An Interview with Tim Devin - Electronic Resources Librarian for New England Law | Boston

Why is Plinth, a blog about museums, interviewing a librarian from a law school? The reason we're talking to my good friend Tim Devin, the Electronic Resources Librarian of the New England Law | Boston (until recently known as the New England School of Law), is because we think too few people look at libraries as museums. But, in fact, libraries are a type of museum and as such, there are librarians that assume the roles of curators, conservators, and educators of those objects, just as one would in "traditional" museums. The only main difference I see is that they don't display the objects in the same way. Tim and I are going to dive in to this further. In addition to his role as a librarian, Tim is a brand new father, husband, artist, and the creator of the Somerville Stock Exchange.

Tim, would you agree with our need to emphasize that libraries are museums?

Did you see how fast I type that? It just appeared as if I copied and pasted it from somewhere else. That will be the last prewritten question or thought, I promise.

Also, since both of our names begin with the letter “T”, for the purpose of this interview, Tim’s responses will follow the heading “Somerville”, the city in which him and his family reside just outside of Boston, MA. Somerville = Tim

Somerville:  Hmmm. Well, there's a lot of parts to that question. Let me start with addressing the function of libraries as institutions. I think that there's a wide range of functions depending on the institution and what it sees as its role. I work at a small independent law school library whose function is to support the school’s course work. Other libraries are more geared towards research and preservation.

I think there's a parallel there with some changes in the museum world, from what I know of it, in terms of function and purpose.

Like I said, my school's library's role is to support the classes. While we do keep a lot of older historic material, our main goal is to offer new work that supports what the professors are teaching. And since so much of our material is now in databases, preservation sort of fades into the background.

It's more about access.

T:  So, you're a library of contemporary work? Where does the new work come from? They request it and you provide it?

Somerville:  Right, that part is a lot like curating in a museum. There's a librarian whose job it is to keep up on new material, decide if we want to buy it and other librarians weigh in. We also have programs where patrons can request that we temporarily borrow material from other libraries. Patrons can also request we buy things they want.
We also have an exciting new program where we have money on deposit with a vendor, and users can decide who to spend it.

T:  I think though the “preservation” lies in organizing the database efficiently? Readers wouldn't be able to access it if it wasn’t, which would effectively make it not there.

Somerville:  Yeah, I think that's a good point. Making the print and online material organized enough to find what you need, and making sure the online material works with the devices people have. But what's funny about the online world, is that since vendors decide how you can use their material, there's no guarantee that you can access the same ebook next year. Unlike a print book. Which is why I think traditional preservation as a role is fading away, and being replaced by access.

T:  Easy access, but predetermined access, not in the way you choose. Interesting.

Somerville:  There's a lot more material at your fingertips, but you also have a lot less control over it. As we've seen with Amazon recalling Orwell's ebooks that people had already paid for.

T:  Really? What was their reasoning?

Somerville:  They didn't have the licensing, apparently. They got in trouble there, so to make it "right", they deleted and refunded. Which is just the tip of the wonky world of online data.

T:  Can we go back for a second to the new program where you have a deposit with a vendor and readers can decide what to buy?

Somerville:  Sure, yeah. I'm excited about that. Basically, the idea is that we don't always know what people need, right? So if you come to a library with a particular need, and don't find something that suits you, then we've failed.

T:  I think that's interesting because it made me wonder how it was decided before? Who chose what to include in a library?

Somerville:  Enter this new program. We choose thousands of possible titles, and they appear as links in our online catalog. People then click on the ones they want, and we buy them instantly. They don't even know they've done it. It's both a way of saving money for us (by not buying stuff nobody needs), and a way of getting really specialized stuff for patrons.

T:  That's brilliant. It would amount to tracking where people go in a museum and watching what they look at, then bringing more objects that fit into what they viewed. So people stare at the Mona Lisa? So we fill our museum with Renaissance paintings or paintings of grimacing ladies? But libraries have always done this. Every time you take a book, they track it, so they've always had the data of what people are reading.

Somerville:  I think there's some concern there, that everyone has. If you only provide what people want, then maybe you're not providing everything they need. Which comes bundled up with fears of posing as an Authority.

T:  Isn't the Authority in thinking that we know what people need?

Somerville: True, that's true. Libraries want to provide what people say they need, but they also provide the classics, and try to keep up on latest developments.

T:  Or you just have to have provide both, just in case. So there's an authoritative body that maintains what that is within the world of libraries?

Somerville: Sure, that's a really important point: how do you decide what people need, and what's good enough to spend money on buying and time on maintaining. Even with the patron-purchase model I mentioned, us librarians still choose the broader range that patrons can choose from.

T:  That's where the science comes in? The Library Science that so many people are like, "How is being a librarian a science?"

Somerville:  That's right. I'm an Information Scientist! Actually, I don't really think it's a science. I think it's trial and error, and listening to people's needs, and knowing that as a librarian you can't possibly be an expert on every field of knowledge.

T:  Do you think libraries should fall into the museum category?

Somerville:  Glad you asked that. Like I said, I'm only speaking about my library's role. There are other institutions that seek out and preserve material. That's their purpose. I see that as similar to the museum's traditional role.
Another thing: Libraries are being more active lately in outreach, and selling their services / making people aware of what they have to offer. I think that's similar to what's going on in museums. The MFA's car shows, and what not. You can call it pandering, but it gets people in the door, and makes them excited about the institution.

T:  So I wanted to ask, how does a library attract more visitors? The Library of Congress has an insane display of Jefferson’s personal library. It's beautiful without even reading the actual books.

Somerville:  Wow, there's whole books written on that subject. It depends on what you have to offer. Public libraries offer meeting space, and host community events.

T:  That was a very broad question, sorry.

Somerville:  Oh no worries. Art displays, and tables at farmer's markets. Then academic libraries try to maintain contact with professors, and do outreach to students.
It's a two-part thing. One part is trying to maintain contact and seem accessible, and the other is showing what you have to offer, and that they'd want what you have to offer.

T:  What if there was a quiet section and a not quiet section?

Somerville:  Oh, another great question, and something I wanted to mention. The physical space of the library. That's another changing role.

T:  I want to go have a happy hour cocktail in a library, just like we do now in museums.

Somerville:  Totally. As more things move into databases, then computers become more important. So you need space for those. And shelving starts to recede, access becomes more and more important. And the quality of the space needs to draw people in. You can't have stuffy old spaces anymore. You need to be inviting. A lot of libraries have coffee shops, and free wifi, classes for unemployed folks on resumes. Academic libraries are now positioning themselves as study spaces. Similar to changes in the museum world, where you have participatory projects, and the MFA Boston inviting They Might Be Giants in to play and wine and cheese nights. The physical space becomes more than just a storehouse and place of “worship”.

T:  I think there's a lot of room for participatory projects in a library, where the object is available to hold, read, share...there's so much you can do.

Somerville:  Sure. Do you know about the Library as Incubator?

T:  No, tell us more

Here's their brilliant description, from their website: "The Library as Incubator Project was created by Erinn Batykefer, Laura Damon-Moore, and Christina Jones, and was inspired by a discussion about creative advocacy for libraries in one of their courses at the UW-Madison School of Library and Information Studies. The Project highlights the ways that libraries and artists can work together, and works to strengthen these partnerships. At a time in which both libraries and arts organizations are often having to do more with less, it makes sense for these two parts of our culture to support each other. The Library as Incubator Project calls attention to one of the many reasons libraries are important to our communities and our culture, and provides a dynamic online forum for sharing ideas."

Which brings up the important point of reduced resources, and how you adapt. Across the boards, library budgets are feeling a pinch. Again, much like museums.

T:  Funny you mention it. Adarsh Alphons, one of our board members, founded an arts organization, ProjectArt and they host art classes in libraries across NYC.

Somerville:  Awesome! I'd love to hear more about that.

T:  Absolutely, the parallels are everywhere.

Somerville:  What it comes down to is that, now at least libraries are positioning themselves as community spaces. Which is exciting.

T:  It is institutions striving to save themselves and adapt to a new generation and new electronic media. I feel like you're in a good position or rather I think it's good you exist in the library world.

Somerville: Thanks! I definitely feel that the old model of "Come to us and learn" doesn't cut it anymore.

T:  Definitely not. I have one last question. I don't want to keep you much longer, I'm very thankful for the time you've taken so far.

Somerville:  Yeah, this is a great conversation. Hope I'm not rambling too much.

T:  Not at all, I've really enjoyed it. If there was one book in the world you could have and hold, what book would that be? The classic librarian question.

Somerville:  Oh, there's way too many. There's so many beautiful books, and historic ones out there that I've never gotten to see in real life.

T:  One book Tim!

Somerville:  You're killing me. I've been reading about General Idea lately, and File magazine. I'd love to see some of those. Old 60s, early 70s art zine from Toronto.

T:  This here?

Somerville:  Yeah!

T:  Awesome! Hey man, thanks so much for having this conversation. I think it’s important to discuss libraries early on in Plinth's being in order to establish them among our extreme interest. It's so easy for people to immediately think of art when associated a subject to a museum, but we wanted to make sure we support all types of museums and that we encourage our readers to look at them in the same way.

Somerville:  Of course, thanks for asking me. I love the fact that you're comparing libraries to museums, and looking for solutions and ideas that work for libraries. I think everybody's got a lot to learn from each other, you know?

T:  Definitely, and that's what we'll have to continue to do in order for our institutions to exist and thrive into the future.


Tim Devin is the Electronic Resources Librarian for NewEngland Law | Boston, a father, husband, and artist. His work and projects can be viewed here at

Thomas Canavan is the Founder and Executive Director of Museum Force.