Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Reach out!

Yesterday I attended the Historic Libraries Forum annual conference, 'Going Public: how Outreach Can Benefit Your Library'.  The programme included papers and case studies from a wide range of institutions using their special collections to 'reach out' in a wide variety of ways.  At least half my working time (and more of my working thought, I'd say) is dedicated to outreach, so I agree totally with the overarching message of the day -- that special collections/historic library outreach is vital because we have to demonstrate that special collections are a vital, and valuable, part of the library.  We need to show that we're not elitist, and that our doors are open.  By engaging with new audiences, or with current audiences in new ways, we improve the lives of those audiences, raise the profile of and improve the the image of our institution (and our own part of that institution), and we can also learn new things about our collections. 
'Reach Out!' by ~diP on Flickr
'Reach Out!' by ~diP on Flickr

Sheila Hingley started the day off with an account of the almost intimidatingly broad 'Education, Exhibitions, and Outreach' being done at Durham University Library Special Collections.  They're in the middle of a refurbishment programme which will create a dedicated, secure, exhibition space as well as an education room, a history of the book gallery, a gallery on the history of the university, and a cafe space.  The 'Treasures of Durham University' will open in January 2011 and will be desinged so that items can be replaced on a rolling programme, without having to continually re-write the whole exhibition.  The Heritage Collections have a dedicated Education Officer, initially funded through Heritage Lottery Fund money; a post common in museums, but as yet rare in libraries.  The schools offer is made through a website, 4schools, but there is also engagement with community groups, Durham Book Festival, local and family history events, and so on and so on and so on...

Mark Purcell spoke about raising the profile of the c. 170 historic libraries owned by the National Trust.  (A good proportion of these are now catalogued and available on Copac, which was a pleasant surprise to me.)  The task of managing these libraries is terribly complicated; each library is different, and came to the Trust as part of the property in which its housed.  Until recently there was very little idea as to how many libraries there were, let alone what was in them, although this has changed in recent years with a serious cataloguing effort.  One comment particularly stuck with me: Mark explained that in some properties, cataloguers worked in public view (and therefore enduring endless comments about 'medieval laptops'); although this wasn't necessarily a very convenient working arrangement for the cataloguers, it really helped to raise the profile of the library with staff and volunteers at the property, as well as the visitors.

The third talk that really made an impact on me was the last of the day.  Patti Collins spoke about work to utilise and promote the 'Treasures' of Manchester Central Library.  I found her talk really inspiring; she said that the special collections had at one point been viewed as elitist by the local council, and the Library had decided to overturn this view by making the special collections accessible to the public.  Patti pointed out that the books in a public library service belong 'to the people', and that the people should be able not just to see them, but to touch them.  The 'Treasures' programme has focussed on books with high visual appeal, to help overcome barriers of literacy and language, and they've held events for all ages and backgrounds in which visitors are allowed, invited, to handle the books themselves.
'1598' by Ian Sane on Flickr

This presentation prompted the (inevitable) discussion of access vs preservation, about which books were suitable to be handled, about the risks involved in letting people touch them, and about the requirement to preserve books for future scholars.  Concerns about damage and security are, of course, warranted, but it's all a matter of context.  In a public library, with books that aren't the only remaining copy of a text, I think it's superb to allow hands-on access.  In some academic settings, this might not be possible for one reason or another.  I think, however, that libraries should be looking seriously at developing handling collections of books, in the manner of museum handling collections.  Whether these would be replicas showing different binding structures, or 'real' books deemed to be sufficiently non-rare to allow handling, or a combination of the two, this would allow us to escape the endless, circling worries about damage, and move on to more productive topics such as 'how will we actually reach out, and who will we reach?'.


  1. Great post, sounds like such an interesting event.

    Loving the High Visibility Cataloguers - that's what we're talking about :)

  2. Thank you for the full report of the Historic Libraries Forum meeting, I enjoyed the sessions I was able to attend a few years ago. In my last library I used to bring out Treasures of the Old Library for 1st year English students to examine, including manuscripts and examples of binding techniques. The buzz of exitement was wonderful and supported the DoS class on transmission of the text. There may have been a little bumping of the bindings but that was all.

  3. @Celine Yes - High Visibility is exactly it! Although it's probably easier to be 'visible' as a person cataloguing books at a table in a National Trust room (behind the red rope, perhaps, looking like an exhibit) than as a person with a computer and some books in a building full of computers and books... But still, I wonder if you could go a-roving, and catalogue in places in which you're not normally seen?

    @Suzan I should point out that this isn't a *full* account - only very brief comments on the three papers that made the biggest impact on me. There were 9 papers in total, all of them interesting, but writing them all up would have been hard work and a long read! Laura Phillips was very interesting on the subject of communities outreach at the British Museum, for example. I think that student access to books and manuscripts was less of an issue than handling by *gasp* school children and other members of the general public. But, equally, hosting student class visits is a great way to raise the profile of college special collections.