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The Rare Books and Manuscripts Section of ACRL held its annual ALA preconference in Minneapolis this year. This is the major professional conference for special collections librarians. Rebecca and Anna also attended, and it was great to have (for the first time ever!) some other ZSR attendees with me at RBMS. The theme this year was Performance in Special Collections, which made for some interesting sessions on performing arts collections, performance in libraries and special collections, and librarianship as a sort of performance. Minneapolis provided a terrific (if surprisingly hot) backdrop for a very busy two-and-a-half days.

RBMS held its first ever poster sessions at this conference, and Rebecca and I debuted a poster on the Gertrude and Max Hoffmann Collection. Our poster’s striking visuals and colorful backstory generated a lot of interest among our fellow conference attendees. As I had hoped, we were able to connect with librarians and archivists from repositories with related materials.

Anna Milholland and I were panelists for a discussion session called Lifting the Curtain: Interlibrary Loan and Special Collections. The session was organized by Christian Dupont of Atlas Systems and Jennifer Schaffner of the OCLC Research Library Partnership in hopes of encouraging special collections librarians to collaborate with their ILL colleagues and to make use of the ACRL/RBMS Guidelines for Interlibrary and Exhibition Load of Special Collections Materials in developing institutional policies. Anna and I shared our experience of finding common ground between ILL and Special Collections and developing policies and workflows that help us collaborate in providing access to non-circulating materials. Our other panelists (from Penn State and NY Public Library) shared similar experiences, and lively discussion ensued. The most controversial issue was the lending of actual special collections materials through ILL. But there was also an interesting exchange of ideas about large scale scanning of requested materials, which is often put forth as a solution to the lending dilemma, but which raises workflow and preservation issues of its own. The upshot was that each institution faces its own set of challenges, but that a workable solution can almost always be found.

Two sessions that I found particularly interesting were on assessment of special collections and archives instruction. The first, Reviewing our (Classroom) Performance: Evaluating Special Collections Instruction, featured Suzy Taraba from Wesleyan U., Julie Gardner from U. of Chicago, and Sarah Horowitz from Augustana College. All three described their own experiences in trying to develop better assessment tools for special collections class instruction. Some key points that resonated with me:

  • If you want to create a useful assessment tool, it’s important to have a clear idea of your desired learning outcomes going in.
  • Surveys and evaluations that work well for regular information literacy classes won’t necessarily be a good fit for special collections instructions.
  • Positive feedback is nice but not always very useful-may send message to administration that no additional resources are needed. We need to ask questions that get beyond the initial “Wow, I got to hold a really old book!” response.
  • Don’t expect a quick fix. Special collections classes are not homogeneous; what works well for one class may not for another. But it can be useful to identify similar types of classes that may be able to use the same assessment tool.
  • Faculty may be more reliable than students in assessing long-term impact of special collections instruction, so follow-up with professors is important.
  • Look for creative ways to gain information and foster a culture of assessment. Build assessment into class assignments, add questions to class evaluations (with faculty cooperation), request copies of student papers/assignments that used special collections materials (I can attest that this is really useful).

The second session, titled Progressing Primary Source Literacy: Guidelines, Standards and Assessment, took a more theoretical approach to the problem of how to define and assess primary source literacy.

Gordon Davies of BYU began the seminar by pointing out that there is currently no agreed-upon definition of primary source literacy. Most librarians and archivists would agree that it should include both the skills and knowledge set that would allow students to locate and use primary source materials effectively, and also a higher-level archival intelligence-an understating of archival theory and how it shapes primary sources, and of the implications of using surrogates (digital or otherwise). But this definition is not widely understood outside of the special collections/archives world, as Gordon found when he attempted to cross-list his honors course in archival literacy with his History department. So, an official RBMS/SAA statement on primary source literacy would be useful.

Next up was archival metrics guru Elizabeth Yakel of the U. of Michigan. Elizabeth and her colleagues are on the forefront of archival assessment in general, and I won’t attempt to summarize her research (see here if you’re interested in learning more: But basically she reiterated the need to assess learning impact of special collections instruction on students in three areas: cognitive/behavioral (perceived value of archives instruction/experience), affective (attitudes toward special collections/archives), and behavioral (measure future use of special collections and archives).

Finally Julie Grob of the U. of Houston wrapped up with some salient point from her own extensive experience with special collections instruction. She reiterated that the ACRL information literacy competency standards have not proved to be very applicable to special collections and archives assessment (although they may serve as a useful jumping-off point in developing specific primary source literacy standards). Julie has surveyed faculty members about desired learning outcomes for special collections instruction and found that traditional information literacy priorities ranked at the bottom. The implications of this, and of the not-infrequent disconnect between librarian and faculty priorities in instruction, are issues that we need to deal with. She also made the point that instruction with archival materials and instruction with rare books are different animals, each with their own rewards and challenges.

Lots of interesting discussion followed this session. It’s clear that many people are grappling with issues of how best to design, provide, and assess special collections and archives instruction.

For hard-core descriptive bibliography fans, there was a session called Bibliography in Action, which highlighted three fascinating projects of bibliographic description and detective work. Alice Schreyer described the nearly-completed descriptive catalog of the Bibliotheca Homerica Langiana collection at the University of Chicago, which has been a long-term collaborative effort of librarians, teaching faculty, and graduate students. Stephen Tabor of the Huntington Library discussed his ongoing research on the incredibly complicated publishing history of 17th century poet James Shirley’s Triumph of Peace. And Andrew Gaub from Bruce McKittrick Rare Books, Inc., shared his story of how intrepid research yielded a surprising amount of information about the provenance of a 16th century broadside.

A seminar on connecting book dealers and rare-books librarians revealed that there is considerable disagreement in both the library and commercial world about the efficacy of social media and electronic communication in general vs. traditional paper catalogs and in-person networking. And plenary sessions highlighted a number of diverse arts collections from across the country and described the creative ways that librarians are collecting, preserving, describing, and publicizing these materials.

As usual, RBMS had many more interesting sessions than it was possible for one person without a time-turner to attend!