This article has been reproduced in a new format and may be missing content or contain faulty links. Contact to report an issue.

2010 ACRL Rare Books & Manuscripts Section preconference.

RBMS was in Philadelphia this year, with an official theme of Join or Die: Collaboration in Special Collections.

The opening plenary session highlighted the work of PACSCL (Philadelphia Area Consortium of Special Collections Libraries), a 25-year-old consortium that now includes over 30 member institutions. Although the particular concentration of academic and independent cultural resource institutions in the Philadelphia area make PACSCL unique, the principles on which it was founded and its continuing mission can provide a model for cooperative special collections programs. Perhaps most interesting is the way in which its collective energies are being refocused from cataloging/processing projects to more outwardly focused initiatives, especially K-12 educational programs. Not that processing and digitization projects have been abandoned: we heard at length about PACSCL’s latest project, a CLIR Hidden Collections grant-funded initiative to address manuscript backlogs at several member institutions using a MPLP model.

As usual, RBMS had many, many interesting and concurrently scheduled sessions!

Some highlights:

Discussion session: Quick Innovations for Teaching with Special Collections

Three brief case study papers, followed by lively discussion.

  • Mattie Taormina (Stanford) described a class session designed for middle-schoolers that demonstrated how books provide artifactual information
  • Anne Bahde (SanDiego State) demonstrated how she had successfully used Zotero for collaborative class assignments involving special collections materials
  • Jeffrey Makala (U of South Carolina) described Craig’s and my dream class! Combined history of books component with rare books librarian and hands-on letterpress printing component in library’s printing lab. AND they have a brand-new special collections library building at USC. Yes, I am jealous.

Lots of interesting discussion in this session, with people sharing different ideas and programs that they’ve found successful. I put in a plug for our ALA Connect group on Teaching Strategies for Special Collections, in hopes of attracting some new members.

Case Study panel on teaching

A second session on teaching gave some more in-depth case studies involving special collections collaboration and pedagogy.

Julie Grob collaborated with an English faculty member in an embedded-ish manner for a semester long class. Students used special collections materials related to the subject of the class for a series of specific assignments throughout the semester and for their final research papers. Julie stressed the need for communication and collaboration between librarian and professor both in planning stages and as the class progressed. Since they were able to demonstrate that the class contributed to the U. of Houston’s mandate for development of inquiry-based learning, they were able to get university funding to purchase relevant special collections materials for future classes. Indeed, all three of the projects described in this session received some type of financial support from their parent institutions.

Marianne Hansen described an intensely collaborative art history class at Bryn Mawr in which students studied and then created a sizeable library exhibit about medieval books of hours. This provided the students with a scenario in which collaboration was genuinely necessary– in contrast to some artificially constructed “group projects”. Students enjoyed the class, and even university administration took note!

Stewart Plein and English professor Marilyn Francus developed a rare books pedagogy project— a flexible series of exercises designed that can be adapted to classes in a variety of disciplines. The intent was to encourage faculty at West Virginia U. to integrate special collections into their syllabi. Success among WVU faculty has been somewhat limited. Faculty initially seemed confused about the intent of the exercises– didn’t understand that they were models to be adapted– and were reluctant to change their syllabi to include special collections activities. However, the website has generated interest from people at various other institutions.

Discussion session- Small & Medium Sized Libraries

Anne Bahde (SanDiego State) and Lynne Thomas (Northern Illinois) moderated this very active discussion session on a variety of issues affecting non-large collections. Participants included those of us attached to larger academic libraries (sometimes very large universities/libraries with proportionally small special collections depts.) and others from independent historical societies, museums, and other institutions. Discussion was wide-ranging, but some general themes included:

  • the importance of assessment tools and procedures for smaller collections which may need to justify their existences to parent institutions;
  • the challenge of providing good access and reference service with very limited staff;
  • and the potential of various Web 2.0 tools in small special collections.

Seminar: Collections Processing: Innovations in student involvement

This session highlighted programs at Goucher College and at the Amistad Research Center that made extensive use of student employees, interns, and volunteers for cataloging and processing projects.

Goucher College CLIR grant project used students to create DCRB level bibliographic descriptions for monograph and sheet music collections. Students were carefully screened– application process included submission of a resume and academic writing sample, and an interview with project staff– and they received fairly intensive training in descriptive bibliography. Students were tasked with bibliographic description of items from the rare books collection. They filled out a standard worksheet based on MARC fields and DCRB; completed worksheets were reviewed by project staff and entered into actual MARC record by cataloger. Intensive level of description and narrowly defined collections meant that students became subject experts fairly quickly and were able to work mostly independently after initial training and workshops.

Amistad Research Center is an independent research library on the campus of Tulane U. It employs student interns from many area institutions and uses student volunteers from Tulane, which recently added a community service component to its undergraduate curriculum. Two undergraduate history classes worked on enhancing descriptions for underprocessed collections and on creating finding aids for completely unprocessed collections. Interns from other schools, most of whom were minority students, worked on processing other collections from the backlog. After training in archival processing — a key component of which was observing professional staff process collections– students began by producing a collection survey, including list of authority terms and notes on preservation needs and original order. They then wrote the biographical/historical notes for their collections. Once these steps were accomplished, students could generally complete the processing relatively independently.

There were many lessons learned from the various experiences with student processors:

Invest time in thorough training at the beginning of projects or semesters; this will mean more independent students and fewer interruptions for staff in the long run.

For class projects, make sure to get a clear idea of faculty member’s vision for how the students’ processing projects fit with overall goals and outcomes of the class.

“Students will be students” — build in ways to deal with procrastination, varying aptitudes and learning styles/rates.

Develop methods for tracking students’ daily workflow when permanent staff is otherwise occupied. Amistad used student work journals filled out after every session.

It’s always nice to be able to match processing projects to student interests. But this may not always be possible, since repository’s priorities must also be taken into account.

Small collections are best for student processors. Enhancement of existing minimal finding aids is also a good thing for students to do.

Considerable discussion ensued on the pros and cons of using students to do processing and cataloging work. Pros: students are cheap and readily available; for those with minimal permanent staff, students are sometimes the only option for addressing backlogs; using students for meaningful work in special collections provides an opportunity for librarians to be teachers/mentors; and in the case of places like Amistad, student internships can help recruit minorities into the profession. Cons: “students will be students”– they have lots of competing priorities and are sometimes unreliable; actual output of student workers may not justify a large investment of staff time for training and supervision; current economic situation can result in cheap or free students doing work that should really be done by permanent professional or paraprofessional staff.

Seminar: Bridging the Gap: Communication between Catalogers and Archivists

Very interesting speakers… addressing a problem that I’ve never really had, since I’ve been doing both rare books cataloging and manuscripts processing for the past decade or so. But for larger special collections the trend toward merging of technical services functions and cross-training of metadata specialists can be a challenge. Margaret Nichols of Cornell and Kathy Wisser, late of UNC SILS and now part of the Simmons faculty, described historical differences in methods and philosophy between catalogers and archivists. David DeLorenzo of UC Berkeley discussed the changing role of a tech services department in a large special collection.

Traditional thinking is that cataloging and processing require opposite skills– splitting (cataloging) vs. lumping (processing). Catalogers deal with individual items that are consciously created. The purpose of a catalog record is to transcribe features of an item in a highly proscribed fashion, in order to distinguish one manifestation of a work from another. Archivists, on the other hand, deal with materials that are the sometimes accidental by-products of people’s lives. The purpose of an archival finding aid is to summarize the contents of a collection and put it in historical context. Hardcore practitioners in either field tend to be suspicious of the other’s methods.

However, the reality is that there are many forces of convergence for cataloging and processing today. Technical services in general is moving away from silos (note: first mention of s-word so far this conference) divided by format to a more team-based, cross-trained model. Digitization projects require shared metadata standards. They can also necessitate collection-level description of book collections and item-level description of manuscript items.

At any rate, I think it’s safe to say that ZSR is ahead of the curve on this trend.

Taking our Pulse: OCLC Research Survey of Special Collections and Archives

This was an informative session on the preliminary data gained from OCLC’s 2009 survey on special collections and archives. The OCLC survey was intended as a follow-up to the similar survey done by ARL in 1998, which spawned a lot of discussion and efforts, most notably the Hidden Collections initiative. The purpose of the OCLC study was to see what changes had occurred in special collections in the past ten years.

The distinguished panel of speakers – Jackie Dooley from OCLC, Bill Joyce representing ARL, Tom Hickerson (CARL), Steve Enniss (IRLA), and Suzy Taraba (Oberlin Group)-gave their perspectives on the survey’s findings and their implications.

Some trends that emerged were:

  • Special collections are growing quickly – 50% increase in print materials, 300-400% increase in audio-visual and other formats.
  • Space (lack of) is a primary concern for most institutions.
  • Use of special collections, especially by undergraduate students/classes is way up.
  • Many special collections are taking on entirely new collecting areas as a result of gifts and/or new curricular or other initiatives of their larger institutions.
  • There has been no corresponding increase in staffing of special collections. Small increases in digitization/technology staff are offset by decrease in reference staff.
  • There are still a lot of “hidden” collections and backlogs.
  • Many institutions have seen budget cuts due to economic downturn.
  • 78% of respondents have at least one completed digitization project; 25% have contracts with vendors to include materials from their collections in commercial digital products.
  • 44% have online finding aids for manuscript collections.
  • Institutional archives are often responsible by default for records management.
  • No one is prepared to deal with born-digital materials.
  • 75% of institutions do at least some “more product less process” type processing of manuscript and archival collections
  • 60% of respondents house some materials in off-site storage facilities.

Some questions/challenges/implications of all this:

  • Is dramatic growth in special collections and archives sustainable without major increases in funding/staffing?
  • Born-digital materials are a major problem-currently undercollected, underprocessed, undermanaged, and inaccessible. Special collections staff are already stretched thin and are not prepared to deal with this. Will require a collective effort by special collections community.
  • Trend toward minimally processed collections means more work for special collections reference staff, but these positions are being cut back.
  • Formal collaborative collection development projects are still rare. Why?
  • There is an urgent need for standardized metrics for gathering statistics on special collections.
  • Trend toward off-site storage of general library collections may free up space for special collections, but often this space is not useable without costly modifications.
  • OCLC survey did not address the increase in teaching – way beyond bibliographic instruction-now expected of special collections staff.