Here’s a quick update on project progress! It’s a year since I started work on this project. It has been incredibly interesting – I’ve learned so much and I hope that I can pass some of this on. I’ll reflect more on this things later on.
We have a Board meeting tomorrow, which will discuss draft seven to see how much more work is needed. The meeting will also focus on the recommendations in the report and on ways to take the project forward beyond its publication.
I spoke about the project at a recent conference: the CILIP Rare Books and Special Collections Group annual study conference. This year’s event, Speaking Truth to Power, was all about advocacy – perhaps the greatest challenge facing special collections curators in these difficult times. This project is also all about advocacy: making the case for collections to library directors, and in turn helping them make the case to vice-chancellors and other key people. My talk (which I will put online at some point) tried to share some of the most important findings of the project so far, along with more general reflections about advocacy and power in our sector. I think I was able to highlight some new ideas for people to take away and ponder e.g. working with local creative industries. More about the conference on my blog.
I’m now busily writing up the Project Report. Not alas in a Library as magnificent as the one in this lovely image from the Wellcome. My final version is due with the Project Board on 22 August.
A woman is sitting at a desk in a library, writing a letter.
Credit: Wellcome Library, London.
Obviously there is so much that could be included in the Report, but making it too long and complicated makes it less likely to be useful. The Board therefore are asking me for a short and strategic report aimed at the primary audience for this work: RLUK library directors. It will make the case to them for investment and innovation in UDCs and therefore help them make their case to chief executives etc. We’ll include compelling case studies and lots of examples and quotes to keep things interesting.
Useful evidence not included in the Report will be made available online e.g. extra case studies, full literature review. We hope that the Report and the accompanying work will help librarians, archivists, their managers and of course collection users outside RLUK too. As I can confirm, we face the same challenges and opportunities.
The Report is not an end, but a beginning. It’s part of a wider strand of RLUK interest in making UDCs available which includes the forthcoming publication of the Hidden Collections and OCLC/RLUK surveys (I will let you know dates as soon as I have them). Most importantly, the Report will include recommendations for further action by RLUK, such as creating toolkits on key topics.
“Hidden collections” are one of the greatest challenges in making the most of unique and distinctive collections: collections which are not catalogued, and which therefore are not visible to people who might wish to use them. Nowadays, collections which are catalogued but not online are becoming hidden as users expect everything to be online and do not seek out paper or card catalogues.
Hidden collections used to be called backlogs, but this term is misleading, as it implies a failure of current systems. The problem is older and larger than this. Hidden collections absorb resources, space, and staff energy without benefit.
This project takes particular interest in such collections because unique and distinctive materials are more likely to be hidden. Lacking scope for pulling down catalogue records from other sources, UDCs require special skills such as archive description or languages to catalogue from scratch.
As part of my work, I have helped prepare for publication the 2010 RLUK and London Library survey of hidden collections. This survey attracted many responses from all kinds of libraries, who answered almost 100 questions about collections and cataloguing. The data was not released immediately as it was felt that coverage of archives and manuscripts could be improved, perhaps by a further survey. However, it was decided to release the data in an interim publication as part of this project, so that it could be used in the final report and made available to the library and archive community. It makes fascinating reading. The survey data should be available later this year.
Librarians overwhelmed by hidden collections should not despair (I have been in that situation! You are not alone!). There are ways forward; I’ll be discussing these further in the project report. I was interested this morning to read about Lighting the Past, a new initiative at St Andrews University Library, which will catalogue 150,000 rare books: University students will produce basic records to be upgraded by specialist staff. It will be intriguing to see how this develops as a model for the many other universities who have large hidden collections of rare books.
I’m now writing up the final report of the project. The first draft is due with the Board next week. This will survey what is going on, and most importantly look at what can be done, by individuals, institutions, groups and the sector. It’s a major task as you can imagine. It is good to start writing up because it highlights gaps in evidence or knowledge very clearly.
Can you help with any gaps?
I currently lack evidence on:
- national libraries – challenges, where these differ from other libraries.
- collections that are not managed as part of “special collections”.
- projects and activities using collections in subjects outside the humanities.
I also need more on the IMPACT of projects and activities using collections – how these help with mission and what difference they make. The Board and the Advisory Group will help, of course, and please get in touch if you have any suggestions.
The presentations from the RLUK Aberdeen meeting on 29 and 30 March are now online. They include my talk on the project at half-time and Jackie Dooley of OCLC on the last stages of the Survey. I didn’t catch them all myself; I did hear and would recommend Chris Banks on the story of the amazing new Aberdeen University library and John MacColl for making sense of the many organisations with whom RLUK can work.
Just returned from a very productive RLUK conference in sunny (yes, really!) Aberdeen. The Thursday afternoon featured a session about the Unique and Distinctive strand. I discussed progress so far; the OCLC and UK folks working on the Survey outlined some possible recommendations to be made in the Survey report. We then had fun with stickers, choosing the recommendations that we thought most important and discussing them. This led to lots of thought-provoking debate.
I’ll try to blog about some of the issues that cropped up over the coming weeks. I also had many conversations with other delegates which helped inform this project.
Very grateful to all who took part and to Chris Banks, Siobhan Convery and their colleagues for wonderful hospitality and tours of their stunning new library.
On 21 March I presented a Quickfire Poster Session about the Project to the Archives Discovery Forum at the National Archives. The Forum enables archivists to catch up on exciting new projects and developments in online access to archives and archival data and is always well attended, so it was a great way to bring the Project to lots of archivists.
The important work of the UK Archives Discovery Network is of course a key area for the Project to consider. Archives are by definition unique and (usually) distinctive and discovery is about making more of them by exploiting new technologies, for the benefit of users and parent organisations.
The Unique and Distinctive Project has its own strand at the forthcoming RLUK Members’ Meeting. The venue? The amazing new University Library at Aberdeen (get a taste of the building from this Guardian article and, yes, there will be tours on offer!). The date? 2pm 29 March 2012 .
Wow! Shiny! University of Aberdeen's new library seen alongside the existing Queen Mother Library - from chrisabanks flickr stream (all rights reserved).
The session will be a chance for RLUK Members to find out where we are with the Project at the half-way point (eek!) and to feed in their own ideas and experiences. In particular, we will be sharing the fascinating findings of the OCLC/RLUK Survey: really high-quality data about the reality of our special collections.
I look forward to seeing and chatting to lots of interested people and to some exciting discussion about the futures for our fantastic collections. See you there?
And here’s the members of the advisory group, which is made up of Special Collections librarians from RLUK libraries. They will be helping with their insight and expertise, suggesting case studies, examples and evidence and helping to make sure the project delivers its benefits to our organisations and our users. Thanks to them, and to the many other people who have offered help and insight so far!
- Rachel Beckett (Manchester)
- Siobhan Convery (Aberdeen)
- Sue Donnelly (LSE)
- Adrian Edwards (British Library)
- Sheila Hingley (Durham)
- Lesley Richmond (Glasgow)
- Katie Sambrook (KCL)
- Chris Sheppard (Leeds)
- Robin Smith (NLS)
- Jill Whitelock (Cambridge)
- Christine Wise (Senate House Libraries)
- Melanie Wood (Newcastle)
- Susan Worrall (Birmingham)
PS March 2012: There is some swapping about of names by organisations deciding who is best suited to represent them, so the list is continuing to change. I’m also still open to including more members, from RLUK libraries or partner groups which aren’t yet involved.
How do we KNOW which of our collections are unique or distinctive? While archives in general by definition are unique, it is much harder to identify distinctiveness in collections of published works. The COPAC Collections Management project, based at the University of Leeds, and supported by the RLUK and MIMAS, aims to help.
Cover of Hullo Villars! Souvenir of annual ski-ing revue, by Maurice Reckitt, Peart-Binns Collections, University of Bradford. A personal favourite, this 20th century work does not appear to be held by any other COPAC library!
Unique and distinctive works within the main stock of a research library are a particular concern. For instance, late 19th century and early 20th century books and pamphlets would not necessarily be automatically transferred to Special Collections services, but are often far more physically vulnerable than early printed books and may be very rare. Most Special Collections automatically take all hand-press era printed books, with a cut-off date somewhere between 1800 and 1850. Moving this to 1900 say would safeguard many vulnerable works, but the Special Collections service may simply not have the capacity to take them.
What is needed is a way to know which materials in main stock really are unique or distinctive, so they can either be transferred to Special Collections or otherwise managed in a way that recognises their qualities. COPAC is already a vital resource for librarians in assessing rarity, but the COPAC CM Project takes this to new levels by developing tools to identify locations of holdings of batches of items and, crucially, to present the results in visually appealing and understandable ways.
Hullo Villars! is one of the 100 Objects from the University of Bradford: here is its story. And I must share one of my favourite blogs, full of wonderful and distinctive 1910s books: the Tower Project at Cambridge University Library, which recently featured Jane Austen and synchronised swimming (not in the same piece, unfortunately).