Post 2: Exhibitions and Related Programming at Libraries

Many of us have seen small displays of artwork or historic collections when we’ve visited libraries.  More recently, exhibitions and related programming initiated by libraries have developed beyond small collections of objects on loan from a patron and displayed in a case.

Performance Art and Events

Patrons can work with librarians to create physical or virtual exhibitions or even events – such as performance art.  For instance, Dartmouth College in 2002 hosted a visiting artist who collaborated with the community on a project that took place in front of and reflected on themes from the historic murals in their library.   “Gómez-Peña relied on student performers and members of the campus community to bring his piece to life” (Beahan et. al, 2009, p 198).


Academic libraries have partnered with other departments on collaborative projects such as art competitions. At the John F. Reed Library at Fort Lewis College the interim director collaborated with the Art Department to offer a student art competition.  The call for proposals was circulated throughout the campus community and a cross-disciplinary selection panel made up of faculty, staff, and students met to identify winner.  The selection was based on a rubric developed previously between the library and art department (Oliver, 2012, para 9-11).  Something to note with this project is how mindfully the different departments structured their project so that it would run as smoothly as possible, draw on each area’s strengths, and help develop strong relationships with the students who were involved.

Using the Library as “Canvas”

Renovations coupled with concerns that the academic focus of the O’Callahan Science library was alienating a wider range of students led to a collaborative project with the art department.  Students were charged by the library and their professor, Christi Rinklin with creating “science-inspired, bright, colorful artwork on a large scale that at the same time would enable her students to study the principles and practices of color theory and its application” (Merolli, 2016, para 7).

This collaboration was engaging to the students and transformed what might have been a very dark and depressing construction zone into a space that not only reflected scientific themes but incorporated creative student interpretations of those themes.

Highlighting Library Resources

Exhibitions can be a successful way to represent the depth of a library’s holdings by displaying items from special collections.  In doing this, patrons can interact with the resources of the library in new ways. Thematic exhibitions can highlight timely topics, can call attention to local historical figures or can illuminate dense subject matter. One example of a major research-based public library with major resources to devote to ambitious special exhibitions is the New York Public Library.

NYPL’s central library exhibition program almost exclusively presents exhibitions from its own collections. Rare Books, Food, and Dance are just some of the library’s special collections. The central library exhibits material from the collections of the Schomburg Center and the New York Library of the Performing Arts. The exhibitions are generally thematic, varied in media, and organized into large or medium-sized scholarly exhibitions. Exhibitions strive to interpret the library’s collection and to show as many sections of the collection as possible in an exhibition (Connell, 1996, p71).

Digital Exhibitions

Digital exhibitions are a recent development as the resources and flexibility of the internet provide new ways to curate and display items. Exploring this arena can give libraries the opportunity to focus on specific themes or ideas and is not subject to physical space limitations, limited access hours, or the care and upkeep needed to display delicate or rare objects.

In Creating a Winning Online Exhibition: A Guide for Libraries, Archives, and Museums, M. R. Kalfatovic (2001) points to multiple types of digital exhibitions based on the specific approaches: Five types of exhibition effects that you may wish to consider are

Aesthetic: organized around the beauty of the objects

Emotive: designed to illicit an emotion in the viewer

Evocative: designed to create an atmosphere

Didactic: constructed to teach about something specific

Entertaining: presented just for fun! (pp 3-4)


There are a multitude of ways that libraries can utilize exhibitions and related programming to engage their patrons and their communities. Care in planning, awareness of audience, willingness to experiment, and a commitment to sharing information in multiple formats supports these endeavors. Many of the institutions referred to in this post that initiated this collaborative programming were very pleased with what resulted from their efforts.

Cited Sources:

Beahan, M. J., Graveline, L. K., & Taxman, J. R. (2009). Uncommon partners: Facilitating creative collaborations in the arts across campus. College & Undergraduate Libraries, 16(2-3), 194-210. doi:10.1080/10691310903007918

Connell, K. (1996). Beyond the display case: The current state of exhibitions in the public library (Order No. 1379332). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses A&I; ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (238153323). Retrieved from

Kalfatovic, M. R. (2001). Creating a Winning Online Exhibition : A Guide for Libraries, Archives, and Museums. Chicago, US: ALA Editions. Retrieved from

Oliver, A. (2012). Strengthening on-campus relationships via an annual student art commission. Journal of Library Innovation, 3(2), 89-104. Retrieved from

Merolli, B. (2016). DRAWING ON WALLS and other alliances. The Catholic Library World, 87(1), 14-21. Retrieved from

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