Last night I spoke at the Seminar in the History of Material Texts in Cambridge as part of a session looking at 'curious' library collections and how we manage them.
The first half of the session was a chance to see the Radzinowicz Library's collection of 'banned' books: books that had either been banned under the Obscene Publications Act, or that had been submitted by members of the public who wished that they be banned. The contents of the collection (in brief, a lot of books about flagellation and sodomy; a few with raunchy pictures of women; and a fair number about marriage, reproductive health and birth control) are more or less as you'd expect. What really interested me about them was their provenance, or rather, how quickly information about provenance can be lost.
The books were donated to the Radzinowicz after the break-up of the old Home Office library at the time of the creation of the Ministry of Justice in the late 2000s. The collection that came to the Radzinowicz is not the complete (there's a thought that the 'best' books had already been whisked away, perhaps by staff), and there's apparently little documentation about the collection itself - no indication, for example, about which books were banned and which were submitted by the public, or when any book was accessioned. It's the contextual information of this kind that often really brings special and archival collections to life, and visiting the 'banned' books was a good lesson in the necessity of documenting institutional memory and knowledge about collections.
My talk took an overview of the challenges of managing a modern archival collection in a library context. The discussion afterwards centred particularly on the issue of retention - academics are horrified to hear that we might not like to keep every last scrap of paper, because of the potential that it might be useful or interesting *one day*. These slides don't really address that - but I'd be interested to hear thoughts about whether you think it's getting easier to 'keep everything' or whether the enormous volumes of electronic data now produced will need a more, and not less, ruthless attitude to appraisal and disposal in the future?