Sunday, 9 November 2014

New space for old books: #rbscg14

At the end of August (Wednesday 27 to Firday 29), the CILIP rare books and special collections group met at the University of Aberdeen for its annual study conference, this year on the theme ‘New Space for Old Books: Building for the Future’. The full conference programme with details of all the speakers and paper titles should still be online (.docx link).

The conference took place in the new University Library building, a dramatic blue-ish cuboid that stands above the city on a hill, and which has probably the best views of any library anywhere:

There were 17 papers in total, and I don’t propose to write them up individually. I felt that three main themes emerged: project management, knowing your collections, and managing the environment.

Project management is hard. Everyone said this. Major building projects are incredibly complicated and you will need to set aside a lot of time to manage them. Architects, tendering for services, buildling, weather, finances … Try not to have everything happening at once, but do try to have a plan from beginning to end when you start. In particular, it’s very useful to have the utilities and air conditioning designed together, even if they’re implemented in separate phases.

Be prepared with ideas about what you’d like for your buildings. Decisions are sometimes made very quickly – particularly if money suddenly becomes available – and you’ll want to be able to put your case forward well. Don’t be afraid to be ambitious and imaginative when you do.

Unexpected difficulties will come up. You can try and prevent some of these – for example, by checking the financial health of your contractors – but some of them, like the weather, you can’t. And sometimes it may be that things don’t move forward because there just isn’t sufficient institutional interest.

Therefore you need to be pragmatic at all stages. You might be able to keep your service running as usual through most or all of a project, but you might not be. Communicate with your staff and readers about this – it’s not the end of the world to stop doing things if people know why, and for how long. It’s likely that staff roles will morph during the project, as different areas of expertise are needed. This might be uncomfortable for people who’re already adapting to the changed priorities and working conditions, so, again, being honest and upfront about what’s happening and why is important.

Two resources were mentioned as being useful:

    The stuff
    We heard about the construction of several brand new buildings, all of which to some extent or other also involved the bringing together of previously separate collections and services from one or more institution, the creation of new services, and deliberate moves to engage with new audiences and communities.

    The Keep in Brighton brings together the special collections from the University of Sussex, the East Sussex Record Office and Brighton’s Royal Pavilion & Museums Local History Collections. From the point of view of readers, there is no difference between the collections: everything can be searched in one place and there are no differences on access rules and regulations. However, behind the scenes the collections remain separately owned and managed. This meant that there was significant work to do in harmonising policies and procedures (such as fetching, handling, registration requirements for readers, reading room rules and so on) before opening the service.

    The Hive, Worcester, is Europe's first joint university and public library. It combines the University of Worcester research collections, the collections of the Worcestershire Archive and Archaeology Service, the university research repository, the public library, the local government one-stop shop and more. It has admirable aims, even if its list of ten core values reads to me like something from 2012: inspiration, connection, aspiration, learning, integration, inclusivity, enduring values, well-being, sustainability, visibility. I was very pleased to hear about the efforts that had been put into staff training and customer service. Staff for the Hive were drawn in from all the different areas represented in the collections. They held staff workshops about how to answer customers’ queries: customers see all the staff as the same, whereas each person has a particular background and areas of expertise and non-expertise. They devised a very structured referrals process, so that people know what they should pass on (and how to do it) and what they can answer themselves. All this under the matra: ‘We welcome, we innovate, we respect [each other's specialisms]’.

    Two members of staff from the Glasgow School of Art library spoke about the work they had been doing (pre-fire, of course) to encourage wider use by their students and others. This included bringing artists and writers in to use the collections to ‘inspire, challenge or expand their practice’ through a project called the hatchery. This has included using the library space for installations and tableaux vivants. They cited the Library as Incubator project as a useful resource and inspiration for this work. In a newly designed special collections area they’ve also been running workshops and sessions based on the collection both to draw out items to use as inspiration, but also to explain to students how special collections and archives work. Various pieces – such as a camel (!) - have been inspired by this.

    Bringing lots of things together can obviously have its benefits. Aberdeen University Library special collections reported a huge increase in use once they were in the same building as the rest of the university library, instead of being hidden in the back of somewhere else behind 5 doors and several corridors... But I wonder whether collaboration sometimes isn’t just seen uncritically as a Good Thing by senior management, without consideration of the individual requirements of user groups and services.

    The key, it seems to me, to making a collaborative project work, or to getting the most from your collections is to know really well what it is you have in the first place. You have to invest time and effort in understanding the potential of your collections and the interests and needs of your current and potential future readers. I think this is a moral I hear in a lot of conferences because I never feel like I spend enough time getting to know my own collections...

    Environmental control can be really difficult whether you’re in a historic building or a new one.

    Susie Bioletti spoke about the difficulties in managing the conditions in the Long Room at Trinity College Dublin. It’s Dublin’s second biggest tourist attraction, with something like 550,000 visitors annually. It gets loads of sunshine, there’s heaps of dust (that follows no known settling pattern), people bring in humidity and heat with them. Since 2004 they’ve been undertaking detailed surveys. They measure dust using a ‘loss of gloss’ technique in which glass microscope slides are placed in various locations and their reflectivity (or lack of it) is measured to give a value for the quantity of dust that has settled. They plot environmental recordings against a calendar in order to demonstrate trends and to pick out dates that are particularly bad because of particular events – a useful visual way to map this data.

    You can expend a vast amount of time, energy and money trying to keep a very tight control on temperature and humidity, when it could be a lot more efficient to take a more relaxed attitude (especially considering that facilities management is rightly increasingly concerned with wider environmental impact, carbon usage and so on). NAME from ORGANISATION summarised the recommendations of PD 5454 (the replacement for the BS 5454 standard) as:
    • know your collection and assess the risks that apply to it specifically
    • recognise the difference between mixed traditional archive materials which can’t be split up easily, and those specialist materials that need particular conditions
    • re-conceptualise environmental control as ‘allowing fluctuations within set parameters’ rather than ‘rigid control’
    • Keep the RH up in reading rooms – it’s a shock for documents to move from 50% RH in the store to maybe only 25% in the reading room. Temperature is less of an issue. (Would that this will end the scourge of 16ÂșC reading rooms...)

    These are all sensible and encouraging, and echo what was said at the late BL Preservation Advisory Centre ‘Knowing the Need’ conference last year.

    Several people in the audience, however, raised a very important point: it’s all well and good to adopt a more relaxed approach to conditions in which PD 5454 is a guide not a rule when considering your own collections. However, the stipulations in PD 5454 are routinely used by institutions loaning objects and books as the guide for acceptable storage and display. If you want to be borrowing items for display and exhibition, then you need to trying to meet these conditions for many places to allow you to borrow. I’m not sure we’ve found a way to square these two approaches yet.

    And last but not least
    1. The recurring theme of the conference was having the Queen visit to open your building. It’s not compulsory but it does get all sorts of otherwise disinterested people to notice you.
    2. Need a better name for your basement? Try ‘Garden Level’, a term used at – I think – St Andrews.
    3. Aberdeen is gorgeous. I can’t wait to go back:


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