Sunday, 16 November 2014

What are we here for and where are we heading? #dcdc14

At the end of October I went to ‘Discovering Collections, Discovering Communities’ (#dcdc14), a collaborative conference between The National Archives and Research Libraries UK, exploring ‘the ‘discoverability’ of collections across different formats, institutions and professions’. It had a focus on archive and museum collections and institutions, and was held at the new Library of Birmingham. The full programme is here (pdf link) and video of sessions will be going up in due course.

Birmingham Library by Chris(UK), on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License   by  Chris(UK) 
There were 9 panel sessions and 10 workshops split over the two days. I went to:
  • Panel 1: Exploring the mechanics of cross-sector collaboration
  • Panel 6: Visualising the digital discovery
  • Panel 7: The community within: volunteers as a route to discovery
  • Panel 9: Collecting - for whose sake?
  • Jisc Workshop: Finding and Using Digital Collections: Do we need new tools?
There was a lot of interesting and engaged discussion on the Twitter hashtag, which cut across the different sessions and themes and helped to make connections between them. I think it’s also the first conference I’ve been to that had an end-of-day summary session in which each panel chair gave a short summary of their session. I found that very useful, too.

I found it interesting to hear about lots of different projects going on at institutions of different sizes, and in different sectors – archives, museum, and library. It’s easy to forget the different approaches of the three domains, given how often they’re lumped together as ‘heritage’ or ‘memory institutions’. It came out early on that museums have a very different attitude to research use compared to archives and libraries: it’s what the latter two exist to facilitate (in large part), but it’s not what a museum is set up for. So when a keen academic turns up to a tiny museum and spends a long time looking at artefacts or talking with the curator, that can feel like a huge investment of time for the museum, with little tangible reward.

Three broad themes appeared to me over the three days. So, as ever, I won’t précis each session I attended, I’ll throw together some thoughts under headings.

Representation

This is something that I think all of the first three panels touched upon, but which certainly struck me in a session that was ostensibly about cross-sector collaboration. One speaker mentioned that in a museum display of archival material exploring ‘hidden histories’, people to whom no photograph or artefact could be attached had to be omitted from the display because of the visual demands of displays.

In the social media panel there was discussion of the double-edged sword of high-volume but low-depth attention: can we call click-bait archives images that go viral (44 medieval beasts that cannot even handle it springs to mind) successful engagement? Or, under what circumstances can we call that successful engagement, and how to we balance the demands and delights of that kind of promotion with archival collecting and use that allows for and encourages the discovery of more complex, more nuanced, stories and understandings?

It’s a concern that digitisation, an increased focus on exhibitions, and/or a focus on social media overly privilege the visual and the tangible and disadvantage the textual? Lots of people talk about their exciting online collaborative projects exposing hidden histories and forgotten stories, but I worry there’s a risk that we do this at the expense of another, doubly disadvantaged set of histories that aren’t sufficiently photogenic.

I’ve pulled together a Storify of the Twitter discussion on this topic, rather than paraphrasing it all in this post. 

Stragey

Collaborating

The first session I attended was all about the ‘mechanics of cross-sector collaboration’. We heard about the Making Britain project – a collaboration involving the BL, the OU and many others – and the Inspiring Women project – a collaboration between Tunbridge Wells Museum and the University of Kent. They both sounded like really interesting projects, but in both cases the collaboration was born out of pre-existing relationships and networks: people already knew people who’d be interested in working on the project. Now, there’s nothing wrong with using your network, but it can seem like an impossible task to create this sort of collaboration if you don’t have a handy connection already.

The third paper in the session sought to address this. The Share Academy is a project run by UCL, the University of the Arts London and London Museums Group that aims to ‘build sustainable and mutually beneficial relationships between the higher education sector and specialist museums in London’. They strongly advised taking a more strategic approach to collaboration, by taking a pragmatic approach to planning. It’s important to have collaborative relationships documented and agreed at the start: what will the outputs of the project be (academics and museums might want very different things)? What happens if and when key people move to new institutions? How much investment of time, money and resources is expected from each side?

One really striking point for me was the comment that small museums can feel used by academics who come and research their objects and then publish without seeming to give anything back to the museum. There’s a really large investment of very limited staff time involved in providing access for researchers, and it seems that museums having necessarily been doing a great job of explaining that – unlike in libraries and archives – facilitating this access isn’t part of their core work, and that they would appreciate a more equitable relationship.

Unfortunately, Share Academy is only short-term funded, so it’s not clear whether it will continue, and be able to act as the matchmaker many of us would like!

Lots of people agreed that national advice and support on setting up and running collaborative projects would be welcome, and there’s promise of this coming from TNA. In the meatime there is, for example, this report on collaborative working practices in science heritage: ‘Mind the gap’ (link via Melinda Haunton).

Collecting

Karen Pierce presented a really inspiring paper about her work on the History of Human Genetics library at the University of Cardiff Library. This is a collection of materials concerning the history of the study of human genetics.

It was conceived of by a geneticist – Peter Harper – who was concerned that the history of this comparatively new discipline wasn’t being preserved. It now includes three complete personal libraries as well as selected donations from other people’s collections. It includes printed books – including classic textbooks and other works – as well as grey literature. There was a conscious decision to collect grey literature, because it represents an otherwise undocumented stage in research: networks, transient developments, events, suppliers and so on.

(The quote of the conference was undoubtedly Karen’s two descriptions of grey literature: 'publications by organisations whose main business isn't publishing' or 'floppy stuff’. The subsequent cries of recognition and anguish from cataloguers on Twitter is worth a read.)

This paper really made me think how fine the line is, and how variable is the location of the line, between a library’s perception of something as ‘usefully collected stuff from and expert’ and ‘endless shelves of rubbish we don’t need’. There’s real, serious, professional skill in evaluating the value (current and potential) of collections particularly of this type, and sometimes the smart professional decision is to say ‘we don’t need it’, but this isn’t always so. Sometimes we need to be brave enough to say ‘yes, we’ll take it, and love it, and make it great’.

Karen’s paper was an inspiring example of how to negotiate this boundary by setting clear aims, remits and procedures for such a collection. It’s great to see that at least one place is negotiating this successfully, rather than succumbing to the inertia of the ‘bay and a half of Stuff that someone gave us three librarians ago’.

Data and the catalogue(s)

Ah, shouldn’t we have got past worrying about catalogues by now? More than once people said and tweeted ‘the aggregator is dead’ and ‘it’s all discovery now’ and so on, but in the JISC workshop on digital discovery tools I stuck my head above the parapet and pointed out that the one key thing that would improve the discoverability of my (so-far-non-digital-)collections would be better catalogue data. Or better metadata if you prefer. It turns out that I wasn’t, in fact, expressing the view of a behind-the-times old fuddy-duddy, but actually a feeling that was in the room and online, too. Never mind aggregators being dead, we’re still trying to sort out how to get stuff into them nicely.



Elsewhere, it was pointed out that even if we have all the resources to record all the stuff we want to record, we don’t have cataloguing systems that really allow us to usefully (or at all) record the stuff that makes special collections well, err, special.

A catalogue record for a Shakespeare first folio? Quite possibly won’t mention that it is the ‘first folio’. Probably can’t easily link through to that amazing exhibition you had about it last year. May manage to link through to the digitised version you have, though not necessarily. Unlikely to record other context or importance... As curatorial tools, and tools for the people Out There to understand our stuff, there’s a lot that’s still desired.

(Incidentally, the problems of what’s in the catalogue not matching what the users are looking for also cropped up a recent event at Harvard. We can’t easily meet the needs of researcher’s who’re interested in all sorts of copy-specific features, because they just haven’t been recorded. This extensive conversation is well worth a read – it brings out several different issues affecting our ability to achieve this.)

In summary...

There’s so much going on out there, and there’s so much that we can all do in our services (big or small). There’s huge pressure to do more, to reach more people, to work with more people, to get out stuff out there as much as we can. This is facilitated by things like social media, the spread of digitisation projects, and so on, but these tools don’t themselves ensure that we’re doing things well. We need to keep in sight that we should be doing stuff for a reason and that we ought to be able to set and measure against criteria for for doing this stuff well would look like and we need to consider how it will be sustained in the future.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

New space for old books: #rbscg14

At the end of August (Wednesday 27 to Firday 29), the CILIP rare books and special collections group met at the University of Aberdeen for its annual study conference, this year on the theme ‘New Space for Old Books: Building for the Future’. The full conference programme with details of all the speakers and paper titles should still be online (.docx link).

The conference took place in the new University Library building, a dramatic blue-ish cuboid that stands above the city on a hill, and which has probably the best views of any library anywhere:



There were 17 papers in total, and I don’t propose to write them up individually. I felt that three main themes emerged: project management, knowing your collections, and managing the environment.

Projects
Project management is hard. Everyone said this. Major building projects are incredibly complicated and you will need to set aside a lot of time to manage them. Architects, tendering for services, buildling, weather, finances … Try not to have everything happening at once, but do try to have a plan from beginning to end when you start. In particular, it’s very useful to have the utilities and air conditioning designed together, even if they’re implemented in separate phases.

Be prepared with ideas about what you’d like for your buildings. Decisions are sometimes made very quickly – particularly if money suddenly becomes available – and you’ll want to be able to put your case forward well. Don’t be afraid to be ambitious and imaginative when you do.

Unexpected difficulties will come up. You can try and prevent some of these – for example, by checking the financial health of your contractors – but some of them, like the weather, you can’t. And sometimes it may be that things don’t move forward because there just isn’t sufficient institutional interest.

Therefore you need to be pragmatic at all stages. You might be able to keep your service running as usual through most or all of a project, but you might not be. Communicate with your staff and readers about this – it’s not the end of the world to stop doing things if people know why, and for how long. It’s likely that staff roles will morph during the project, as different areas of expertise are needed. This might be uncomfortable for people who’re already adapting to the changed priorities and working conditions, so, again, being honest and upfront about what’s happening and why is important.

Two resources were mentioned as being useful:

    The stuff
    We heard about the construction of several brand new buildings, all of which to some extent or other also involved the bringing together of previously separate collections and services from one or more institution, the creation of new services, and deliberate moves to engage with new audiences and communities.

    The Keep in Brighton brings together the special collections from the University of Sussex, the East Sussex Record Office and Brighton’s Royal Pavilion & Museums Local History Collections. From the point of view of readers, there is no difference between the collections: everything can be searched in one place and there are no differences on access rules and regulations. However, behind the scenes the collections remain separately owned and managed. This meant that there was significant work to do in harmonising policies and procedures (such as fetching, handling, registration requirements for readers, reading room rules and so on) before opening the service.

    The Hive, Worcester, is Europe's first joint university and public library. It combines the University of Worcester research collections, the collections of the Worcestershire Archive and Archaeology Service, the university research repository, the public library, the local government one-stop shop and more. It has admirable aims, even if its list of ten core values reads to me like something from 2012: inspiration, connection, aspiration, learning, integration, inclusivity, enduring values, well-being, sustainability, visibility. I was very pleased to hear about the efforts that had been put into staff training and customer service. Staff for the Hive were drawn in from all the different areas represented in the collections. They held staff workshops about how to answer customers’ queries: customers see all the staff as the same, whereas each person has a particular background and areas of expertise and non-expertise. They devised a very structured referrals process, so that people know what they should pass on (and how to do it) and what they can answer themselves. All this under the matra: ‘We welcome, we innovate, we respect [each other's specialisms]’.

    Two members of staff from the Glasgow School of Art library spoke about the work they had been doing (pre-fire, of course) to encourage wider use by their students and others. This included bringing artists and writers in to use the collections to ‘inspire, challenge or expand their practice’ through a project called the hatchery. This has included using the library space for installations and tableaux vivants. They cited the Library as Incubator project as a useful resource and inspiration for this work. In a newly designed special collections area they’ve also been running workshops and sessions based on the collection both to draw out items to use as inspiration, but also to explain to students how special collections and archives work. Various pieces – such as a camel (!) - have been inspired by this.

    Bringing lots of things together can obviously have its benefits. Aberdeen University Library special collections reported a huge increase in use once they were in the same building as the rest of the university library, instead of being hidden in the back of somewhere else behind 5 doors and several corridors... But I wonder whether collaboration sometimes isn’t just seen uncritically as a Good Thing by senior management, without consideration of the individual requirements of user groups and services.

    The key, it seems to me, to making a collaborative project work, or to getting the most from your collections is to know really well what it is you have in the first place. You have to invest time and effort in understanding the potential of your collections and the interests and needs of your current and potential future readers. I think this is a moral I hear in a lot of conferences because I never feel like I spend enough time getting to know my own collections...

    Environment
    Environmental control can be really difficult whether you’re in a historic building or a new one.

    Susie Bioletti spoke about the difficulties in managing the conditions in the Long Room at Trinity College Dublin. It’s Dublin’s second biggest tourist attraction, with something like 550,000 visitors annually. It gets loads of sunshine, there’s heaps of dust (that follows no known settling pattern), people bring in humidity and heat with them. Since 2004 they’ve been undertaking detailed surveys. They measure dust using a ‘loss of gloss’ technique in which glass microscope slides are placed in various locations and their reflectivity (or lack of it) is measured to give a value for the quantity of dust that has settled. They plot environmental recordings against a calendar in order to demonstrate trends and to pick out dates that are particularly bad because of particular events – a useful visual way to map this data.

    You can expend a vast amount of time, energy and money trying to keep a very tight control on temperature and humidity, when it could be a lot more efficient to take a more relaxed attitude (especially considering that facilities management is rightly increasingly concerned with wider environmental impact, carbon usage and so on). NAME from ORGANISATION summarised the recommendations of PD 5454 (the replacement for the BS 5454 standard) as:
    • know your collection and assess the risks that apply to it specifically
    • recognise the difference between mixed traditional archive materials which can’t be split up easily, and those specialist materials that need particular conditions
    • re-conceptualise environmental control as ‘allowing fluctuations within set parameters’ rather than ‘rigid control’
    • Keep the RH up in reading rooms – it’s a shock for documents to move from 50% RH in the store to maybe only 25% in the reading room. Temperature is less of an issue. (Would that this will end the scourge of 16ºC reading rooms...)

    These are all sensible and encouraging, and echo what was said at the late BL Preservation Advisory Centre ‘Knowing the Need’ conference last year.

    Several people in the audience, however, raised a very important point: it’s all well and good to adopt a more relaxed approach to conditions in which PD 5454 is a guide not a rule when considering your own collections. However, the stipulations in PD 5454 are routinely used by institutions loaning objects and books as the guide for acceptable storage and display. If you want to be borrowing items for display and exhibition, then you need to trying to meet these conditions for many places to allow you to borrow. I’m not sure we’ve found a way to square these two approaches yet.

    And last but not least
    1. The recurring theme of the conference was having the Queen visit to open your building. It’s not compulsory but it does get all sorts of otherwise disinterested people to notice you.
    2. Need a better name for your basement? Try ‘Garden Level’, a term used at – I think – St Andrews.
    3. Aberdeen is gorgeous. I can’t wait to go back:

    Thursday, 12 June 2014

    Pointless Twitter Sweepstake

    There's a World Sportsball Cup happening soon and for a month or so. I know, I know: they kept that quiet, eh? But there it is, happening away, and this means across the land offices are indulging in the time honoured tradition of the Major Sporting Event Sweepstake.

    I don't care for football much, but I love a good sweepstake.  I think it's partly my genes, and also that one of my favourite books starts with typists making up the slips for one.

    Anyway, despite my love of the form, I was too slow off the mark at work to contribute my shilling and draw a team. And some people work alone, or in small teams, or in teams that don't like each other, or whatever, and similarly haven't a chance to enjoy the fun.  So I've set up an Utterly Pointless 100% Prize Free Twitter Sweepstake (we're calling it the #pointlesstwittersweepstake) so that 31 lucky other people can enjoy the fun of cheering on a randomly-assigned team for a greater or lesser period of time.

    The draw's been carried out with the assistance of a random number generator, and and I can now announce it as follows:

    @abbybarker - Spain
    @AgentK23 - Ecuador
    @AVwoman - Costa Rica
    @barbalade - Germany
    @cjclib - USA
    @EmilyDourish - Ghana
    @EmmaBTate - England
    @ErikaDelbecque - Bosnia Herzegovina
    @EstherArens - Japan
    @GingergalWales - Russia
    @girlinthe - Iran
    @herslantfinely - Belgium
    @inky_fluff - Greece
    @juliamarybird - Croatia
    @LeanneWain - Mexico
    @lemurph - Ivory Coast
    @LGBTlibrarian - Switzerland
    @losbiblio - Netherlands
    @LucyGwynn - Brazil
    @maniccharlie - Chile
    @mginotherwords - Cameroon
    @mstores - Colombia
    @orangeaurochs - Uruguay
    @pennyb - Australia
    @pussy_galore_ - France
    @RevRachelMann - Portugal
    @RosieHLib - South Korea
    @spiky7 - Italy
    @TanyaKirk - Argentina
    @wendycr_ - Nigeria
    @WobblyGoose - Algeria
    @YKnot - Honduras

    Or, if you prefer it arranged by country:

    @WobblyGoose - Algeria
    @TanyaKirk - Argentina
    @pennyb - Australia
    @herslantfinely - Belgium
    @ErikaDelbecque - Bosnia Herzegovina
    @LucyGwynn - Brazil
    @mginotherwords - Cameroon
    @maniccharlie - Chile
    @mstores - Colombia
    @AVwoman - Costa Rica
    @juliamarybird - Croatia
    @AgentK23 - Ecuador
    @EmmaBTate - England
    @pussy_galore_ - France
    @barbalade - Germany
    @EmilyDourish - Ghana
    @inky_fluff - Greece
    @YKnot - Honduras
    @girlinthe - Iran
    @spiky7 - Italy
    @lemurph - Ivory Coast
    @EstherArens - Japan
    @LeanneWain - Mexico
    @losbiblio - Netherlands
    @wendycr_ - Nigeria
    @RevRachelMann - Portugal
    @GingergalWales - Russia
    @RosieHLib - South Korea
    @abbybarker - Spain
    @LGBTlibrarian - Switzerland
    @orangeaurochs - Uruguay
    @cjclib - USA

    Good luck to everyone taking part in this, or any other. If I remember, I may even update this post with progress reports as the competition wears on.  But please don't hold your breath.