Dear Special Collections, your service is …


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The Special Collections Handbook

How do we find out what users (and non-users) think of our services?  We need to know this in order to ensure our services meet their needs and to argue our case for resources to improve them.  Pretty obvious stuff, but it can be hard to get that feedback, to manage it, and to make the most of it.

Katie Flanagan recently asked Special Collections librarians about gathering feedback, and has helpfully summarised her findings on her blog.  As part of my work on audience development this summer (of which more anon) I’m going to review what we do about feedback at Bradford, so this is particularly timely!



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More about Mendham


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There is usually much more to any story about historic collections than the headlines.  The Mendham Collection, about which I wrote the other day, is a good example.  My piece of course simplified the story a bit to make the point that deposit collections are at risk of sale and break-up, even if well used and if they seem to be protected by funding conditions and other legal stuff.  I thought I’d share some more detail that came my way.

This comment by Michael Hall on the “About” page offers interesting information on the original receipt of the books by the Law Society.  And this email from Clive Field to the religious-archives mailing list gives more insight into what happened this year and the detail of what did and didn’t sell at Sothebys.

The story is not over yet.  As Clive Field says, “It remains unclear what will happen next. The collection is now effectively in three parts: a) lots which were offered for sale … but which failed to find a buyer, and which are with Sotheby’s; b) other items removed by Sotheby’s from Canterbury Cathedral last July, with a view to sale, and which are presumably still with Sotheby’s; c) the substantial “rump” of the collection which remains at Canterbury, at least pending the expiry of the loan agreement with the Society on 31 December 2013.”   Not to mention the fourth part: the books which were sold.




“An Act of Vandalism”: the Sale of Mendham Collection Rare Books


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A significant, well-used, and publicly supported collection of rare books has been broken up and lost to public view.  300 of the most valuable books in The Mendham Collection, under the custodianship of Canterbury Cathedral and the University of Kent, were sold by Sotheby’s on behalf of the collection’s owners, the Law Society, fetching £1 million.

Gaps on the shelves of the Mendham Collection - image from the online petition against the sale of the valuable books

Gaps on the shelves of the Mendham Collection – image from the online petition against the sale of the valuable books

This Guardian article is a useful summary of the story.  I find the sale particularly shocking given that the British Library funded cataloguing on understanding that the collection would not be dispersed and a similar stipulation from the family of Mendham when donating the collection to the Society.

I would never argue that all collections and items must stay where historical chance and whim have landed them: occasionally a good case can be made for a sale which supports the mission of the organisation in a sustainable way.  But selling off assets is a one-off temporary solution.  It doesn’t address underlying financial issues.  The proceeds are spent and gone, the problem that led to the sale recurs in five or ten or twenty years, and meanwhile something unique and significant has been lost forever; in the words of historian Diarmaid MacCulloch, “an act of vandalism”.

This particular sale raised only £1 million –  these days not an amount that can solve many problems for an organisation for long.

Nowadays libraries and archives rarely take deposit collections and, when they do, they have firm legal agreements in place to protect their investment of staff, space and funds and ensure collections remain available to the public.   However, there are huge numbers of deposit collections out there, taken often with little paperwork and very vulnerable to sale by their owners in times of recession: this sad story is unlikely to be the last of its kind.

Danger! Contractors at (Hot) Work!


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The Special Collections Handbook

Got the builders in?  This greatly increases the risks of fire and water damage to your building and collections and services.  And “hot work” activities such as the use of blowtorches or welding equipment are particularly risky.

Two major fires in heritage organisations in recent weeks graphically illustrate this point. Fortunately no-one was hurt as a result of either incident.  Both fires appear to have started accidentally during hot work by contractors on the roof.  I wish the staff and users of both services all the very best in dealing with the aftermath of these horrible events.

The National Library of WalesFire investigation report (note that the construction of the roof meant that the workers and the library staff couldn’t extinguish the flames in the usual way).

The Cuming Museum and other Southwark Council servicesArticle in the Museums Journal and interesting comment about apparent similarity to…

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We ALL Hate Mr Clippy: the horrors of paperclips

The Special Collections Handbook

Anyone caring for archives will know the horrors of rusty staples and paperclips or claggy broken rubber bands, which riddle most modern collections.  In this great blog post, “Why I Hate Mr Clippy“, Beth Doyle of Duke University Libraries explains the mischief these fasteners do and shares some tips for dealing with them quickly and effectively.

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But I’m not a ‘Bot! Hitting the Twitter Limit



Oh Twitter!  I just discovered (or re-discovered) something irksome about Twitter.  You’re limited to following 2000 people!  It’s an anti-spam measure.

I probably knew about this when I started tweeting, but then it seemed unimaginable to me that there might be 2000 accounts worth following and I thought no more of it.  But I’m following 1500 or so with my main professional account @speccollbrad already …

Robot from smaedli's flickr stream (license CC BY 2.0).

Robot from smaedli’s flickr stream (license CC BY 2.0).

Seems to me that this limit is too low given the way Twitter has grown since it was set.  Anyone who like me is actively using Twitter for professional awareness and has interests in several areas will hit this limit at some point.  I don’t believe it’s beyond the wit of Twitter to devise ways of spotting spamming (churn etc) that wouldn’t hinder users who are making the most of the service in legitimate ways.

Now actually I rarely look at my main account stream – I use lists to curate what I really need to see.  But following is part of the reciprocity of Twitter.  If someone follows me and appears to be human* I will follow back – it is polite.  Not to mention that a) a lot of people get offended by people unfollowing them and b) the number of followers is often used as a measure of Twitter success (it isn’t, necessarily, but it’s easy to measure) and a great way to get people to follow you is to follow them.

So what to do?  Well, I will be a little more strategic about following e.g. weeding out dormant accounts from time to time and thinking a little before I follow.  But I don’t want to devote much energy to this.  There is a more positive way forward.  If you get more followers, Twitter ups the limit.

So, the answer, as usual with Twitter and other media really, is to post interesting stuff and engage with people – which will bring its own rewards.  Not just in the numbers, but in the value of sharing information and experience, which is after all why I use Twitter in the first place.

*actually robots, aliens, ghosts, spaceships etc are fine too.  Just not spamsters.

PS Thank you to Diane Shaw @museocat whose recent tweets about hitting the limit prompted me to look into this.  @Citizenwald is also on the 2000 limit.  You might like to follow them both if you’re interested in special collections – both great tweeters.

Five Theses on the Future of Special Collections

The Special Collections Handbook

“Preservation without use is an empty victory. It ought to be our primary purpose at all times to minimize barriers to use …”

“[It is] crucial to reach out and demystify special collections, to convey the message: ‘Please touch. This is here for you. You are special enough for special collections’.”

So says John Overholt in a provocative conference summing up*.  He believes that the future for special collections must be about openness (setting texts free to be transformed) and advocacy (demonstrating that they are central to mission and relevant to students).

I agree!

I think many UK special collections librarians and archivists would come to similar conclusions.  At conferences and meetings I hear again and again how much my colleagues value use of collections over preservation for the sake of it, how they see and want to show their importance to their organisations’ missions.

Maybe the piece isn’t so…

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You say KILIP, I say SILIP (or is it CHILIP?)


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Hooray! CILIP* is to rebrand and, above all, find a new name.

Names matter. We are in incredibly difficult times for libraries, higher education and public services.  Librarians and library users need a professional association which can reach out to and influence decision-makers, the media, the public.  A convoluted name and a meaningless and unmemorable acronym which can be pronounced in at least three ways make this more difficult than it needs to be.

The issue is not just a concern for CILIP HQ.  A difficult name makes things more difficult for activists and other members.  As a CILIP Rare Books Group Committee bod, I’ve found the name a burden when organising conferences and events and chasing payments.

I really hope we get something with Library or Librarian in the name.  To explain what CILIP is, I often end up saying, “It used to be the Library Association”, which works!  The words mean something to almost everybody – can’t think of anyone who wouldn’t have some concept of a library or librarian.  The difficulty (which led to the original problematic name) is what to do with the “Information” side.  And does “Knowledge” have to be in there somewhere now?  I’d say those are part of librarianship, but I imagine the many members who work outside traditional library posts may disagree.  It will be interesting to see how it goes!

*For non-librarians, it’s the organisation that used to be the Library Association.

On Conferences, and similar things (Thing 15, part 1)


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I am going to try to squish twenty-plus years of going to, speaking at and organising library conferences and events into this post.  Oh, can’t be done – I’ll split this into three posts instead.

1. On Going to Conferences

There is nothing to beat a really good conference or training event: to learn new skills, to find inspiration, or to build a sense of professional community.  I still remember the first rare books conference I attended, in 1996: all about amazing book bindings, at Durham – we stayed in this castle!


Durham Castle, from Squirmelia’s flickr stream, licence CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The factors that make great events are not exactly earth-shattering.

There’s the content of the event – what it’s about, how it’s covered, who is doing it.  Above all, presenters or teachers with expertise, enthusiasm, understanding of the audience, and the presentational skills to convey these things.  Good organisation helps too.

However, I’ve found value even in events where some speakers weren’t great, or that were badly organised.  This is because the very best thing about conferences is the networking.  Special collections librarians and archivists are often solo workers or the only one of their kind in a larger library.  How lovely to spend time with other people who understand, have same problems and share ideas!  Yes, social media is brilliant, but you can’t be completely candid about your problems in a public forum.   And it’s so much nicer to deal with people online once you’ve met them in real life.

I was all set to give some tips about attending conferences, but these from Joeyanne seem to say it all.  Especially the bit about travelling light!

These days I can’t write about conferences without mentioning the funding problem.  Training budgets are squeezed or non-existent if you are lucky enough to have a job – particularly if you are on a short-term contract.  While I was CILIP RBSCG Treasurer there was a noticeable rise in people who had jobs but were paying for their own attendance at conferences and even day events which one would see as directly relevant to the job e.g. cataloguing.

Getting funding is about looking for bursaries (many big conferences offer these) or making a case to your employer (if you have one) that what you want to attend is relevant and will help them.  If you speak at a conference, you should get travel expenses and often a free place.  There are many networking and training events which are free or cheap for delegates, such as the Library Camps.  I’m not saying it’s easy – it’s not!

What about when you get back?  It’s all too easy to chuck notes and bag in a corner, mean to revisit the ideas later, but then to be overwhelmed by the day job and lose all that momentum.  I’ve found that blogging very soon after if I can, and reading blogs by other delegates helps with this – I wonder what others have found?


Interesting survey – on a subject very dear to me, as you can probably tell from this blog!

A Mass of Odds and Ends

This past summer I completed an independent study on how archives and special collections use social media. As part of the class, I sent out a survey asking archivists and special collections librarians how their repository uses these platforms (or why they choose not to use social media). I received 185 responses from institutions all across the spectrum – large, small, academic, corporate, religious, etc. The answers to each question ranged from the expected to the surprising. Sorting through the data took me some time, but I am finally ready to share the results with you all.

The following document includes statistics on what types of archives and special collections are and are not using social media, what platforms they use and what they post on them, how they manage their social media presence, and whether or not they consider their program a success, among other things. I could not include…

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