Friday, 25 February 2011

Curious collections: what do we keep, and why?

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? 


  1. I had to pop off after the Criminology library part, sorry I missed your part. The slides are very informative (and look very pretty too!)

  2. Thanks Annie - the slides don't have quite the same content as the presentation I gave last night, not least because some of the material I showed (and played - there was recorded Hoyle music, too!) can't be 'published' because of copyright. Do come along on the 19th March if you'd like a fuller impression of the Hoyleiana I've been working with!

  3. Great presentation, really interesting! Would have loved to hear your full talk.

    The issue of appraisal and disposal of digital information is an interesting one. I'm of the opinion that digital information/records probably need more careful managing than physical, as it's far too easy just to keep everything, and only worry about it when you've run out of storage space and/or you can't find anything you actually need!

    I'm probably not a very typical librarian in this respect, as I'm the complete opposite of a hoarder. I just can't stand the idea of keeping piles of "stuff" (whether information or physical objects) on the off chance that it'll be useful later. Surely all that leads to is a massive repository of said "stuff", most of which you'll have forgotted is in there even if it ever becomes useful!

  4. @Woodsiegirl I agree - the necessity to sort out physical papers is so much greater in the short term than the need to sort out digital information, but the digital silo can get truly enormous very quickly.

    The audience at the talk were mainly academics, and of those mainly those who research the nineteenth century and earlier. Their perspective on the issue is that they spend a lot of time hunting for scraps of new material, either because there just isn't much surviving in their topic area, or because they're looking for new evidence that hasn't been used by others, or because they're looking at material or topics in new ways (one obvious example of that last is marginalia in books, though there are many other examples, too).

    As information professionals we worry about ending up with massive unnavigable repositories of 'stuff', but on the side of the researchers there's a fear on their part that however much 'good stuff' we keep in libraries and archives, the stuff we're throwing away now might turn out to be 'good stuff' in the future. They seem to value, nay relish (at least in theory) the prospect of digging through vast untamed archives in search of a hidden gem, whereas we're trying to make those gems open, accessible, and not-hidden. It's an interesting clash of world views.