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Lady Margaret Hall, from Art History Images (Holly Hayes) on flickr

Love this image of Lady Margaret Hall, from Art History Images (Holly Hayes) on flickr. The sky wasn’t quite this blue for us!

Reflecting on the recentish CILIP Rare Books and Special Collections Group conference on advocacy: Speaking Truth to Power, at Lady Margaret Hall in Oxford.

I spoke about the RLUK UDC project, which is basically a giant piece of advocacy, and also as Group Treasurer introduced the accounts at the AGM and prodded people to give me cheques.  As always, the conference was a welcome chance to catch up with colleagues old and new, in a lovely relaxed setting.  LMH do great food and are slightly out of the bustle of Oxford.  The organisers did a fantastic job: a great range of speakers and plenty of chances to network.

There’s rarely going to be anything ultra new with this sort of conference – most of these things one knows already or can work out.  But it’s so inspiring and refreshing to talk to others and remember what matters.

Here’s some things that I’ve taken away from the conference.  New, new-ish, or just important.  I’ll pop in slideshare or other links as I find them later.

1. Remember, we are all in the same boat.  Those of us outside the London-Oxbridge triangle may see those within as rich – but actually, those who have a lot are expected to DO a lot.  It’s hard to raise funds and influence even for the largest and most prestigious organisations.  Many archives and special collections within Oxbridge are based in college libraries or other small sections and can be quite shoestringy.  Richard Ovenden (from the Bodleian) outlined the current situation for special collections: I completely recognised his analysis from the RLUK UDC findings AND my experiences at Bradford.

2. Persuade your library director.  In most situations, the library director is the most important contact.  They make things happen at senior level.  Conversely, if that person is not interested, it will be difficult to get support for collections work and they will remain vulnerable to cuts etc. The talk by Neil MacInnes made that point for me so clearly.  The special collections at Manchester Central Library have languished hidden for many years: what made the difference was the arrival of senior management who understood the potential of collections and, crucially, were in a position to act. The UDC report is written with RLUK library directors in mind for just that reason.

I think I’ll write more about power in institutions another time … it’s a fascinating and difficult matter … especially negative power!

3. Show them the stuff (but that may not be enough)! There was much talk of how the magic of handling actual precious things can delight stakeholders and communities.  Young people, councillors, VIP guests etc.  True.  I’ve had visitors cry or squeak with delight at our collections.  HOWEVER this magic is not a magic bullet. It can be a big step for someone in power to go from being wowed by something amazing to understanding and giving the support that thing needs to survive and be enjoyed.  (Not to mention that not everyone is wowed by precious things – though maybe those people can be captivated by other values e.g. whizzy new technology).  But seeing and enjoying the things is a good place to start.

4. Seek new opportunities e.g. creative industries – can collections offer ideas for products made by local businesses?  Or inspire artists or other creative people?  Not to mention that, more than ever, students are looking for chances to demonstrate their employability … Special Collections need help with their hidden collections … the two make sense together.  We have a lovely project in the pipeline and there are many others going on, of which more another time.