. They have, perhaps unwillingly, found themselves transported from the ancillary margin of the human sciences to their center." Libraries would do well to take a leaf from the book of museums, which responded to the challenges presented by the media by becoming interactive, vital environments which actively reach out to new audiences.


Recognizing that the digital revolution is transforming traditional models of educational institutions and redefining the roles of educators, administrators, librarians, students, and members of society in general, the General Libraries should play a proactive role in expanding the library's identity as a vital, dynamic member of the university community as well as of the larger community.

Libraries have much in common with museums, whose example is quite instructive. In the last twenty-five years, museums have largely reinvented themselves, changing from static, archival displays to dynamic, interactive playscapes which promote active learning through the recognition and support of differing learning styles.

Accordingly, the library exhibits program should be utilized as an important vehicle for distance education and community outreach, expanding onto the World Wide Web and offering special programs to the local community. A visionary approach to library exhibits would include the following recommendations:


  1. University of Texas at Austin. Strategic Plan, 1994-1999. Austin: Univ. of Texas at Austin, 1992.

  2. Ransom, Harry. "The Arts of Uncertainty." Texas Quarterly, Summer/Autumn 1958: vii-xiii.

  3. Billings, Harold. "The Tomorrow Librarian." Wilson Library Bulletin, January 1995: 34-37.

  4. ________. "The College Library." Texas Quarterly, Winter 1959: vii-xii.

  5. Chapman, Gary. Speech to the White House Conference on Libraries and Information Services, Greenville, S.C. [Online]. Available: [August 1996].

  6. Billings, Harold. "The Tomorrow Librarian." Wilson Library Bulletin, January 1995: 34-37.

  7. Lanham, Richard. The Electronic Word: Democracy, Technology, and the Arts. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1993.

  8. Buildings, Books, and Bytes: Libraries and Communities in the Digital Age [Online]. Benton Foundation. Available: [November 1996].

  9. National Information Infrastructure Advisory Council (U.S.). KickStart Initiative: Connecting America's Communities to the Information Superhighway [Online]. Available: [February 13, 1996].

  10. ______. A Nation of Opportunity: Realizing the Promise of the Information Superhighway [Online]. Available: [February 13, 1996].

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