Saturday, 22 October 2011

LibCampUK11 Session 2: Special collections

This was the session I was most looking forward to as I work in a museum library with a number of special collections, and I always love hearing about how other people have promoted theirs (and steal ideas!).

I don't think I can top the excellent write up from Girl in the Moon (well it was her session!) but I'll give it a go.

We started with introductions, I think this was one of the only sessions I went to where everyone introduced themselves.  Forty-five minutes isn’t very long to discuss your topic and introducing everyone does eat into it, but it was useful to get a feel for the various backgrounds and experiences of special collections that people had.
Next Laura (@theatregrad) gave us a brief overview of her dissertation, which had focused on library exhibitions and the sorts of issues involved.

Our 'Book of the Month' case in the process of rearrangement
There were two points that came up in the session that were particularly pertinent for me, the first was that libraries can tend to be a little over protective of their special collections, and in some ways treating them more like private collections.  We become so concerned with saving them from wear and tear that we can restrict access more than is entirely necessary. 

The sign at the top of the stairs to the library
 - not the most welcoming of images!
The second point was that many libraries are still not taking full advantage of the benefits of the internet for online exhibitions and digitised access to material.  It was pointed out that if a collection is deemed special, it won’t just be the local population who find it so, it may well have worldwide appeal.  There was a concern that advertising too much will result in a flood of requests to visit the material that the library cannot possibly cope with.  But agreement was reached that in many cases most people would be happy with just consulting the online versions, so you wouldn’t see too dramatic a rise in requests to consult material. 

I think this may be where the experience of a museum library can slightly differ from some of the other types of libraries that hold special collections.  We already have a steady stream of visitors into the museum building to see our collections so we are more likely to get requests to visit the library in person.  Although we have always made it clear that we are an appointment only library, we often receive on the spot requests from visitors.

A very good point was made that raising the profile of your collections, can also raise the profile of your library within your institution, and that it can often be used as leverage to apply for more funding.

We tried to define what a special collection is, which was not as easy as we thought.  The general consensus was that it is a collection of material (books, photos, journals, letters etc.) on a certain subject or period, or gathered for a particular reason, or by a particular collector, that is kept together in a library often separate or distinct from the main stock.  The items could be valuable or old, but not necessarily as it is just as common to find special collections of contemporary items.  One thing we did seem to agree on is that they do tend to be unique in some way, either because of the scarcity of the items themselves, or in the way they have been put together.

An artists book from Shirley Jones of the Red Hen Press
 in the National Museum Wales library collection
This then led on to a discussion about the types of materials found in a special collection, and how easy it is for an organisation to not realise the value of what they hold.  Some rather harrowing tales were shared of people trying to rescue discarded items from skips because an organisation didn’t understand (or care!) about the significance of what they were throwing away.

A very interesting discussion rounded off the session, about the practice of small companies that cannot manage their special collections loaning them (on a permanent basis) to larger institutions with the necessary experience to care for them.  Some interesting questions were raised about how to choose an institution.  I have to admit I did privately think at this point, "you’ll be lucky to find more than one that wants it!"  If an institution takes on a collection from another organisation, they will usually be responsible for all care and conservation, housing it, providing access and promoting it to the wider public.  As they are likely be working with limited budgets and space requirements for their own collections, they may not be falling over themselves to take on the added burden of someone else’s, regardless of the prestige that may accompany it.  However, it was decided that if you did have the luxury of choice, to go with the one that already has similar material in their collections, as that way any researchers using the material can see it all in the same location.

Egenolff Herbal c.1536 in the National
Museum Wales library collection
Sadly the session felt like it was over way too quickly, I would have happily stayed longer if I could, as there were still so many other aspects we could have talked about.  But it did inspire me to take more of a look at how we are using our special collections, and ways we could do more.

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