Sunday, 10 November 2013

Making the most of possibilities of digitisation: an #rbscg13 write-up

Rare Books and Special Collections Group Conference (programme (.docx)).  The theme this year was digitisation (last year was fundraising and advocacy).  The three recurring themes across all of the papers were audience, metadata, and the 'thinginess of things', with some very useful practical advice thrown in. I'm not going to give a blow-by-blow account of every paper, but rather to pick out the bits I've been chewing over since.

All three themes were addressed in Simon Tanner's keynote, which adeptly summed up the current situation as well as challenging us to think more imaginatively about the future and shaking us out of complacency about what we're doing now.

Tanner started by using the analogy of an ant mill to describe the fate of too many digitisation projects.  He emphasised that it's vital to plan properly and to seriously consider audience, opportunity costs (what aren't you doing if you are doing digitisation instead?), and to keep asking the 'so what' question to keep you focussed on why you're doing what you're doing. He also shared lots of useful resources:
Sian Prosser presented a case study on cataloguing and digitising a comparatively small collection of  manuscript fragments. She emphasised that even though there weren't many fragments, a very high level of specialist knowledge was required to describe them well, and that any project of this type is likely to take more time than envisaged.
  • TEI by example. Sian's project used TEI to mark up the descriptions. TEI by example is a set of free online tutorials.
  • Ransom Center Fragments. This is a very useful Flickr site displaying images from a large collection of manuscript fragments at the Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin.
My favourite paper from the conference was  Rowena Willard-Wright on 'Transforming our data for the internet on a tight budget'.  Willard-Wright works for English Heritage and described their work on digitising and improving their catalogue, including photographing objects, improving old records, cataloguing from scratch, and create varied means of access to the records.  Her talk really exposed infuriating and frustrating the problems faced by all cataloguers are.  As she spoke I wrote:
Willard-Wright's description of migrating and updating catalogue data is very familiar: data has been lost and garbled in transfers over years. Cataloguing has been and still is viewed as archane, and a thing not worth funding, because catalogues were and are seen as not for general consumption. I.e. they are perceived as been the exact opposite of their whole point. This problem that has been seen with the English Heritage catalogue is *exactly* what is being exposed as libraries moves from traditional OPACs to resource discovery/next-generation systems. And, most infuriatingly, the things that cataloguers have known and have been saying forever (e.g. consistency matters, access points matter) is suddenly being "discovered" as if it's new.
Willard-Wright was talking from the perspective of a museum catalogue, which is in some ways very different to a library catalogue.  Museums don't have such a tradition of the publicly accessible comprehensive catalogue, and write much more descriptive and less codified entries for their objects.

The English Heritage cataloguing project used teams of volunteers with very well-defined tasks.  They write clear, concise, engaging, small chunks of description - i.e. entries that confirm to the principles of good writing for the web. The volunteers aren't necessarily experts on the objects, and they're writing for audiences who aren't necessarily experts either. However, there's a recognition that the audience may have additional knowledge or stories to share, and for this reason a 'tell the curators something about this' button is being built into the public catalogue.  I absolutely love this - it's baffled me for years that so few library catalogues have a 'tell us if there's a mistake' button. Copac is a notable exception.  I fear that many libraries don't have one because, if it was ever mentioned in a meeting, someone piped up and said "but think of all the extra work" which likely trumped "think of how handy that will be for our readers, and how useful for us to make use of their knowledge".

That lack of connection to the audience was hammered home for me in another way throughout Willard-Wright's talk.  The museum descriptions are being written for general audiences.  Rare books records contain descriptions that are, frankly, written for librarians.  Not even, really, for most researchers. Yes, we include all sorts of useful information, but we code it up in impenetrable ways, and there's all sorts of information we don't include accessibly.  This has maybe been less of an issue in the past, when catalogue records were only seen by those initiated into our arcane world. But now catalogue records go along with beautiful/intriguing/important digitised books that all sorts of people might want to see, and our gibberish means *nothing*, and doesn't explain any of the basics. (How many records for the first folio show clearly that this is a first folio? Or the Nuremberg Chronicle?)

During Willard-Wright's paper Jill Dye commented that "The only difference between an online catalogue and a digitisation project is adding a photo?", and I think that in one way she's right: it's completely wrong to think that a digitisation project stands apart from cataloguing. However, making materials accessible in any way, but especially if they're freely available online demands a new attitude to description. We really need to step up our game.

Melissa Terras is director of the UCL Centre for Digital Humanities, and she presented a wide-ranging paper highlighting some of the possibilities of high-end digital imaging. She works on these projects in collaboration with computer scientists and engineers, and they're often adapting techniques already used elsewhere (such as in medical imaging). As well as drawing our attention to current projects, Terras made some important points about the theory and practice. Digitisation means lots more sorts of metadata needed so that we can properly interpret the images. As Hannah Thomas put it, Terras' work is "not just about creating a surrogate but about using the image to discover new things, inspire new research". Terras made the point that digital images are *not* exact reproductions of originals. Terras asked us to talk to her if we know of collections or items that would benefit from advanced digitisation and imaging work; part of her role is to connect the various people involved.
  • The one resource I'll share is this breathtaking (there were audible gasps in the room) video of the digital flattening of the great parchment book. Watch it. It's amazing.
Alixe Bovey spoke from the academic's perspective, and addressed some of the threats posed by digitisation. She was heavily involved in the campaign to try to prevent the sale of some of the Mendham Collection books last year. Bovey passionately explained that the digital is not the same as the physical, and we all need to communicate this better.  With the Mendham sale, the existence of digitised copies of the titles on databases such as EEBO and ECCO was used as justification for the sale, ignoring the copy specific details of the Mendham copies, as well as the failings of the scans themselves. Earlier digitisations have been particularly lacking. Never mind the poor black and white reproductions of scanned microfilm, they tended, for example, not to include any blank or apparently blank the source copy (see this post), and also ignored bindings, and made it difficult to determine the original size of the book. But we're not past such difficulties even with the best modern digitisations; they tend not to include scale rules, (see this post for difficulties of determining size), and give little indication of other factors such as weight, quality of materials used, or even smell.

Anne Welsh spoke very pragmatically from the point of view of libraries and library staff themselves.  She pointed out that we are continually needing to update and improve what we've done before: both content format and types of description.  She faced the fact that we can't do everything, and used the example of the University of Manchester Library Digitisation Strategy Group's 'Criteria for ensuring value to the Library for partnerships' (pdf link), which considers the value to the library of any potential projects.

Nicolas Pickwoad spoke about one element of early books which is too often overlooked in digitisations: book bindings. Most bookbinding digitisations (Pickwoad mentioned the Uppsala Probok project as an exception) show only beautiful, expensive, fancy and/or fine bindings, turning bookbinding digitisation has into "a decorative arts ghetto". This doesn't represent most early book bindings, which are less extravagant, but can tell us a very great deal about the book's history, and may often be the most interesting.

There's also a vicious circle at work: bindings aren't so often described in catalogue records, soscholars can't ask for them, so there's not so much research, so it's not seen as a priority... At least when books are viewed in person, the binding will be seen 'by accident' as it were.  If they're not included in digital surrogates they disappear altogether. Like many specialist aspects of digitisation, imaging bindings takes special requirements, including lighting, including to show structures accurately.
  • I'm keen to keep an eye on Pickwoad's Ligatus project, which is working on guidelines and terms for describing bindings better. It's hoping to develop vocabulary and multilevel descriptions for bookbinding including the ability to record negatives (e.g. 'no clasps'). This is key, because otherwise you just can't tell whether a feature is absent or it's just a bad record.

So all in all, my summary would be that we need to be using better, subtler and more flexible descriptive frameworks and presentational tools to make digitised materials accessible and available to the audiences who want to see them.  Digitisation can help with some, but not all, problems, and we need to advocate loudly for the intrinsic physical value of the things we want to digitise, to try to stem the tide of feeling that a copy is as good as, and entirely replaces, the original.
    There was lots of tweeting throughout the conference:

    Thursday, 20 June 2013

    Illicit collections: some thoughts

    One evening in February I rocked up at the Wellcome Trust for the start of the Library & Information History Group's walking tour of Bloomsbury and surrounds, 'Lonely hearts, wedding bells and illicit pleasures'.  Led by Alice Ford-Smith, the tour was absolutely super: I learnt new things, found new bits of London and had fun.  It started with an introduction to some of the Wellcome Library's superlatively diverse collections, given by the Wellcome Library's own Ross McFarlane, including a book on Psychopathia sexualis, the ephemera of King's Cross phone booths over 20 years, international AIDS-awareness posters and public health films and adverts.  After that we set off into the night, taking in John Bejteman's rather creepy advances towards Joan Hunter Dunn, the first lonely hearts ads (published in the eighteenth century), books banned at Bow Street Magistrate's Court (including Fanny Hill and The Well of Loneliness), the information management of an eighteenth-century pimp, and 84 Charing Cross Road.

    Bow Street Magistrates by remittancegirl, on Flickr
    Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License
    Bow Street Magistrates
    by  remittancegirl 
    The stop that most caught my imagination was at the British Museum, where we heard about hidden collections at the museum and its library (now the British Library). The BM Secretum was a designated area intended to keep closed away items considered to be obscene, including ancient erotica donated by George Witt (1804–1869).  (I guess this post isn't going to get this blog well and truly blocked by all 'good' web filters. So be it.)  The secret or private area or class is by no means limited to the historical British Museum.  The British Library Private Case (with the unimaginative shelfmark 'pc') was a similar collection of donated material deemed far too corrupting for most people to access.  In Cambridge University Library the rare books class Arc (short, I believe, for 'Arcana'), holds material deemed at one point, either through morals or law, not to be fetched for readers.  Some particular historic items in the collection may still not be fetched, as they are still, technically, illegal. Some modern material is still placed in this class, as also happens with the Phi (a pun on "Fie!") class at the Bodleian in Oxford.

    Another similar sort of collection acquired and amassed by different means is preserved by the Radzinowicz Library in the Institute of Criminology in at the University of Cambridge: it now houses a collection of printed books once held by the Home Office as examples of banned books.  Some of these books were, indeed, legally outlawed, but others are examples of books sent in by the public demanding that they be banned.  Obscenity trials and banned books featured in more than one of the National Archives' LGBT History Month podcasts, which I happened to be listening to shortly after the walking tour. I'd recommend 'Fictional obscenities: lesbianism and censorship in the early 20th century', and 'Genius on trial: key sources relating to Oscar Wilde at The National Archives'

    These sorts of collections are fascinating to me, because they seem to bring to the surface a great number of questions which apply to most collecting.  Many of these books (or objects) were brought together and kept by individuals or institutions out of a particular interest or for a particular purpose.  Others drifted in through chance and accident, not deliberate action. But the controversial nature of the material throws into relief the chancy nature of preservation, especially of non-mainstream material.  The controversial nature of the material ensured it was kept together, and that's hugely useful to us now, as the grouping reveals a lot about historic attitudes. On the other hand, it's luck and chance that these books and objects were preserved at all: they may not have been accepted for inclusion in the collections at all.  What items do we all reject today (for whatever reasons) that we should be hanging on to instead?  Is controversial material, perhaps, more likely to be kept, but the mundane to be disregarded and lost?

    How can we tread the line between keeping every last scrap and creating collections that can actually be managed? I've no idea.  But this tour and the thoughts it provoked have inspired me to consider the marginal more and the obvious a little less when considering collection development.

    Edited to add Ross McFarlane's name.

    Tuesday, 18 June 2013

    CILIP CDG visit to RCP - acronym soup, difficult questions and #speccolls resources

    Yesterday afternoon it was my great pleasure to host a group visit by the CILIP Career Development Group London and South East Divisions.  It's a super, and very active group, but I do wonder if it couldn't do with a better name? CILIPCDGLSED is a bit too much for even the most seasoned acronym mangler to manage.

    Royal College of Physicians by tonyhall, on Flickr
    Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License

    Royal College of Physicians by  tonyhall 
    Anyway, they came to see the Royal College of Physicians, and to hear a little from me about what working in special collections is all about, and how to get ahead in the field.  I feel much less like a fraud given a talk like that this year when I have what feels much more like a proper rare books job, than I did last year when I was hopping from temporary post to temporary post.

    I based what I said on various previous talks and presentations I've given, primarily those linked in my previous post.  The lovely guests also asked some really pertinent and difficult questions, and I promised I'd write up my thoughts about them here and add some useful links.

    What are the first steps you should take in exposing, and trying to get support for working with, a hidden collection?
    I've written about hidden collections before. Everyone has something that's hidden, and in some places the entirety of the special collections can be classed as 'hidden'.  There's some practical advice over on this write-up from earlier in the year. It's an issue that's being discussed more and more - there's an African Studies conference on the subject in a couple of weeks, for example.  I really think that the most important thing to do if you have a hidden collection is to start by getting a handle of just what it is.  You can't start by cataloguing in detail, but simply being able to say something like 'we have twenty shelves, mostly of printed books, with some pamphlets in 4 boxes.  It mostly looks 19th century and relates to cookery and gardening' starts to make the problem manageable, rather than being a great and mysterious unknown.

    Edited to add: Emma Greenwood has just written a really super blog post about her work with the special collections at the Jerwood Library at Trinity Laban, which I would recommend you read for a case study of how to begin dealing with hidden collections.

    How can you make special collections materials that have been long ignored seem relevant and worth supporting to an institution and library with a very different and tightly focussed audience and purpose (such as a hospital library)?

    This can be a very difficult question.  I think that answering it successfully depends on being able to get a grip on just what it is that makes the people in the organisation with the power tick. Very often it's the simple finances that matter: maybe the special collections can help to garner funding, by impressing donors or demonstrating history and prestige.  But maybe adherence to a strategic plan is most important? Then you can try to find a way in which uncovering hidden collections could contribute explicitly to a strategic aim.  In other places, personal connections matter, so finding one supporter whose opinion is valued can turn things around. I fear these are none of them very satisfactory solutions.  Some of my thoughts after last year's Rare Books and Special Collections Group conference, which focussed on funding, may be of use.

    If you would like to come and see the RCP building or gardens, we have free general tours once a month (first Friday for the building, first Wednesday for the medicinal gardens). And exhibitions and other events.

    Lastly, here are a couple of links to ways to get more involved with the profession in general, and special collections in particular:
    • The Historic Libraries Forum is free to join. It sends its members a twice-yearly bulletin, as well as updates about events and courses. It runs courses and an annual conference, which is consistently one of the friendliest and most useful I've been to. It also campaigns on behalf of historic libraries under threat, and gives advice to people in charge of historic libraries.
    • The CILIP London branch maintains a London Library Events Calendar, listing not only what they do, but also all sorts of other events. (If you have something to add, I think you email cilipinlondon at gmail dot com.)
    And last of all, Alison Cullingford's Special Collections Handbook is a very good place to start for all things #speccolls.

    If you were at the visit and think I've forgotten to mention something I promised I'd link to, please say in the comments and I'll make amends.

    And it would be great to hear other people's thoughts on the difficult questions. Any success stories of bringing hidden collections in small or uninterested institutions into the light?

    Edited to add links to RCP tours and events.

    Sunday, 16 June 2013

    Special Collections Careers

    Tomorrow afternoon, the CILIP Career Development Group London and South East Divisions are coming to visit the Royal College of Physicians, and I'm giving a short talk on special collections careers.  In honour of this, I've updated by special collections careers slideshow. Ta-da:

    For more information about the special collections world, my map of the field--written last May--is still worth a look:

    Tuesday, 2 April 2013

    Special Collections Links, 2 April 2013

    Just one headline story from this week's serving of special collections news: Loch Ness Monster found by the British Library.  If that doesn't tempt you, nothing will.

    Special Collections Links on here.

    Thursday, 7 March 2013

    'Knowing the need', or, How I learnt to stop worrying and love preservation management

    This British Library Preservation Advisory Centre (#blpac, @bl_pac) conference took place on Friday 1 March 2013 to launch the new Preservation Assessment Survey (PAS) 'Knowing the need: optimising preservation for library and archive collections, February 2013' (pdf link).
    Jams, jellies by Loozrboy, on Flickr
    Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic LicensePreserves, geddit?
      by  Loozrboy 

    I set up a quick and dirty archive of the #blpac tweets from the day on Evernote (via The formatting isn’t great, but it may be handy. Slides from the presenters are online via the PAC.

    The first paper, from Caroline Peach, summarised the findings of the report

    Some of the stand-out findings:
    • 29% of collections are not catalogued, and 62% are not findable online.
    • Preservation measures are best in the fields of handling, security and fire protection. They’re worst in are storage, environment (the worst of all) and emergency control. Its clear that the areas that are best are those that can be controlled by library staff themselves or that have high institutional importance anyway (i.e. fire protection).
    • Only 2% of items are in an unusable condition.
    • There wer need more cataloguing, and better storage, environmental and emergency control. Of these, cataloguing is the priority – we preserved for future use, and we can’t use if its not catalogued.
    It didn’t seem surprising to me that these results aren’t so different from the previous survey (published in 2006). Getting an emergency plan understood, regularly reviewed and incorporated into staff training at an institutional level, for example, can be very tricky.

    Things we can do:
    • Incorporate good housekeeping procedures, e.g. cleaning, into our regular work.
    • Make sure everyone’s trained on the emergency plan.
    • Implement taregetted environmental improvements.
    • Better prioritising of work, bu conserving or creating surrogrates of the poor condition items in highest demand first. (I wasn’t convinced by all the conclusions drawn from the statistics, e.g. that we’re not boxing the right items.)
    Useful tools and reports:

    Alison Cullingford spoke about the RLUK Unique and Distinctive Collections report (forthcoming)

    Physical preservation isn't rocket science - we know what we need to do. So... why isn't it happening?
    1. Our organisations don't exist primarily to preserve special collections, and the things that need doing need contributions from people beyond the library who don’t necessary appreciate the importance.
    2. Maybe we have too much stuff, as a hangover from past collecting decisions or none decisions. Even if 70+% of our stuff is locally/nationally relevant (as noted in the report), that means that up to 30% is irrelevant, which is still a lot of stuff.
    3. Much of this is uncatalogued, so it won't be asked for by users, it’ll be kept in poor conditions, stored remotely, etc. This is both psychologically and practically very difficult.
    There are differences between types of library. Though all have problems:
    • academic and research libraries have too much stuff
    • smaller libraries have storage and buildings problems
    • public libraries are a big worry because of cuts, because they had more hidden collections to start with, because special collections have long been a lesser priority (on average) than in other libraries, and because they didn’t benefit from past retro-cataloguing funding and initiatives.
    How to improve?
    1. Keep it simple!
      • Take baby steps, e.g. cleaning. Make a little of this every week a core part of work, which is owned by everyone. Cleaning books isn't menial - you get to know the collections and get to know the problems.
      • Get something online, even if it’s not a full itemised catalogue. Paper finding aids just aren’t good enough any more.
      • Even if you can’t do anything else to improve storage, get your collections 15com up off the floor and make sure you insist on everyday good practice.
    2. Think value, use and priorities. The term ‘Unique and Distinctive’ is useful for this as it implies that importance extends beyond traditional (outdated) definitiong of special collections (i.e. old and valuable). The phrase is a way to explain value beyond money or age. Leeds University uses a typology of heritage (develop these), legacy (you'll keep but not extend), self-renewing (reference books), finite (stuff you do not want).
    3. Make most of opportunities. Don't be overwhelmed by having too-much-stuff, use the Copac collections tool to work out your strengths, backed up by graphs and numbers. Develop partnerships, for example regional emergency planning.
    Jane Henderson spoke about decision-making under the title, ‘Confidence or evidence’

    This was, for me, the most useful and inspiring paper of the day.  Jane packed an awful lot into her allotted time, and I won't be able to do it justice in this write up.

    Her main argument was that you shouldn't be exerting more time and effort on making a decision than the ultimate effect of that decision will have.  She outlined two methods of decision-making: rational decision-making (we try to assess all the variables and calculate the best solution) and heuristic decision-making (we look at the big picture and work out what the most important aspects are).

    We feel we should be using rational decision-making so that we can demonstrate the numerical basis to our actions.  Some of the problems with rational decision-making are that:
    1. You can't ever calculate all the answers in the complex situations we're examining.
    2. Very often the effort needed isn't worth it.  You might not need to 5 year's of survey data to tell that your poorly insulated library fluctuates in temperature too much. 
    3. You probably can't remove all the subjective elements, and if the decision is ultimately subjective you maybe shouldn't be dressing it up with charts and graphs.
    4. A mathematical decision may not be satisfactory.  Even if we come up with number indicating a potential risk, research has shown that people systematically over- or under-estimate such risks.  (Jane made the lovely comment that disasters are predictable events that haven't been considered together.) 
    Heuristic decision making, on the other hand, starts by ascertaining which criteria really matter.  You then only need to collect information on those, and finding a solution may be much more straightforward.

    Obviously, neither of these methods are perfect: heuristics can be very subjective, and the rational approach can have its place, especially where you need to provide 'proof' for your suggestions to be taken seriously.

    Jane used the (rather nasty) word satisficing to describe an attitude that chooses to be satisfied with the good enough, rather than aiming for perfection.  It's what we all have to do, especially when time and resources are limited, but I think we all find it a difficult concept in professional practice.

    Conservation-wise, satisficing means asking:
    • who is this for?
    • why is it being done?
    • whoe else care about this?
    • what does this object / collection mean to various people?
    Lastly, Jane commented on the skills and abilities of experts. They're experts because they
    • see what's not there
    • recognise patterns & exceptions in familiar situations
    • they are selective in picking decision problems
    • can imagine set of good outcomes
    • can mentally simulate routes to desires goals
    Experts' use of intuition can appear not to carry weight. When someone voices an opinion without any apparent evidence this often, especially in wider institutional contexts, doesn't carry much weight.   Jane ended by saying that we need to be bombastic in support of the value of expertise.

    Barry Knight talked about ‘Changing times, changing standards’

    The first edition of BS5454 was published in 1977. As no other standards available, people adopted BS5454 for all sorts of other climates and collections for which it wasn’t intended, which was very detrimental to many collections and buildings.

    The current policy is to manage environmental conditions rather than to attempt to impose straight-jacket control. PD5454 and PAS 198 adopt an evidence-based approach. We are required to examine risks, how long we want a collection to last, what the significance of the items is (and therefore what sort of surrogates might or might not be useful). Then you can determine appropraite target conditions, and the energy cost of those conditions.

    Plenty of different types of items can co-habit in the same conditions, but one size doesn't fit all. You therefore need to know your collection and what its specific needs are.

    Assessing lifespan isn’t necessarily a question of a number of years. The issue is the cost/benefit of conservation work, and the whether a surrogate would be satisfactory.

    Caroline Peach presented a session on preservation surrogacy - creating analogue or digital reproductions to extend the usable life of an item

    Consider what else we could do instead of surrogacy. (lining, de-acidification (expensive, can be effective, especially combined with cooler storage), boxing, safe handling, reduction in handling).
    The key attributes of a preservation surrogate are that it:
    • replicates as far as possible the characteristics of the original
    • is discoverable by users and is issued in lieu of the item
    • will be retained for agreed period of time 
    For long time the medium of choice has been microfilm, but today various pressures suggest that a move towards digital surrogacy may be useful.  Users, for example, are less willing these days to come to a specific physical location to consult a surrogate.

    Caroline was keen to question the decision-making behind the creation of surrogates.  The results of the PAC survey suggested to her that there was little clear planning behind what to microfilm or digitise.  In my experience, these decisions are mostly driven either by users (those who a willing to pay for a copy of a microfilm of an item, and the library keeps a master cop to use as a potential surrogate thereafter) or by external funding bodies who wish to contribute to digitisation projects.  I think Caroline's argument that we should choose items based on importance, use levels and condition is sensible, but doesn't necessarily tie in well with short-term funding issues.

    Gerry Slater, Policy Adviser at the Scottish Council on Archives, spoke about assessing the preservation needs in Scotland

    The position of archives in Scotland is very complicated. As well as National Records of Scotland there are at least 133 public bodies holding archives. The SCA aims to be a force for advocating for archives in Scotland, as well as offering practical services.

    Its National Plan for Learning achieved consensus approval in the Scottish Parliament, and is a good example of positive work. Another useful document is the ARMS Quality Improvement Toolkit.

    The SCA funded surveys of 11 collections, which revealed that the state of preservation work in Scotland is in almost all areas, worse than the UK and Ireland as a whole. The only area in which its doing better is handling. They’re working on positive ways to break this news and to offer practical help to repositories.

    What I'll take away from the day

    Managing the preservation of a historic collection housed in a space not built specifically with preservation in mind can seem like a Sysiphean task. This conference really helped me think about how I'm making practical and strategic decisions about preservation and conservation at work.  It helped reinforce some of my opinions about what is a priority and how we should address that, and also gave me new ideas about how to present these ideas convincingly to the audiences inside and beyond my workplace.

    Edited 8 November 2014 to update link to report.

    Monday, 4 March 2013

    #speccolls Links, 4 March 2013

    Manuscript fragments, music manuscripts, manuscript repairs, burnt manuscripts, manuscripts concerning Richard III, doffing your hat for the month of March, trimming your beard the seventeenth-century way, library history talks and MORE!

    Here's the Special Collections Librarianship page on

    Or you can subscribe to the RSS feed for the links and have them delivered fresh as soon as I note them.

    If you find any good special collections stories you think are worth sharing, you can suggest them to me to, tweet them with the #speccolls tag, or leave me a comment here. And please do let me know of any blogs or projects that I don't seem to be including. I don't post everything I see (just the bits that are the most interesting) but I want to make sure I'm casting my net as far as possible.

    Sunday, 3 March 2013

    #libcampldn: finding practical solutions

    I managed to snag a last-minute ticket for the Library Camp London unconference held at Senate House Library on Saturday 2 March. Despite my early-morning wobble--did I really want to spend a day talking to people about difficult stuff?--I had a really good time, and am glad I went.  Big thanks to Andrew Preater, David Clover and Gary Green for organising it.

    With such a wide spread of sessions to choose from, it was necessary to have a method for choosing what to attend.  I decided not to try and be worthy or hard-thinking, but to go to what sounded like the most practically useful and/or the most fun sessions. So I steered clear of the Future of the Library, DRM, Open Access, Librarian Personalities, and even Radical Libraries (although I eagerly await write-ups of that one), and instead, apart from my fairly worthy hidden collections session, went with fun, low-stress and useful.

    Hidden Collections

    I pitched this session as a forum for discussing the problems described in the 2012 RLUK Hidden Collections report (and touched on in the OCLC Survey of Special Collections), and hopefully to share ideas and strategies for dealing with the problem.
    The Problem
    There are millions of uncatalogued, or insufficiently well-catalogued books, files, manuscripts, recordings, maps, pieces of sheet music, etc. etc. etc. in libraries of all kinds across the country.  Getting this stuff catalogued is hard because good cataloguing takes time and skilled staff.  In an environment where more and more new stock comes 'shelf-ready' (i.e. ready-catalogued by the company that supplies it, often not very well), the number of in-house cataloguers, especially in public libraries, is declining.  This means that there's no-one available in the institution who could possibly take on the cataloguing backlog.  Even in institutions no buying shelf-ready stock there are serious and worrying pressures on cataloguer numbers, and cataloguing projects don't seem to be sexy enough to attract much outside funding.

    Apart from the obvious reasons (no record = no-one can use it because no-one knows it's there ), hidden collections are bad because they are far more likely than visible collections to be left languishing in poor environments leading to serious preservation problems, or to be inappropriately disposed of by penny-pinching managers (especially in public libraries, sadly).  Their mere existence is also psychologically wearing on those who know they should be dealt with but don't have the resources to complete such work.

    Convincing the powers-that-be to fund cataloguing work can be difficult.  Reference libraries can struggle to prove their worth as they don't have circulation data to show usage levels.  Trial projects putting a small number of new records into the catalogue can demonstrate a sharp uptake in use of a particular set of material, but this isn't always what happens.

    Some digitisation projects aimed to deal with a large quantity of unavailable archive data have returned data that's so poor as to be almost useless.  There's a fear about spending money on such projects in case they're not worth the effort.

    It can be difficult to know where to start when addressing your hidden collections problem.  Obviously it's best to start with what users want the most, but how can they know they want something that's hidden?  It's a worry to some that previous projects haven't focussed on the right stuff: maybe we should concentrate on more modern collections rather than the traditional blue-chip items such as early-printed books?

    Knowledge about collections and projects is very often only recorded in people's heads.  Once that person goes, all the information is lost.  This happens time and time again.

    Using our usersA project at the Institute of Education has engaged the help of specialists to improve the metatdata on newly-created brief catalogue records for historic textbooks. The discussion acknowledged that user-tagging facilities in catalogues often don't elicit many responses (even on Amazon!), but we agreed that maybe actively asking for specialist help might be much more successful than passively including 'tag this' buttons without explaining why users would want to bother.  Rare books users often, for example, notice that ESTC numbers in catalogues are incorrect.  We should have 'Is this record wrong? Please let us know!' buttons on records, just like COPAC does.  You can also let users tag based on a fixed vocabulary, rather than free text.  I was inspired with the idea of letting users tag rare book records with a selection from the RBMS Controlled Vocabularies, such as binding types and illustration terms.  I'd love to hear if anyone thinks this is possible, feasible, sensible...?

    What do they want?  We should be formalising a link between enquiry and reference work on one side and cataloguing and digitisation on the other: the enquiry people know what people are asking about.  In a small library it'll be the same people doing both, but in a large library a formal reporting mechanism would be very useful.  You can use your catalogue data to see what people want and can't find: look at which searches are turning up no (or very few) results, and then use this as a basis for choosing what to catalogue (or how to improve the cataloguing), what to digitise, or what to acquire.

    Publicity.  We need to publicise the material that we have catalogued so that the work can be shown to be a success.  This means talking to researchers, to people who write research grants, to our other users (such as people looking for dissertation topics), blogging our collections, holding events around them, etc. etc.

    Get the issue up the agenda.  We all appreciate the problem of and with hidden collections, but we mustn't assume that people higher up in our organisations either know that the problem is there, or why it is a serious problem.  The RLUK presents a opportunity to raise awareness, for example by including it on the agenda at a library committee meeting.  Summarise the findings, explain the local context, and maybe (just maybe) someone will take it up higher in the hierarchy. 

    Know your collections.  There is nothing more important in librarianship than knowing your collections.  It's not necessarily easy to do, of course, but when you start somewhere new it's important to ask questions about the shelves/boxes/collections that seem overlooked. What is it? Where did it come from? What's the plan?  And then document this information so that it isn't lost all over again in the future.  It's important to your users that you also know what else roundabouts is relevant to them - we can cross-publicise collections in other libraries.

    I was really pleased with how the session went.  A high proportion of the attendees spoke up, and shared perspectives from a range of different types of library and collection.  There were some keen 'amplifiers' (i.e. tweeter) and this facilitated some useful back-channel comments. As well as voicing concerns and problems, the conversation developed naturally into what we can actually do.. 

    Library Displays
    Pitched by a school librarian looking for inspiration, I found that this session really helped me clarify some of my own marketing plans, even though I don't do 'displays' in the traditional sense.  Ideas that Ill be thinking about using at work include:
    • investigating the non-fiction/science book prizes, and science prizes (e.g. Ignoble, Nobel, Darwin) to base publicity on the shortlists/winners.
    • making a note of national/international book days and events (e.g. World Book Day, World Poetry Day) and national/international history weeks and months (e.g. black history month, LGBT history month) to do things that tie in.  Although we're not primarily a book-ish institution, it might be effective to tie in library things with events that staff might have heard about on the radio/TV.
    • would blind date with a book work in a professional library context?
    • make an annual list of all this stuff, and--when something crops up that I'd forgotten about (it's usually small things, like Christmas...)--make sure to include them for next year.
    • make sure to record what was done this year in order not to repeat too closely next year, but also to build on success.
    Speed Networking
    I turned up late for this because I was distracted by The Itinerant Poetry Library (which is marvellous and must be seen to be believed) and therefore set a cat amongst the neatly-organised pigeons. A school librarian, Dominique, kindly let me circle round with her, and a met a selection of people familiar and new. I was very impressed by the way Liz Jolly facilitated an evaluation of how the session had gone, and how it might be improved at future library camps.  This was followed by a general discussion about networking methods.  Some familiar views about the value (or not) of Twitter and other online networks were raised, as well as a salient point from @Schopflin that an effective networker needs to use many different methods in order to meet lots of different people.  My opinion is that if you think you're meeting the people you want to meet and finding out the news you want to find using your current networks, then maybe you don't 'need' Twitter.  But if you feel you could or should be trying to do more then it's worth looking around to find your Twitter (or Linkedin, or whatever) niche.

    Rhyme Time
    Linsey Chrisman and Jody, both experienced children's librarians, led a participatory rhyme-time (or, rather, read-and-rhyme, which is for toddlers rather and babies, and they determined that a bunch of over-excited librarians are closer to the former than the latter) session.  Standing and sitting in a circle, we sang, signed and danced our way through several songs, and had enormous fun flinging toys into the air with a colourful parachute. It was really good fun to let our hair down, wave our arms about, and participate in something communal. There's definitely something in the idea that singing together with other people makes you happy.  Though how you can incorporate that into more of life successfully, I'm not sure - it only works if the people involved are willing...

    We also discussed some of the whys and wherefores of public library rhyme-times, such as how to balance holding them in spaces that are suitable (encourage parent participation by not being too public and prevent too many toddlers absconding) but still emphasise that this is a library thing (have the books nearby).  Absolutely top tip: if you're organising something like this, think about where you'll get people to park their buggies!

    And... rest
    It was a hard-work day, but very rewarding.  Fortunately there was plentiful coffee, lunch and cake to keep us going.

    Monday, 25 February 2013

    Special Collections Links, 25 February 2013

    More cats! More LGBT history month stuff! Also photographs of binding structures, a job opportunity in Nottingham and a useful conference presentation.

    Here's the Special Collections Librarianship page on

    Or you can subscribe to the RSS feed for the links and have them delivered fresh as soon as I note them.

    If you find any good special collections stories you think are worth sharing, you can suggest them to me to, tweet them with the #speccolls tag, or leave me a comment here. And please do let me know of any blogs or projects that I don't seem to be including. I don't post everything I see (just the bits that are the most interesting) but I want to make sure I'm casting my net as far as possible.

    Monday, 18 February 2013

    Special Collections Links, 18 February 2013

    Read Beowulf online, the OCLC & RLUK special collections report is out (read that, too), record-keeping and D-Day, lots of conferences this summer in St Andrews, and a Science Museum exhibition.
    Here's the Special Collections Librarianship page on

    Or you can subscribe to the RSS feed for the links and have them delivered fresh as soon as I note them.

    If you find any good special collections stories you think are worth sharing, you can suggest them to me to, tweet them with the #speccolls tag, or leave me a comment here.  And please do let me know of any blogs or projects that I don't seem to be including.  I don't post everything I see (just the bits that are the most interesting) but I want to make sure I'm casting my net as far as possible.

    Monday, 11 February 2013

    Special collections links, 11 February 2013

    Updates on Timbuktu manuscripts, flying early-modern cats, debunking more illustration myths, a job in Oxford, LGBT history in ballads and archives, and an interesting professional discussion: what can we stop doing?
    Here's the Special Collections Librarianship page on

    Or you can subscribe to the RSS feed for the links and have them delivered fresh as soon as I note them.

    If you find any good special collections stories you think are worth sharing, you can suggest them to me to, tweet them with the #speccolls tag, or leave me a comment here.  And please do let me know of any blogs or projects that I don't seem to be including.  I don't post everything I see (just the bits that are the most interesting) but I want to make sure I'm casting my net as far as possible.

    Monday, 4 February 2013

    Special Collections Links, 4 February 2013

    Destruction in Timbuktu, otters helping St Cuthbert, Spanish manuscripts on display, a grad trainee job, archives accreditation, LGBT history month and much more.
    Here's the Special Collections Librarianship page on

    Or you can subscribe to the RSS feed for the links and have them delivered fresh as soon as I note them.

    If you find any good special collections stories you think are worth sharing, you can suggest them to me to, tweet them with the #speccolls tag, or leave me a comment here.  And please do let me know of any blogs or projects that I don't seem to be including.  I don't post everything I see (just the bits that are the most interesting) but I want to make sure I'm casting my net as far as possible.

    Monday, 28 January 2013

    Special Collections Links, 28 January 2013

    Mills and Boon, postcards on display, librarians' leisure pursuits and Burns Night all feature in this week's special collections round-up.
    Here's the Special Collections Librarianship page on

    Or you can subscribe to the RSS feed for the links and have them delivered fresh as soon as I note them.

    If you find any good special collections stories you think are worth sharing, you can suggest them to me to, tweet them with the #speccolls tag, or leave me a comment here.  And please do let me know of any blogs or projects that I don't seem to be including.  I don't post everything I see (just the bits that are the most interesting) but I want to make sure I'm casting my net as far as possible.

    Monday, 21 January 2013

    Special collections links, 21 January 2013

    King Alfred and the cakes, manuscript fragments, Mr Bean in the special collections reading room (be afraid, be very afraid...), a couple of conferences and myths about printing images.
    Here's the Special Collections Librarianship page on

    Or you can subscribe to the RSS feed for the links and have them delivered fresh as soon as I note them.

    If you find any good special collections stories you think are worth sharing, you can suggest them to me to, tweet them with the #speccolls tag, or leave me a comment here.  And please do let me know of any blogs or projects that I don't seem to be including.  I don't post everything I see (just the bits that are the most interesting) but I want to make sure I'm casting my net as far as possible.

    Monday, 14 January 2013

    Special collections links, 14 January 2013

    Happy new year! Here are the latest special collections links.  Several newsletters, a couple of conferences and a new calendar for the year from the BL all find a home in this gathering...
    Here's the Special Collections Librarianship page on

    Or you can subscribe to the RSS feed for the links and have them delivered fresh as soon as I note them.

    If you find any good special collections stories you think are worth sharing, you can suggest them to me to, tweet them with the #speccolls tag, or leave me a comment here.  And please do let me know of any blogs or projects that I don't seem to be including.  I don't post everything I see (just the bits that are the most interesting) but I want to make sure I'm casting my net as far as possible.