The Wolanski Foundation Project


Paper no 3









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Arts information management in Australia: the role of special interest groups?

by Paul Bentley   


My interests

Information industry trends

The issues for us

What has been done so?  

Where to from here?  

In conclusion



Are arts library and museum special interest groups loose networks of professionals? Are they businesses that influence the way arts information is created, captured, presented and used? Do they make the most of their potential?

The original proposal

To stir the pot, I proposed, in October last year, a merger of Australian arts library and museum special interest groups - the International Association of Music Libraries, Archives and Documentation Centres [IAML Australia], the Arts Libraries Society/Australia and New Zealand [ARLISANZ] and Museum Australia’s Performing Arts Special Interest Group [PASIG].

Speculating on potential benefits for each group, I suggested several options: a national merger of all three groups; state mergers of all or some groups; collaborations on projects and activities [eg joint publications, listservs, conferences].

The original proposal was published in ARLISANZ Journal March 1999. An abbreviated version was published in the February 1999 issue of Intermezzo.

The reaction?

The reaction has been difficult to gauge. All groups have expressed interest in considering the proposal. Two of the groups - ARLISANZ and PASIG – have recently undertaken strategic planning exercises to clarify roles and articulate directions. On the other hand, a cautious note has been voiced in the ARLISANZ 1998 general meeting minutes: “if we were to be part of a larger society, we would lose the infrastructure to organise our own meetings”.

This paper

This is an issues paper. It doesn’t make assumptions or draw conclusions. It has been written to report on developments, provoke further thinking and encourage wider participation in the exercise.

The exercise is no longer a ’merger proposal’. Exploring the issues is more important than an anticipated outcome. There may be several outcomes. The benefits may be major or minor.


Virtually Yours

The proposal emerged from a speculative paper called Virtually Yours: IAML in the 21st Century, which I prepared for IAML’s 1998 conference. In conducting research for the paper, I visited strategic documents of each group, historical material such as Music in Australia: its needs and prospects and minutes of the now defunct Music Reference Group [see force field list appendix 1].

My suggestions to IAML were: improve business planning; increase membership; create better links with the big players; be more clever with money; make better use of the knowledge and skill of the members. Thinking about IAML led me to speculate on the relevance of these suggestions to other special interest groups.

An association with all groups

With Sue Boaden and Peter Wagner, I formed the Museums Arts and Humanities Group in 1975. Our magnum opus, the first national seminar on arts information in Australia, held in conjunction with the ALAA conference at Hobart in 1977, led to the disbandment of MAHG and the formation of ARLISANZ. I’ve been a member of IAML Australia since 1974, three years after it was established. I was a founding member of PASIG, which was established in 1992. More recently, I became a member of the Visual Arts and Crafts Special Interest Group of Museums Australia, when its was formed in 1999. And I’m a member of the National Association of Visual Artists, among other bodies.

These multi-disciplinary connections have stimulated me to reflect on historical currents, observe similarities and differences and speculate on possible futures. 


In attempting to identify and address anomalies created by the dispersal of the Dennis Wolanski Library, I became more aware of kindred organisations, experiences and energies that exist outside each group. Would all parties benefit from more effective dovetailing of interests? Would users and audiences benefit from this consolidation?  

The Wolanski Foundation, which grew out of these enquiries, was formed to facilitate management, presentation and appreciation of the performing arts through research, publishing and philanthropic initiatives. Our research interests include records management and documentation, knowledge management, media information, information markets, and library, archive and museum services. Driven by the spirit of enquiry.

Like others in the profession, I’ve wrestled recently with the concepts of virtual organisations, knowledge management and other forces in the arts and information industries. What trends are relevant to arts information and curatorial professional groups?



The information industry, including bodies representing libraries, archives and museums are scrutinizing their roles, relationships and effectiveness. There has been a blurring of roles and increased dialogue between the three sectors and with other information industry sectors such as the records management industry. The 1998 IFLA conference and a recent seminar conducted by the Getty Information Institute are but two examples of this trend. Can sectoral integration be too far away?

In 1994, Museum Australia was formed after an amalgamation of the Council of Australian Museums Association, the Art Museums Association of Australia, the Museums Association of Australia and the Museum Education Association of Australia.

The Australian Library and Information Association is redrawing its boundaries and is looking at three new business models – a business-as-usual model, an add-on model [ALIA collaborating with other industry bodies] and an information professional and services model [a merger with other industry bodies]. 

In the United Kingdom, a report initiated by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport has recommended the creation of a new single national strategic body for museums, libraries and archives to replace the Museums and Galleries Commission and the Library and Information Commission.

Paradoxically, integration has coincided with the emergence of new disciplines. Financial, human resource and information technology professionals are reinventing the information game, staking out ground previously worked by librarians, archivists and museum professionals.

Joint venture and consortium management

The need to create business mechanisms on top of less stringent networking arrangements has led to significant joint venture organisations and consortia in the arts and information industries, driven by technology, the benefits of pooling funds to pursue mutual interests, and the limited scope for productivity gains in labour-intensive organisations.

In Britain, the Arts & Humanities Data Service [AHDS] and its various sections - the Performing Arts Data Services, Visual Arts Data Service, Archaeology Data Service, and History Data Service - was created to identify and promote shared standards, develop integrated approaches to resource discovery, publish good practice guides and facilitate partnerships between scholarly, commercial and non-profit interests. A Resources Discovery Network has been established as a consortium by Kings College London (through ADHS) and the University of Bath (through the Office for Library and Information Networking, UKOLN) with support from the University of Hull to enrich learning, research and cultural engagement through the development of a RDN Centre and connected hubs. Academic organisations. Strong agendas.

In Australia, the Council of Australian University Libraries [CAUL] is developing strategies for joint development and cooperative networking including major subject discipline gateways, national benchmarks, a co-operative national digital store, negotiation of improved licensing, and strategic partnerships to enhance access to knowledge. The National Networked Facility for Research into Australian Music is a joint project of Australian National University, Monash University, the Australian Music Centre, La Trobe University, the National Library of Australia and ScreenSound Australia. The latter two organisations, with Ausdance, are partners in the Keep Dancing Project. A consortium representing the National Institute for Dramatic Art, Sydney Opera House, Opera Australia, the Australian Ballet and the University of Wollongong produced Stage Struck CD ROM, one of ten similar projects facilitated by the Australian Government. Cross-sectoral, multi-institutional business partnerships making better use of resources, creating more value for those seeking information.


The virtual organisation has arrived – as a concept within organisations and as a mechanism for linking organisations with kindred interests. An alleged shift from hierarchical to matrix organisational structures has unveiled new modus operandi.

The practice of knowledge management has placed the spotlight on people. Although the discipline is still treated with caution, the value of knowledge-sharing having been promoted in a period of increased worker insecurity, an inkling of its value can be appreciated by looking at the way the Music Library Association, for example, points people to members with particular interests, knowledge and skills and the way George Washington University, to give another example, makes its human capital more visible through web pages devoted to each staff member.

Information industry special interest groups are already virtual organisations. To what extent, though, does the electronic age create opportunities for new structures, new systems and new relationships to produce more stimulating ways of working with greater impact on the industry we serve?   


At this point it is worth pausing to ask whether all the issues have been identified and whether the right questions are being asked. Here’s my list: 


·         Membership. How many members are there? What are their expectations, needs, interests? What are their organisational affiliations? What is the relative importance of institutional and personal membership? What is the potential for increased membership? How can personal knowledge of members be more effectively leveraged?  

·         Management. What are the roles, plans, services, products and activities of each group? What are the overlaps and gaps in subject interests, functions and intentions? What is the organisational framework of each group? How do they communicate? How do they make decisions? Are there alternative management mechanisms that should be considered by each group? Are there potential gains from better coordination? How much money is collected? What happens to it? Is there scope for more income and bigger spending?  

·         Relationships. What links are maintained with other professional bodies and institutions? What links are absent?

·         Effectiveness. Do the groups achieve what they set out to do? Are there gaps  between rhetoric and action? What causes the gaps? Benchmarking, although apparently on the wane as a management tool, provides a system for measuring effectiveness. What are the features of best practice in professional interest groups? Which organisations should we compare ourselves with? My tentative list includes the Music Library Association, Law Society of NSW, Knowledge Management Consortium Australia and the Association of Information Industry Professionals.  


1.      Roles

Statements of purpose for each group have been collected and, as a starting point in comparing the roles, are published as appendix 2. Taking into account further information about the activities of each group, the statements need to be simplified so that the patterns, overlaps and gaps are easier to see. 

2.      Membership database

A database has been compiled of the 250 members in the three groups. This highlights how little is known about members. The process of drawing assumptions about individuals is laborious and error-prone. Individuals have riches beyond their current institutional affiliations. The invisible depths are potentially of greater significance than the contact details at the top of membership forms. New pictures could illuminate patterns and test assumptions.


Traditional forms of group decision-making tend to reinforce rather than challenge existing beliefs and opinions. I therefore propose the following steps:

3.      Collect more information

Conduct a survey to collect the following information:

·        Type of membership (institutional or personal)

·        Type of organisation affiliation (national/state archive/library/ museum; municipal; tertiary; other).

·         Functional interests  (archival, library, exhibition)

·         Subject interests (arts, performing arts/theatre, music, dance, film, visual arts, exhibition and information management tools & techniques)

·         Needs, expectations, ideas.

Groupware technology provides us with the tools and opportunity to experiment with new, inexpensive ways to collect, distill and interpret such information. A tentative, draft survey is published as appendix 3 as a starting point. Special interest group web sites – such as the ARLISANZ site or even the Wolanski Foundation - could be used to host the survey. Testing the process is, in some ways, more interesting than the results of the survey. 

4.   Analyse and distill

Prepare an options paper, incorporating survey results and information on finances and other management issues. Publish this paper on group Web sites and in publications. Invite comment.

5.   Focus and decide

Prepare a decision paper summarising issues and options, taking into account both structured and unstructured responses expressed through listservs, meetings and other forums.

Decide. September 2000 was initially floated as a possible date for a joint conference of interested groups. However, everything does not hinge on a big meeting, one decision, one date. Several decisions may need to be made. The decisions may vary from state to state. Decisions are not final. The process is ongoing.  


At the Arts Information in Australia Seminar in 1977, billed as “the first seminar held anywhere in the world to deal with information for the arts as a whole rather than with information for a specific art form”, the consensus was that the visual arts, theatre, music and film/radio/television are different disciplines with different histories and practices requiring different approaches. Thor Wood, Chief Librarian at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, in particular, cautioned against a single body trying to tackle too many subjects.

Partitioning of subject interests was right then. Is it right now? In the electronic age, has partitioning become less important? 

What was interesting about the 1977 conference was the range of participants, the balance of librarians and non-librarians, the perspectives of the non-librarians and ideas that challenged predictable views.  Should we organise – annually or once every decade - joint meetings and projects that provide the stage for unexpected collisions of thought - not only between art forms, but also between librarians, archivists, museum professionals, records managers, information technology professionals, knowledge managers, publishers, arts administrators, practitioners and consumers?

Consider Burk and Horton’s map and the modified version of Eastman’s organisation chart [appendix 4]. Do current structures and demands on time stymie potential? Should we, once again, turn the eyes to the horizon – re-examine contexts and construct new policy and strategic frameworks for arts information industry special interest groups?  Should we devise new modes of operation to reduce duplicate effort, martial limited resources and maximise impact?


 Printed sources

·        Arts Information in Australia: seminar proceedings, Hobart, Tasmania, 1-2 September 1977; edited by Sue Boaden. Sydney: Museums Arts and Humanities Group for the Library Association of Australia, 1979.

·        Bentley, Paul. Virtually yours: IAML in the 21st century – more of the same or something completely different? Continuo 1998.

·        Burk, Cornelius and Horton, Forest. Infomap: a complete guide to discovering corporate information resources. Pretence Hall, 1988.

·        Lipnack, Jessica & Stamps, Jeffrey. Virtual teams: reaching across space, time and organizations with technology. New York: Wiley, 1997.

Web sites

·         ALISANZ < >

·         IAML <Site to be launched in the near future >

·         PASIG <>

·         The Wolanski Foundation. <>



Appendix 1: Music Reference Group Force Field Analysis  

Appendix 2: SIGs goals and objectives    

Appendix 3: Draft questionnaire  

Appendix 4: A new way or operating?  



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