Tag Archives: Universities

A Year Already!

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.




Re-skilling for Research

This project is part of a wider discussion: how libraries/librarians demonstrate their value to their parent organisations.  Being a nice thing or a good thing is no longer enough in times of spending cuts and “marketisation” of higher education: we need numbers, metrics, proof that we are relevant, communicated in the right way.

Like Special Collections services, subject specialist librarians in universities are under particular pressure now: their role could be seen as obsolete when so much can be found by students and staff just by googling.  Actually they are needed more than ever: users need help in making sense of the huge and complex variety of information available online free or paid-for and in continuing print collections too.

All of which introduces a new report from RLUK, Re-skilling for Researchers by Mary Auckland, which maps the changing needs of researchers and the skills and knowledge librarians will need to support them.  The report overlaps in many interesting ways with UDC and will be a useful source of evidence and ideas for our piece of work.

Advisors Wanted!

Postscript 6 February: There has been a fantastic response to this, and I now have a large group of RLUK librarians ready to act as the formal advisors, including some national library representation.  However, I’m really interested in hearing from anyone else who wishes to contribute more informally.

The Unique and Distinctive Collections project will be supported by an advisory group of RLUK special collections librarians.  I already have a good number of librarians who have offered and we nicely cover the spectrum of RLUK libraries.  However, if anyone else is keen to get involved, please let me know.   I would particularly welcome interest from national library staff who are not so far represented.

I’m trying to ensure that this will not be too demanding for those who are kind enough to offer help.  We would mostly be in touch by email as I call for case study ideas, bounce suggestions and so on, but meetings will be helpful later in the project.  Ideally these would be arranged to coincide with events many of us will be attending.

Input into the project is of course not limited to those in RLUK or on the advisory group: we are looking for insight and examples from as many sources as possible, all of which will inform the project even if it does not get specifically mentioned in the final report.   If you are doing something innovative with your collections, or if you have particular queries you want to share, please do get in touch.

Meeting the Members

A week or so ago (24/25 November) I was in London for the Research Libraries UK Members’ Meeting.  This offered great opportunities:

  • to talk to members and find out about the challenges they are facing.
  • to introduce the project to the members.
  • to have project meetings while we were all together.
The Imperial Institute Tower

"Queen's Tower" part of Imperial College London, from SteveCadman's flickr photostream. Imperial kindly hosted the excellent Meeting Dinner!

On the Thursday afternoon, I met our OCLC colleagues and the UK librarians who helped make the survey instrument UK-friendly.  The plan is for Jackie Dooley of OCLC to produce a basic framework based on the results, which will then be interpreted for our local situation by the UK librarians and me.   I’m looking forward to working with them all on this great project and it was fantastic actually to meet Jackie after many emails and speaking on the phone (which involves pre-planning to get the time zones right!).

Jackie shared initial findings with the members at the meeting proper on Friday and I introduced the work I’m doing on the wider project.  This meeting also covered other activities which intersect with the project, particularly the COPAC Collections Management Project.  This offers a way to use the extensive metadata already available on COPAC to establish which book collections actually are unique and distinctive.  This is easy with archives which would usually be by definition unique, but hard to do on any scale with printed books.   I’ll be meeting the Project staff for further discussion (handily it’s based in Yorkshire).

PS Good news from RLUK’s work on journal pricing (press release).  £20 million freed up is exciting and shows that united action by the sector can tackle problems we all face.

Shape of the Project

We’re aiming to publish the final report of this project next September.  This will outline what’s been learned and make recommendations.

From now until next Spring, I will be gathering evidence from curators of collections, other interested people plus published and unpublished sources: desk research, meetings, social media conversations, mailing lists …    I’m developing a communications plan to work out who we need to contact and how to get conversations started.  This blog, and readers’ responses to it, will be vital in establishing these links.

Fortunately I have a bit of a head start.  I did masses of desk research and other info gathering while working on the Special Collections Handbook (due from Facet Publishing in November), far more than made it into the finished work.  This work will be a useful base for the new project.

Next Summer, I’ll be writing the report.  After publication, I’ll be working with the Project Board to market the report, so that its recommendations help curators, parent organisations, and current and future users of collections.

FAQs: Is this just about RLUK libraries?

Not at all.

The project is funded by Research Libraries UK, so its members must benefit from our work.  However, to ensure this happens, the final report will need to be based on as much knowledge, innovation, experience as possible.  So we will look beyond the RLUK member libraries to Special Collections held by other organisations.  As I said in my forthcoming book, Special Collections are everywhere, held by cathedrals, museums, learned societies, historic houses and so many more.  This project is a wonderful opportunity to bring all these organisations together to celebrate collections and find new ways to work together.

RLUK logo

It is also worth emphasising that the project will not be limited to the study of issues and activities in UK libraries.  We will be making links and researching collections worldwide.

FAQs: Unique and Distinctive?

Aren’t these just Special Collections?

Well, yes, mostly.  But RLUK wanted to emphasise that universities often hold collections which fall outside the standard Special Collections remit e.g. other library collections, data sets, research outputs, or objects.  These too may have qualities which mean that their parent organisations and wider society should value and support them.   Not to mention that in some organisations, Special Collections includes archives, in others not, and sometimes they are the collections which are neither old books nor archives.

U & D (I find) are useful terms when discussing collections held in universities, whether traditional “Special Collections” or not.  We’re not suggesting that universities start using them instead of “Special Collections”: too long for everyday use, U & D Collections would become UDCs and then we have UDC Librarians and the like, UDC Reading Room etc, not helpful for users!

I’ll be interested to find out what librarians, archivists, and all the other people who will be involved with this project make of the name.


This site will share progress on a new project from Research Libraries UK.  The Unique and Distinctive Collections Project will review the situation of collections in UK academic libraries and explore ways in which they can maximise the potential of collections, to help their parent universities and society at large.

I’m Alison Cullingford, Special Collections Librarian at the University of Bradford and recently appointed Project Manager of this exciting and timely work.  I’ll be spending  about a day a week on the project for the next year.  I look forward to working on it.