Monday, 21 September 2015

RBSCG conference 2015: Hidden collections: revealed

In the first week of September I attended one day of the CILIP RBSCG's conference, Hidden Collections: Revealed. The conference was split between Friends' House Library, Lambeth Palace Library and the Friday was at the British Library's conference centre.

Where they have possibly the comfiest conference seats I have ever sat on.

It can be a bit strange arriving towards the end of a conference, when it feels like everyone else has already been networking for a couple of days, but I think the different venues for each day made this a bit easier? The conference had been divided up into six sessions, and I was there for the final two.

Session five was uncovering your collections - promotion
The first speaker was Adrian Edwards, Head of Printed Heritage Collections at the British Library, who spoke about the work they had done with the BL's comic collections to bring them to a much wider audience. The initial problem was having a large collection of comics, but not all of them catalogued, many of them poorly catalogued (wrong end dates, missing issues, hardly anything before the 1930s referenced) and stored in three different locations, all of which made it very hard for all but the most determined researcher to use them.  When the library at Colindale closed and two comics experts approached the library wanting to celebrate British comics, the decision was taken to put on an exhibition. Now, any exhibition is a huge amount of work, and this one was no exception, as the objectives included getting all that cataloguing done and supporting a wider range of researchers in using the collection. The eventual exhibition, Comics unmasked: art and anarchy in British Comics was successful, containing 217 unique exhibits and attracting a lot of new users into the building. Achievements included:
  • Many comics catalogued for the first time
  • All comics available on one site for the first time
  • The material is now used more, including two doctoral students working on it.
  • Staff expertise in the subject has increased enormously
  • Selected rare material has been moved to a higher level of secure storage
Adrian concluded by saying that the exhibition had been a good way of highlighting hidden collections, and a good way of getting management support to get the essential cataloguing and collection moves completed. It is important to seize opportunities such as this.

Lara Haggerty from Innerpeffray Library then spoke about the difficulties in dealing with people's perception that it's just a load of old books. Her library is physically difficult to access, being five miles from the nearest town with only one bus a week. It is highly significant though, as it is the first public lending library in Scotland. The library had effectively become a museum but was doing very little promotion before she was appointed as a result of a business based forward plan. The key to success has been concentrating on the visitor experience and making it unique. They are too small to attract big tour groups on their own, but by working with other local organisations, have been able to increase the numbers.

Katie Sambrook, Head of Special Collections at King's College London then spoke about the Foreign and Commonwealth Office library, which was transferred to KCL after two years of negotiations. The collection had been rather hidden at the FCO as their primary remit wasn't to run a library. The transfer to an academic institution meant it would be more accessible, but the initial problem was how to reveal and promote this collection? Initially there was no catalogue in a useable form, so the first task was to catalogue the books (this took eight years with 2 or 3 project cataloguers working at a time. About 30% of the collection is now catalogued) as having the items on the catalogue is the most important form of promotion you can do. The cataloguers became expert in the subject matter so were able to assist readers and answer enquiries, whilst student assistants were employed to do basic collection processing and download catalogue records for non-special collections material. The collections were then promoted via real and virtual exhibitions, and visitors have come from all over the world. Promotional activities have included:
  • Have a poster on the library gates, as many visitors spot it when walking past
  • Produce leaflets and guides on certain aspects/themes of collections
  • Bear in mind that many exhibition visitors will never make the transition to reader but will help to spread the word.
  • Foster teaching and research for academic users by developing teaching seminars using special collections material and introducing students to the material. Getting use of collections incorporated into teaching assessments is key.
Katie also stated that she had found it easier to engage English academics with Special Collections, than History academics, which certainly echoes my own experience.

Session six covered Beyond the library and first to speak was Katharine Hogg, Librarian at the Foundling Museum. This is a research library of c.10,000 items, and the first priority when the collection first arrived there was to create an online catalogue. Paintings and prints have been catalogued and digitized, and making sure items appear on external websites has been key for promotion, such as Your Paintings, Concert programmes database and the English Short Title catalogue.  Collaboration has worked well for conservation projects with West Dean College and Camberwell College of Arts.

A PhD student, Hannah Manktelow, then spoke about discovering provincial Shakespeare with the British Library playbill collection. This collection had never been used for research as many of the playbills had been closed to public access. The key here was a digitization project which also captured a lot of metadata, including dates, keywords from bills and an indication of what would attract audiences. It was a really exciting project to work on as there is very little work on provincial theatre of this period, and the collection includes c. 75000 playbills. Her PhD has focussed in on case studies based on five provincial towns, although a major obstacle is that playbills of many performances won't have made it into collections.

Finally, a rare books collector, Mark  Byford, talked about his collection focussed on Tudor and Jacobean books. He has c. 1000 books, and has no catalogue whatsoever, but welcomes people to come and see his collection, or takes them out himself to events. He also loans books to academics.

I had a really interesting time at the conference. Not only did I find that others' experience echoed my own (for instance, that it is much easier to engage English depts. in Special Collections than History depts.), but it also emphasised the importance of cataloguing first and foremost in promoting collections. Repeatedly it was made clear that you can't choose what items to put on display without them being catalogued first. You can't plan outreach activities if you don't know what you have. No one will be able to find the item for their research, or do their PhD on your collection if it isn't catalogued.

My thanks to the RBSCG for an interesting and enjoyable conference.

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