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.

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