Thursday, 12 January 2012

#lac12, or The Libraries@Cambridge conference 2012: a special collections view.

Today was the sixth annual Libraries@Cambridge conference.  It was a full and interesting day, with a lot of tweets on the #lac12 hashtag, some live blogging by some intrepid volunteers, lots of discussion, and plenty of cake.

I won't do a full write-up here: some of my writing (although without many opinions) is already available on the conference blog, and I imagine that others will write up some aspects of the day better than I could manage.  I'm going to focus on the elements of the day that were of particular interest to me as a special collections librarian.

Righty-ho.  Special collections (or Unique and Distinctive Collections, as RLUK terms them) got a mention in the first session as promoting them is one of the 5 strands of the RLUK strategic plan. (This is, of course, being explored further in the RLUK Unique and Distinctive Collections Project.) Deborah Shorley, Director of Library Services at Imperial College London--keynote speaker--was adamant that we need to do all we can to open access to our collections to all people, whether they come from our institution or not.  Most of the places I know are doing this: it's very rare for scholarly access to special collections to be completely restricted, so I suppose that if a Director of Library Services doesn't see this we need to be promoting more loudly. (Incidentally, even the Imperial College Library, which in its modern collections aspires to be [physical] bookless, does have special collections, too.)

The second plenary session saw Liz Waller, Deputy Director of Information (Information Services), University of York speak about changing library spaces.  In amongst lots of lovely pictures of beautiful new and refurbished libraries we got a brief glimpse of the special collections reading room at the University of  Edinburgh. To be fair, it wasn't the most inspiring picture in the presentation: some tables and chairs, a few readers, no obvious reference book collection (essential for a lot of special collections readers).  Emily Dourish asked on Twitter if the flexible working spaces being discussed for elsewhere in the libraries would work for special collections.  That's an interesting question.  We could certainly benefit from having space available for teaching sessions: though those would need to be soundproofed, and I'm not sure if flexible and soundproofed go together?  Group work with special collections might well be popular and useful: we've all been in the situation where four people gather round trying to untangle a difficult inscription or hand.  But fully flexible space?  It seems an unlikely fit:
  • moving furniture about probably isn't best with fragile items around;
  • we need to be able to supervise and invigilate all our users, and the less open plan the room the harder it is to have clear lines of sight to all books and readers;
  • a lot of our readers will want quiet, traditional, reading room environments.
Still, it's really interesting to think about how we could extend the traditional special collections room with new types of library space.

The special collections parallel session was about digital libraries, and I've written it up for the conference blog. I particularly liked the Wellcome's pragmatic attitude to copyright issues, and their sensible approach to identifying and removing sensitive material and to allowing different access to different material.

'Rainbow' (a collaborative effort) by Jake Rome on Flick
'Rainbow' (a collaborative effort) by Jake Rome on Flickr

In the afternoon we heard from a range of library users from Cambridge and elsewhere about what they want from libraries and librarians.  The most interesting speaker for me was Dr Jason Scott Warren, lecturer at the Faculty of English and Director of the Centre for Material Texts. Jason works on early-modern English literature, the history of the book, the materiality of texts, and is a regular in the Rare Books Room at the UL.  Jason covered a lot of ground in his short talk. Here is some of it:
  • he 'suffers' from both digital greediness--wanting more and bigger and faster--but also digital anxiety--how do I know if I've found everything that's out there.
  • he recognises that libraries face a challenge in letting users know about all the available resources
  • he would like more standardisation across digitised material: he noted that, for example Early European Books photograph bindings, foredges, and everything else, but that other platforms do less, many are only black and white, some have poor quality images.
  • he'd also like better usability from the digital platforms: pages that fit a laptop screen, easy ways of browsing, etc.  Many of the current tools are rather clunky and slow to use.
  • access to special collections is mediated through cataloguing. Jason would like to see more high-quality cataloguing of rare books that takes into account copy-specific information such as provenance and binding, such as that seen in the UL Incunabula Project, and in the rare books records from St John's College Old Library 
  • Jason sees special collections as ripe for collaborative research projects.  Librarians and academics need to share their knowledge of the collections to get the most out of those collections.
  •  In the discussion after Jason's talk the issue of undergraduate use of primary sources (i.e. special collections) was raised: is it happening much here? could it happen more? Jason thought that there's scope for college special collections to be used more for this.
I had several thoughts in response to this...

  • it's hugely heartening to hear that cataloguing is appreciated by academics.
  • to achieve the level of cataloguing that academics desire, we need more cataloguer time (of course), but also better cataloguing structures.  Copy-specific information is surely better represented in a hierarchical (FRBR?) way, rather than mixing copy-specific and bibliographic information in bibliographic records (current practise in Cambridge, for example).
  • and a great deal of manuscripts cataloguing isn't available at all online. Yet.
  • I'm hugely keen to develop relations between academics, researchers, teaching groups, undergraduates, Uncle Tom Cobbly and all, and special collections librarians.
  • It strikes me that the teaching sessions that currently take place generally grow out of existing relationships between librarians and academics: people know a librarian and go to them for advice/help/access. If they don't know any librarians they don't ask, and they don't ask librarians or libraries that they don't already know.
  • To increase collaboration (a recurring theme in the afternoon) we need to network more.  I know a few of the Centre for Material Texts folk by going to their seminars. As a rare books librarian, I ought to be interested in history of the book issues anyway: what better way than by going to seminars... Granted, they're sometimes a bit over my head, but the people there are friendly, and sometimes even ask me for a librarianly opinion.  I don't think I've ever seen another librarian there: we're possibly missing a trick.  And there are definitely other places we could be going to make connections.
  • I'd love to know more about what other special collections departments are doing towards academic outreach, and also to know where this sort of thing is being discussed.  Anyone have any tips for conferences, blogs, mailing lists?
  • If there isn't much out there already should we be creating them? Could there be a session at LILAC on this? Or somewhere else? Or a special collections TeachMeet or LibraryCamp? Ideas please!
That's it for now. I'm really keen to hear other thoughts on any and all of the things above. Do you agree? Are you doing this already? Have any tips? Do you disagree? Let us know!


  1. Great ideas - must look at the Centre for Material Texts programme... will watch responses to your blog with interest.

  2. It's cheered me up to hear your special collections orientated write up of the Libraries@Cambridge conference having previously today come across institution-with-great-special-collections-underappreciating-those-collections. It's particularly exciting to hear a lecturer identifing college collections as a source of teaching material.

    I agree with what you say about networking to promote collaboration, and I don't think special collections librarians have to go too far out of their way to do it. Like you say, attending seminars on book history etc is something special collections librarians will benefit from professionally and enjoy. You've given me yet another reason to attend these seminars at the Centre for the Study of the Book, Oxford:

  3. Thanks for the Oxford seminars link, rarelysited. I'm glad this helped cheer you up :)