Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Book history heaven in Antwerp: the Plantin-Moretus Museum

Earlier this month, in a whistle stop visit to the wonderful Belgian city of Antwerp, I spent a very happy couple of hours in the Plantin-Moretus Museum.

The museum is located in the former premises of the Plantin-Moretus family printing and publishing firm, which started when Christpher Plantin came to Antwerp in the 1550s and stayed in business until the 1860s.  In 1876 the premises, library, archives, furnishings, typographical material, printed stock and artworks were sold to the the city and country to be preserved as a museum. Today the former printing house, family residence,company and family archives are recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and they open year-round (excluding Mondays) as a well-appointed and presented museum. 

The premises, known as the Golden Compasses, comprise several town houses acquired by the family over the centuries, surrounding a beautiful courtyard garden and opening off a lovely little square, Vrijdagmarkt (we sadly didn't get a chance to try any of the cafes or bars dotted around its edges). The various rooms display books and papers from the libraries and archives, including a splendid collection of incunables as well as the expected collection of publications (over 90% complete) printed by the Officina Plantiniana.  Furnishings include sumptuous seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Spanish Mechelen gilded leather wall 'paper', something I'd never seen before.  The printing house shop still retains shelves of books behind a grill, weights for checking the coinage proffered by customers, and a copy of the Librorum prohibitorum index--the list of books prohibited in the Spanish Netherlands--is displayed on the wall by the entrance.  The correctors' room displays proof copies of works in a dazzling selection of languages, marked up by early-modern correctors.

The printing room contains five working seventeenth- and eighteenth-century hand presses, and the two oldest surviving presses in the world, which date from around 1600.  Along one wall are a number of type cases, holding type both familiar (roman and blackletter type for printing in Latin or German) and unfamiliar (Hebrew type and type for printing music were both displayed).  Next door is the type store: tonnes of letters stored in shelves from floor to ceiling. 

Upstairs a library or three, displays of cartographic and music printing, the type foundry and much more.  Two hours wasn't nearly long enough, and I'm planning a repeat bibliographic pilgrimage before too long at all.  If you are even vaguely interested in the history of printing and ever find yourself in Antwerp, do go there!

Monday, 24 September 2012

Special Collections Links Return!

You may remember that earlier this year I started compiling lists of interesting recent posts, events, news, and so on relating to special collections.  You may also remember that this initiative petered out rather quickly.  I found compiling the lists by hand rather fiddly, and when I started keeping a keen eye out for links I found that there were more than I could reasonably manage.

Since then I've been looking out for other ways to 'curate' (forgive me, archivists and museums folk for abusing this word) useful special collections information that flits across the web every week.  At present I'm trying out two digital curation tools, to see if either work well for this job.

The tools I'm testing are and, and I'm going to try and keep them updated every week. allows you more control over what's displayed: so the content is more hand-picked, but takes longer to maintain. generates its content automatically from the sources you tell it mine, so it takes less work to maintain but is less bespoke. just gives you a big stream of items, but divides them up neatly into daily or weekly issues - I think I prefer the latter arrangement. Any how, I'll see how both work and which I prefer over a few weeks.

In the mean time, you can see my Special Collections Librarianship topic, and my Special Collections paper for yourself.  Both have options to subscribe, and I'll be notifying about major updates (as I say, hopefully weekly) here as well.  I'd be really interested to know if they're at all useful, and which has better content, interface or anything else.

Sunday, 23 September 2012

Useful links from #rbscg12

Further to my reflections on the CILIP Rare Books and Special Collections Group annual conference, 'Speaking Truth to Power', here are some of the useful webpages, projects and articles that were mentioned during the conference.

Collections currently or recently under threat

Collaborative digitisation projects

Other projects and libraries

New use(s) of library space


Blog post

Tools and resources

  • COPAC collections management tool: "Libraries are continually faced with difficult decisions about what materials to keep, what to remove and what to conserve. At the moment, identifying whether items are rare, or indeed unique, within the UK is a time-consuming and expensive manual process. Our goal is to look at how Copac can make a real difference for collections managers. By making Copac data work harder and building the prototype on top of its extensive database, the collections management tool can provide valuable information from the catalogues of the UK’s major research libraries alongside rare collections held in museums, scholarly societies and university special collections." 
  • Information about the 2014 Research Excellence Framework (REF)

 Organisations, recognition and funding bodies


Saturday, 22 September 2012

Speaking truth to power: Rare Books Group annual conference 2012 (#RBSCG12)

The annual Rare Books and Special Collections Group conference took place on 12-14 September at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford.  This was the first year I was able to attend the conference, and I have to thank the CILIP East of England branch for financial support via their small grants fund.  I also must thank the RBSCG committee for organising a superb conference, the speakers for being so interesting, the other attendees for being friendly, and the staff at LMH for excellent hospitality.

The title of the conference was ‘Speaking Truth to Power: Making Special Collections Work in Times of Recession’, so fundraising, advocacy and outreach were major topics of conversation.  I’ve written up a narrative account of the conference for the East of England branch newsletter, Sunrise, which should be available later in the Autumn. What follows here are my thoughts arranged under what I felt were the main themes to emerge from the conference.  I’ve compiled a separate list of useful webpages, projects, reports and articles.

It’s fair to point out that I’ve always traditionally been sceptical about what university development offices do: I’ve had my fair share of half-hearted begging letters from my old college, and feel pretty cynical about their attempts to wring money from me (they know I’m a librarian, so I really don’t know why they try...). Remarkable to relate, this conference really changed the way I feel how we can engage with fundraising, and so my reflections seemed to have turned out more like a manifesto.

Show Don’t Tell

Our collections are our best and most powerful advocates, not only for themselves and for the library, but for the whole institution. The collections are most effective when people see and touch them up close and personal.  The ‘thingyness’ of our things matters; a digital reproduction is nice, but it just isn’t the same as the real thing, and allowing people not only to see, but to touch, gives them a big thrill and makes them feel important and valued.  Christopher Parking described that the physicality of objects is an important part of contemporary museum education practice, where the focus is on  handling collections, kinasthetic learning, and enquiry-based learning. School groups no longer just follow clipboard trails around objects safely kept behind glass.

We should be getting the important people inside and outside our institutions into our libraries to see just what it is that makes us special.  It’s no use just writing an email or a report describing what we hold: people have to come and see it to really understand.  Obviously it’s not always feasible to let everyone handle our objects, but don’t discount the impact it can make when it is possible to allow that.

Know Your Collections

We, as librarians, are fundamental in making our collections work, as we’re the people who know most about them.  We should be prepared to market ourselves as the people who can interpret the collections. There's something in most special collections that will appeal to everyone and anyone, so librarians are vital because we know what that item will be. This can make a big difference when, for example, the development office are bringing round potential donors.  We’re also important because we’re the people who know best just what a difference extra funding could make.

Our knowledge as librarians is what can make a big difference to academics, too.  They need access to our holdings to support their teaching, and they need access to our knowledge to help further and inform their research. Central to getting our collections used in research is getting them all catalogued, not only locally but as part of national and international indexes, and making the catalogue data available in useful ways.

It’s no longer acceptable for institutions to have basements of unknown collections, often the legacy of indiscriminate and undocumented collecting in the past.  So we need to take the initiative in working out what we have.  This is something that Manchester Public Library have been doing during the current refurbishment: they’ve been assessing what was, and what should be, stored in their closed stacks, and working out how that can be used in the future.

Know Your Institution

It’s not always easy to do, but you need to work out who has the power in your institution, and be prepared for the fact that once you’ve identified who that is, they’ll probably keep changing.  Alison Cullingford noted that people can have positive power (they can make things happen) and negative power (they can stop things happening).

Mark Nicholls gave a very clear account of the ways in which we can gain power for ourselves and influence those others who hold the positive and negative power.  He notes that "The worst mistake of a college (or any) politician is to be absent": we should do what we can to get on as many committees as possible and to cultivate allies on the others.  It’s important, he noted, to realise that those in charge can and will make decisions quickly when the time is right.  We have to be good at working out what ideas are right for the moment.  This gets easier as time goes on: one successful project, and attendant praise for the institution, will prime the organisation (and its nay-sayers) for further success.

Neil MacInnes and Judy Faraday both described the ways in which they were using special collections to further the aims and agendas of their institutions.  Manchester Public Libraries special collections are being used to engage communities that the local authority holds as priorities, including black and ethnic minority communities, place-based communities, and young people.  The materials held by the John Lewis archives and the community archives centred around the locations of John Lewis stores helps to support the partnership’s business cycle.  It does this both by providing materials for business use, including publicity and design, but also by creating community support and interest.  I suppose that you could call this latter effect ‘soft advertising’ - in any case, it’s part of the partnership’s commitment to corporate responsibility.  It’s important to be explicit about how your activities are supporting the mission and goals of your organisation.  Don’t just do it, but make sure everyone knows you’re doing it.

Know Your Audience(s)

We have lots of different audiences for our collections, activities and fundraising efforts.  Our traditional audience, academic readers, are still very important. Anne Welsh commented that their voices can be important in times of uncertainty, and that their support for services and collections can be vital.

There’s a general support for libraries and special collections amongst the general public.  Although there’s often a rather clich├ęd and unfair impression that we’re just old and dusty, this support is still something we can and should work with.  Richard Ovenden mentioned the one-day display of a copy of Magna Carta at the Bodleian: lots people will queue up to see something if you advertise it well, and this will generate positive publicity for your institution.

When considering external funders, Mark Nicholls advises that we can improve our image easily for example by producing a professional and attractive annual report.  Oliver Urquhart Ivine described British Library work creating partnerships such as that with the Qatar Foundation.  They took time and effort to research potential donors in depth, and to plan how they will approach and encourage potential donors.  This advice chimed with Mark Nicholls caution that we have to anticipate potential objections to our plans and be prepared to knock them away one by one.

When planning fundraising efforts, Sean Rainey commented that it’s important to realise that there’s a difference between funding priorities and fundraising priorities. We have to recognise what things donors will and won’t be prepared to donate towards.  We won’t have much success campaigning for retrospective conversion, small facilities improvements, and supplies and equipment purchases, so we need to look critically and objectively at our plans and decide what we can realistically achieve via which means.

Don't Be Complacent

In straightened times it’s important to keep ourselves front and centre in the minds of the people who make the decisions.  This might seem mercenary and drastic, but it can make all the difference.  There are plenty of collections and collecting areas that are sadly under risk.  As well as recent high-profile threatened libraries, Richard Ovenden and Alison Cullingford both identified twentieth-century collections that haven’t traditionally been regarded as ‘special collections’ as areas that may not be receiving the attention they need now to be preserved for the future.

Fundraising, I think, isn’t something that comes naturally or easily to librarians.  We like to think that the importance of our collections is not merely monetary, and that their cultural and intellectual value will ensure they receive adequate support without our having to bring out a begging bowl.  But that, sadly, isn’t the case.  We need to make the case for our collections, and to use the existing mechanisms for fundraising (development offices, funding bodies, donors, and so on) to attract support.  Sean Rainey ended his paper by enjoining us not to let fundraising slip down the to-do list, and I’ll echo what he said: start working on it now.