Sunday, 16 November 2014

What are we here for and where are we heading? #dcdc14

At the end of October I went to ‘Discovering Collections, Discovering Communities’ (#dcdc14), a collaborative conference between The National Archives and Research Libraries UK, exploring ‘the ‘discoverability’ of collections across different formats, institutions and professions’. It had a focus on archive and museum collections and institutions, and was held at the new Library of Birmingham. The full programme is here (pdf link) and video of sessions will be going up in due course.

Birmingham Library by Chris(UK), on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License   by  Chris(UK) 
There were 9 panel sessions and 10 workshops split over the two days. I went to:
  • Panel 1: Exploring the mechanics of cross-sector collaboration
  • Panel 6: Visualising the digital discovery
  • Panel 7: The community within: volunteers as a route to discovery
  • Panel 9: Collecting - for whose sake?
  • Jisc Workshop: Finding and Using Digital Collections: Do we need new tools?
There was a lot of interesting and engaged discussion on the Twitter hashtag, which cut across the different sessions and themes and helped to make connections between them. I think it’s also the first conference I’ve been to that had an end-of-day summary session in which each panel chair gave a short summary of their session. I found that very useful, too.

I found it interesting to hear about lots of different projects going on at institutions of different sizes, and in different sectors – archives, museum, and library. It’s easy to forget the different approaches of the three domains, given how often they’re lumped together as ‘heritage’ or ‘memory institutions’. It came out early on that museums have a very different attitude to research use compared to archives and libraries: it’s what the latter two exist to facilitate (in large part), but it’s not what a museum is set up for. So when a keen academic turns up to a tiny museum and spends a long time looking at artefacts or talking with the curator, that can feel like a huge investment of time for the museum, with little tangible reward.

Three broad themes appeared to me over the three days. So, as ever, I won’t précis each session I attended, I’ll throw together some thoughts under headings.


This is something that I think all of the first three panels touched upon, but which certainly struck me in a session that was ostensibly about cross-sector collaboration. One speaker mentioned that in a museum display of archival material exploring ‘hidden histories’, people to whom no photograph or artefact could be attached had to be omitted from the display because of the visual demands of displays.

In the social media panel there was discussion of the double-edged sword of high-volume but low-depth attention: can we call click-bait archives images that go viral (44 medieval beasts that cannot even handle it springs to mind) successful engagement? Or, under what circumstances can we call that successful engagement, and how to we balance the demands and delights of that kind of promotion with archival collecting and use that allows for and encourages the discovery of more complex, more nuanced, stories and understandings?

It’s a concern that digitisation, an increased focus on exhibitions, and/or a focus on social media overly privilege the visual and the tangible and disadvantage the textual? Lots of people talk about their exciting online collaborative projects exposing hidden histories and forgotten stories, but I worry there’s a risk that we do this at the expense of another, doubly disadvantaged set of histories that aren’t sufficiently photogenic.

I’ve pulled together a Storify of the Twitter discussion on this topic, rather than paraphrasing it all in this post. 



The first session I attended was all about the ‘mechanics of cross-sector collaboration’. We heard about the Making Britain project – a collaboration involving the BL, the OU and many others – and the Inspiring Women project – a collaboration between Tunbridge Wells Museum and the University of Kent. They both sounded like really interesting projects, but in both cases the collaboration was born out of pre-existing relationships and networks: people already knew people who’d be interested in working on the project. Now, there’s nothing wrong with using your network, but it can seem like an impossible task to create this sort of collaboration if you don’t have a handy connection already.

The third paper in the session sought to address this. The Share Academy is a project run by UCL, the University of the Arts London and London Museums Group that aims to ‘build sustainable and mutually beneficial relationships between the higher education sector and specialist museums in London’. They strongly advised taking a more strategic approach to collaboration, by taking a pragmatic approach to planning. It’s important to have collaborative relationships documented and agreed at the start: what will the outputs of the project be (academics and museums might want very different things)? What happens if and when key people move to new institutions? How much investment of time, money and resources is expected from each side?

One really striking point for me was the comment that small museums can feel used by academics who come and research their objects and then publish without seeming to give anything back to the museum. There’s a really large investment of very limited staff time involved in providing access for researchers, and it seems that museums having necessarily been doing a great job of explaining that – unlike in libraries and archives – facilitating this access isn’t part of their core work, and that they would appreciate a more equitable relationship.

Unfortunately, Share Academy is only short-term funded, so it’s not clear whether it will continue, and be able to act as the matchmaker many of us would like!

Lots of people agreed that national advice and support on setting up and running collaborative projects would be welcome, and there’s promise of this coming from TNA. In the meatime there is, for example, this report on collaborative working practices in science heritage: ‘Mind the gap’ (link via Melinda Haunton).


Karen Pierce presented a really inspiring paper about her work on the History of Human Genetics library at the University of Cardiff Library. This is a collection of materials concerning the history of the study of human genetics.

It was conceived of by a geneticist – Peter Harper – who was concerned that the history of this comparatively new discipline wasn’t being preserved. It now includes three complete personal libraries as well as selected donations from other people’s collections. It includes printed books – including classic textbooks and other works – as well as grey literature. There was a conscious decision to collect grey literature, because it represents an otherwise undocumented stage in research: networks, transient developments, events, suppliers and so on.

(The quote of the conference was undoubtedly Karen’s two descriptions of grey literature: 'publications by organisations whose main business isn't publishing' or 'floppy stuff’. The subsequent cries of recognition and anguish from cataloguers on Twitter is worth a read.)

This paper really made me think how fine the line is, and how variable is the location of the line, between a library’s perception of something as ‘usefully collected stuff from and expert’ and ‘endless shelves of rubbish we don’t need’. There’s real, serious, professional skill in evaluating the value (current and potential) of collections particularly of this type, and sometimes the smart professional decision is to say ‘we don’t need it’, but this isn’t always so. Sometimes we need to be brave enough to say ‘yes, we’ll take it, and love it, and make it great’.

Karen’s paper was an inspiring example of how to negotiate this boundary by setting clear aims, remits and procedures for such a collection. It’s great to see that at least one place is negotiating this successfully, rather than succumbing to the inertia of the ‘bay and a half of Stuff that someone gave us three librarians ago’.

Data and the catalogue(s)

Ah, shouldn’t we have got past worrying about catalogues by now? More than once people said and tweeted ‘the aggregator is dead’ and ‘it’s all discovery now’ and so on, but in the JISC workshop on digital discovery tools I stuck my head above the parapet and pointed out that the one key thing that would improve the discoverability of my (so-far-non-digital-)collections would be better catalogue data. Or better metadata if you prefer. It turns out that I wasn’t, in fact, expressing the view of a behind-the-times old fuddy-duddy, but actually a feeling that was in the room and online, too. Never mind aggregators being dead, we’re still trying to sort out how to get stuff into them nicely.

Elsewhere, it was pointed out that even if we have all the resources to record all the stuff we want to record, we don’t have cataloguing systems that really allow us to usefully (or at all) record the stuff that makes special collections well, err, special.

A catalogue record for a Shakespeare first folio? Quite possibly won’t mention that it is the ‘first folio’. Probably can’t easily link through to that amazing exhibition you had about it last year. May manage to link through to the digitised version you have, though not necessarily. Unlikely to record other context or importance... As curatorial tools, and tools for the people Out There to understand our stuff, there’s a lot that’s still desired.

(Incidentally, the problems of what’s in the catalogue not matching what the users are looking for also cropped up a recent event at Harvard. We can’t easily meet the needs of researcher’s who’re interested in all sorts of copy-specific features, because they just haven’t been recorded. This extensive conversation is well worth a read – it brings out several different issues affecting our ability to achieve this.)

In summary...

There’s so much going on out there, and there’s so much that we can all do in our services (big or small). There’s huge pressure to do more, to reach more people, to work with more people, to get out stuff out there as much as we can. This is facilitated by things like social media, the spread of digitisation projects, and so on, but these tools don’t themselves ensure that we’re doing things well. We need to keep in sight that we should be doing stuff for a reason and that we ought to be able to set and measure against criteria for for doing this stuff well would look like and we need to consider how it will be sustained in the future.


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