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.