Catch up on the latest books about Special Collections topics in the latest issue of Rare Books Newsletter (91, January 2012), which is entirely devoted to reviews. Alongside discussions of recent publications on bookbindings, Bibles, Hogarth Press and more, it includes a review by me of an IFLA publication, Marketing in a Web 2.0 World. I liked the non-Anglophone coverage but found the book bitty and confusing – not one for beginners, but of possible interest to those who like me are obsessed with marketing and social media.
The world of cataloguing has become incredibly exciting this year.
We may soon be saying farewell to AACR2 and MARC, the cataloguing rules and mark-up languages that have served librarians and their users for 40-odd years. New guidelines intended to replace AACR2, Resource Description and Access (RDA) are being tested. They are based not on the old catalogue card as AACR2 was, but on modelling relationships between things like works or items, people and subjects/places. The Library of Congress has announced a consultation on the future of MARC21, to conclude in 2013. The blogosphere is alive with discussion and the MARC must die meme (from the seminal article by Roy Tennant in 2002) ubiquitous.
So is it goodbye and thanks to our old friends AACR2 and MARC? I think so.
I have fond feelings for both. I can just remember cataloguing onto cards. The choice of access points was such a big deal. If you didn’t make a card for a person, subject or idea, no-one would ever make the connection between it and the book. But you couldn’t go making any card you fancied because there wasn’t time and they wouldn’t fit in the card catalogue. (I can also remember the terrible moment when you dropped an entire drawer-full of cards on the floor and had to put them back in order. But I digress). So the rigidity of AACR2 made sense, and MARC formats were fab because they knew what punctuation to use and you moved away from the constraints of cards. And when keyword searches came in = wow!
But this is ancient history as far as computing goes. There have been incredible changes in what is possible. We can do more to help users than just creating digital catalogue cards. There is so much scope for linking and sharing data, and protocols to do it. Library metadata can join in. However, I’m not calling for MARC to die. It doesn’t need to. It needs to be tweaked or replaced by something that exploits this potential to bring metadata out of its sector and organisational silos. I remember being thrilled by EAD about 10 years ago and wondering why we couldn’t catalogue our books using something as simple and flexible (OK, I always get excited by new stuff as it may be the solution to something – but I still love EAD 10 years on). As I said before, exciting times.
I’ll be writing more about these developments as the implications for Special Collections become clearer. You can find loads more reflections on these blogs: Cataloging Futures, Cataloguing and Indexing Group blog, and Planet Cataloging (which aggregates lots of catablogs). Oh, and Library Marginalia, by Anne Welsh, a fellow Facet author who publishes a book on Practical cataloguing this autumn, which looks really useful.
I’m now in the final phase of writing the Handbook. The deadline is mid-May, so I know what I’m doing for the next month or so. I have a draft of the whole book, which contains most of the basic information, though I haven’t so far worried too much about style, grammar and punctuation. Now this rough shape needs polishing, honing, examples, structure. Fortunately I actually enjoy the editing stage – I love cutting bits of writing about and improving them.
What this also means is that I probably won’t be posting many reflective posts on this blog for the next month or so, though I have some older pieces I hope to complete. It’s rather frustrating, as I have so many ideas to write about. Expect a flurry of activity once the book is with the publisher! Mind you, once it’s in I will be creating a way to share updates on the many weblinks that fill the book – at the moment I’m inclining to some kind of mashup involving my zotero library, but I haven’t yet looked into this. I also intend to use the discipline of writing every day by moving seamlessly into my next writing project, of which more another time.
I’ve been following the overwhelming response to recent announcements of cuts to public library services by local councils. Voices for the Library is a campaigning website that brings together many of the stories, maps the cuts, and offers advice. The reductions in library services are often deeper than the cuts to funding require, and hit areas that need services most, like remote rural areas and deprived areas in large cities.
Naturally, the debate has centred on closures of branch libraries, and books/reading, as these are the most visible cuts and best-known services. Public library services have more to offer though, as librarians and others have been pointing out during the debate. Outreach, community information, internet access for all, IT support, e-books, remote access to reference sources, neutral non-commercial public spaces …
As far as I can tell, the historic collections held by public libraries have not cropped up in the debate. Every city centre library I’ve encountered has some kind of historic collection, as do some branch libraries. Local Studies services must be threatened by the scale of the cuts, though hopefully the popularity of these services, their visibility, their clear local mission and links with archives and museums may help. Other historic collections may be even more at risk. Staff working with Special Collections in public libraries already have much to contend against, made worse by the serious reductions in professional posts in recent years. Staff may not have the relevant expertise, or be supported in seeking it. Other problems include the short-termism driven by changes in council control, the one-size-fits-all marketing approach which means so many local authority websites do not do justice to historic collections, and the risk of benign neglect, or even being sold.
Britain’s public libraries have a wonderful history of enabling anyone to explore information and culture. The furore about the closures suggests that people still value what they have to offer. Historic collections are part of the story too, and offer real measurable benefits. Like historic buildings, they are part of a region’s heritage, what makes it special and distinctive, real, textured, not a clone-town.
I’m thrilled to be able to share the news that Facet Publishing have commissioned me to write The Special Collections Handbook. A practical guide to managing Special Collections, all the basics in one handy package!
The book will be published in autumn 2011. Chapters will cover care of collections, acquisitions and collection development, understanding objects, cataloguing and description, ethics and legal matters, user services, funding and fundraising, marketing and outreach … I’ll emphasise the potential of new technologies, partnerships, social media, and address the realities of tough times and minimal resources.
I’ll be actively seeking input from potential readers in the New Year. Meanwhile, I’d really appreciate any suggestions for content, case studies, and approach. Add a comment to this post, or check out other ways to contact me.
I’m working on the draft chapter now, to send to Facet by Christmas. I produce this early so Facet can make sure the tone and approach work for the markets we have in mind. The draft chapter is on the care of collections. I think this is the best place to start when thinking about Special Collections. It’s also where my own involvement with them began, at Sheffield University: my MA dissertation reflected on the issues involved in conservation and preservation.
I recently completed a skills audit for the Special Collections Assistant post at the University of Bradford. As the only other permanent staff member in Special Collections, the Assistant plays a vital role, particularly in working with readers, carrying out preservation routines, managing our disaster control supplies, and reprographics.
We came up with over 140 different skills! Other than interpersonal skills and generic IT stuff, most of the skills we identified are unique to Special Collections in our institution. It is good to have mapped these skills in detail, not only to help manage the current staff member’s training, but when dealing with future staff and volunteers.
I am happy to share the audit template with anyone who would like to use it, and would be interested to see others for assistant posts or any Special Collections roles.
My job is actually impossible! Or, to put it another way, it’s open-ended.
In some jobs I’ve had, I could realistically expect to achieve everything: factory work, retail, clerical jobs. You have an intray to get through, or a certain set of customers coming in, or Mr Kipling cakes coming down the production line: you deal with them. I’ve also worked in professional roles that were achievable in this way: managing book cataloguing, enquiry work.
Not so in Special Collections. There is no way I can ever have all our Special Collections perfectly preserved, catalogued in detail, and marketed at the intensity that our star collections get. I’m supposed to have proper documentation and understand the copyright situation for all materials, and to have detailed knowledge of each collection and related materials elsewhere. Not possible! The constraints of funding, time, space and staff are just too great.
This isn’t a question of readers being unrealistic in their expectations or those who manage me expecting too much. It’s the nature of the job. The fact that the University was collecting these materials for over 40 years but has only had specialist staff for 10 years hasn’t helped of course. But we are not unique: ask any archivist about their backlog (if they will admit to it) … I once calculated (using Logjam if you are interested) that it would take 600 person years to catalogue all our archives to item level!
This used to trouble me, until I realised that it really was impossible to achieve everything. I now find it liberating. If I could just about achieve these things by working silly hours, it would be tempting to try. But I can’t. So instead, I try to get maximum value from the staff, time and resources I have: setting priorities, taking opportunities, trying new things, and being selective in accepting new material.
About those archives … many of our archives may never be catalogued in detail, but that doesn’t mean we don’t take care of them. They are properly stored, mapped, described at collection level, we know why they are lower priority, and if there was a sudden surge in interest, we would make them a higher priority in our cataloguing plans. In any case, item level description is not always helpful: I often find that file level is easier for people to understand.
For the header image, I’ve chosen a detail from our rather dilapidated copy of “Fine Books” by Alfred W. Pollard (Methuen, 1912). I have to admit I tweaked the colour a little in Paintshop Pro to get the effect of the red and gold, as the original is quite faded now.
This image was chosen partly because I felt the strong black shapes of the WordPress Coraline theme needed something very bright to balance them. Also because I love books about book collecting from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. My favourite is “The enemies of books” by William Blades (Trubner & Co., 1880). Although the enemies have changed somewhat (the perils of maidservants cooking or lighting fires with precious papers seem to feature quite strongly), the concept still makes sense to me! I will post about this in more detail in future.