In my best spirit of 'things will just work themselves out', I pitched a session for special collections librarians and anyone else interested at which we would (and I quote) "talk about stuff". Aim low, I say, and you can't fail! We had a session. We talked. I got some ideas. I hope other people did to - thanks to those who came for making it good. In retrospect (and based on experience in later sessions in the day) I reckon I could have probably been more of a proactive 'session leader', maybe by asking a starter question to get discussion going, or by starting off my describing my experience and ideas. I really didn't want to come across as hogging the limelight, or as though I was just telling people what I thought - I'm no expert, and I wanted to hear from everyone else.
Anyway, here's my write-up... This is a combination of my notes from the day and my later reflections.
The session attendees fell roughly into three types:
- People with responsibility for special collections, but not as their main work, who are trying to work out what to do with them.
- People whose job is special collections who're looking for ways to make the most of what they've got.
- People who want to know more about special collections/special collections work.
Outreach: some issues
Special collections have been for too long treated as 'private libraries' and that's just not right. Very very few collections are of purely local interest - they are all relevant to wider research, history, stories, culture, etc. Special collections might even be one way of helping libraries in this time of peril - they are by their definition unique. They're a way of demonstrating the value of libraries, or a unique selling point for individual institutions. (Whilst this is true to some extent, I'm wary of using special collections as a rallying point, as it might be seen to imply that all the other work that libraries do is obsolete, which I don't believe for one second.)
But getting started with widening access can be hard: time, money, co-operation from the organisation, hidden-ness of some libraries or special collections departments (it's hard to increase access if visitors have to be individually signed in and given a badge!) are all problems.
Which is better: physical exhibition or online?
If you have limited resources, which should you do? Is it better to draw out the stories behind objects, or to allow people access to the magic of the real thing? Both are good. Either are good. Any kind of improvement to access is good. Andy Mabbett plugged his afternoon session about using Wikipedia (and Creative Commons licences allowing re-use) to increase access. Other image/digitisation projects mentioned were Culture Grid, People's Collection Wales, and Europeana.
What if we become popular?
In small institutions it's easy to get scared that if you start to promote your collections, perhaps online via digital reproductions/blogs/etc., you'll suddenly be inundated with real-life visitors wanting to see the originals. It's true that if you have information about your collections available online then the number of people enquiring about them will increase. But this really shouldn't stop you showing off a bit: there are various ways to cope with the threat of popularity:
- you can state outright that you have an online exhibition for the reason that you don't (currently) have facilities for physical exhibitions, and have no visitor facilities.
- you can formulate a policy about what sort of visitors/readers can be admitted (e.g. 'academic research' only), and either publicise it or use it in response to queries.
- if you do receive increased in-person interest in your collection(s) its a good way to demonstrate your collection's value to senior management, and possibly to gain extra resources.
- Anne from Ulster cited the example of The Ireland Collection, developed by JSTOR in association with Queen's University Belfast, which has raised the profile of the university across the world, but has also raised the profile of special collections within the university.
A good question! And one that it's important to keep answering. Those 'in the know' might realise the breadth of the field, but those with small collections of 'special' things might not realise that they fall under the umbrella - they might think that 'special collections' might just mean the 'jewel in the crown' items like medieval manuscripts. Some ideas as to what counts:
- old, rare, fragile, valuable
- coherent - items from a person/place/institution/time/purpose
- significant - local, has a story, belonged to a person...
- archival material (I'm editing out the long discussion of the overlap and interplay between spec colls and archives. I can't face trying to construct the necessary Venn diagram...)
The part of the session that I found most interesting was a discussion spurred on by a librarian who works in a private company library - not your traditional special collections hunting ground. But it turned out that they have a small-ish collection of company archival material, including auction records, house plans, and other lovely things. They get about one reader for it a year - which to my mind isn't bad for something so hidden away (there's a brief listing on their main library catalogue, which is a good start, cataloguing wise). But it sounded like a collection that has huge potential - for research, for public engagement, and to enhance the prestige of a long-established company.
Some of the problems I saw for institutions holding collections of this type were:
- people don't know what their stuff counts as - special collections? archives? local history? none of the above?
- they don't know what the audience for it is
- they don't know how best to store it
- they don't know how to promote it
- they don't know who can help them with it
What to do? The one sentence answer (to my mind) is: find a partner institution, to help with storage/care/cataloguing but also access/promotion/development. Many libraries and archives will accept donations or deposits (the terms of deposits vary individually, but there are ways of entrusting a collection and the care of said collection to an institution whilst retaining ownership by the origination company) from outside bodies, according to their existing specialist areas, collection strengths, and collection development policies. The same, or other, institutions might be able to help with getting the collection used - with research projects, with community projects, with all sorts of things. If I were a better librarian I'd add links here. Comment if you have good examples!
Not mentioned in the session but probably useful:
- The forthcoming special collections handbook, written by Alison Cullingford, brains behind 100 Objects Bradford (great example of online outreach) and now also working on the RLUK Unique and Distinctive Collections Project.
- Heritage Open Days: if you have a historic or otherwise interesting building, a great way to do one-day-a-year outreach (tours or open house).
- Rarely Sited: a blog by a friend of mine who wrote her MA dissertation about library outreach in Cambridge college libraries.
- A paper Naomi Herbert and I gave about widening access at St John's College Cambridge: text and slides.