Great example of archival research in action: the value of a negative finding (students are often deterred by this when new to research, but it’s all part of the process) and the role of serendipity. This finding of linked and useful things is a really important by-product of many visits to Special Collections.
STOP PRESS 31 January: fantastic news from a credible source: this blog post from the Tombouctu Manuscripts Project says that although there was damage there does not seem to have been a fire at all and the manuscripts are safe. Which just goes to show how difficult it is to get reliable information during conflict situations. The news story and the way it spread also shows that people do care about heritage – the burning of manuscripts is a major news story. I hope all this has raised awareness of these amazing resources and the work this Project and others are doing to protect and digitise them. I’m not removing the original post because, even though these particular manuscripts are probably OK, the wider points about the vulnerability of heritage objects and the need to digitise them effectively are still true.
STOP PRESS 30 January: according to the BBC and Time and much discussion across the twittersphere, it looks as though the loss may not be quite so bad as feared, thanks to efforts by Timbuktu’s people to protect their heritage. Maybe 2,000 rather than 30,000 items may be lost. More news is emerging: I’m keeping an eye on it via twitter (hashtags #timbuktu and #manuscripts).
A story in the news today that puts other threats to heritage in perspective: the burning of a library in Timbuktu containing thousands of ancient manuscripts. In this excellent and insightful blog post, Simon Tanner of Kings College tells us the story of the institution, New Ahmed Baba Institute, and its manuscripts and people. The institute was set up “to promote the conservation, research and promotion of the manuscripts as African heritage”, using them to bridge the gap between scholarsjip on Islam and on Africa, and to raise public awareness of Timbuktu’s incredible history as a centre for trade and ideas.
Dr Tanner, who has advised on digitising African manuscripts, then reflects on the digitisation of African heritage: how digital collections are created by the ideologies of those funding and selecting them. The same problem is faced by any institution seeking to digitise, but is greatly magnified in this situation.
As noted in the blog, the shock of such events is a reminder of just how fragile heritage (and human life) are, so vulnerable to war and conflict. At least digitisation may mean that such events in the future do not result in total loss of heritage: after all, lots of copies keeps stuff safe (safer, anyway).
On 20 December, archives and their users got a rather nice Christmas present! The long-awaited UK government White Paper on copyright exceptions: Modernising copyright.
I’ve not read the response in depth yet, but at first glance it offers practical and positive ways forward – meaning that the underlying complexities of copyright law will have less impact than they do now. The resulting legislation (which should come into force in October) will make it easier to preserve materials in archives and to offer better services to our users. Find out more in my Special Collections Handbook post.
(Pressie pic courtesy nex230’s flickr stream under licence CC BY-NC 2.0).
I spent much of the Christmas break writing a draft chapter of the Special Collections Handbook, about 7000 words. Facet Publishing need this soon so they can be sure I’m on the right track in terms of audience, style etc.
I decided to submit the chapter about caring for collections for several reasons. It’s a subject I could write about quickly and naturally without having to travel to research, and one that I spend a great deal of time explaining to different audiences: students, members of the public, colleagues.
I also think it is the subject that makes Special Collections (OK, and archives and museums and other heritage work) distinct. Nowadays professional, graduate, managerial posts are pretty similar: people spend their time in meetings, or using computers emailing, writing word and excel documents, and thinking about funding, resources, strategy etc. There was an interesting piece in the Guardian (or Observer – must check) recently about old film processing studios, how distinctive and wonderful the equipment was, and how this variety of equipment and practice has disappeared. My job certainly looks very much like other people’s and I could do 90 per cent of it from home.
However, Christmas always reminds me that my most important responsibility is the care of collections, and that requires my physical presence (or that of trained colleagues of course). Like most university libraries, we close from Christmas Eve till after New Year. Special Collections staff pop in during the closure to make sure all is well. I dread the moment when I open the doors – what will I find? This year all WAS well. If I did nothing else this winter or during my time at Bradford, by establishing proper collections care I have enabled some wonderful materials to survive much longer than they would otherwise. Worth celebrating I think.