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Special Collections Librarianship: a Brief Map of the Field

Presentation about special collections librarianship compiled for the CILIP New Professionals Day 2012 (11 May, London).
by Katie Birkwood on 24 July 2013

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Transcript of Special Collections Librarianship: a Brief Map of the Field

Special Collections Librarianship
a brief map of the field
What are special collections?
The work of special collections librarians
How to get into special collections
Keeping up to date
Image credit
Allied trades
About the author
CC BY-SA
pdf version of this information available to download and keep
Katie Birkwood is a knitter, musician & special collections librarian currently working at Cambridge University Library
http://twitter.com/girlinthe
http://maedchenimmond.blogspot.com
maedchenimmond@gmail.com
get in touch:
This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/
The term ‘special collections’ is used to describe types of library holdings as well at the departments that hold them. The first thing that comes to mind when thinking of special collections material is probably a medieval illuminated manuscript: unique, beautiful, and (relatively) delicate. But special collections are much broader than that: an item or collection might be considered part of special collections because it meets any of these criteria:
Age; rarity; beauty or artistic value; physical condition; provenance; monetary value; or other significance (e.g. intellectual, historical, cultural or emotional significance to an institution, organisation, place, person, or group of people).
These criteria admit a very wide variety of material. Typical special collections (if such a thing exists) might comprise:
MANUSCRIPTS Anything written by hand, and by definition unique. Manuscripts have been written on all sorts of media--bone, wood, bamboo, palm leaves, papyrus, vellum, paper—and they have been bound in many different forms (not just the familiar codex (book) structure). Libraries hold manuscripts from more than 1,000 years BC right up to the present day.
ARCHIVES. The line between ‘archives’ and ‘manuscripts’ can be blurry, and will vary from institution to institution. Technically speaking, archives are structured collections of documents, organised and catalogued by an archivist (a separate and distinct profession to librarianship in the UK). As a librarian you could well end up working alongside archivist colleagues or having responsibility for archival collections yourself in other special collections departments.
EARLY PRINTED BOOKS. Printing with movable metal type was successfully developed in Mainz, Germany, in the middle of the fifteenth century by Gutenberg, Fust and Schoeffer. (Printing with wood blocks was known long before this in China, Japan and Korea, and was also used in Europe for some time before Gutenberg). Books were produced entirely by hand until around 1800-30: any books printed in the so-called ‘hand press period’ are likely to show unique evidence of their production processes, and this, along with scarcity of numbers in many cases, earns them the designation of ‘special collections’. Books printed in the very early years of the technology (before 1501) are known as incunabula (or, in its Anglicised form, incunables).
MORE RECENT PRINTED BOOKS. Books printed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries can also be deemed special collections for a variety of reasons, for example because they are part of a collection amassed and owned by a particular person, because they were produced in very small numbers, or simply for the purposes of long-term preservation. As scholarly trends develop, the everyday literature of Victorian age and beyond gains increasing importance and merits inclusion in special collections.
EPHEMERA. Individuals, institutions and organisations may collect (or have in the past collected) leaflets, pamphlets, flyers, menus, posters, and other ephemeral material of local importance which would otherwise not have been preserved. Material of this kind can be particularly valuable to social historians, but it does present particular challenges to storage, preservation, cataloguing and access.
OTHER FORMATS. Information has been stored in non-book, non-written formats for a long time. Both library and archival collections can contain a great number of different media including photographs, film, audio tape, digital files, microform and slides. Materials of this kind of particularly common in personal and business archives. Preserving them and ensuring future access can be a significant part of managing special collections.
ART, OTHER PHYSICAL OBJECTS. Most special collections departments will have at least one or two items you might think really ‘belonged’ in a museum: paintings and drawings are common, but other objects (a telescope, a cabinet of curios, walking boots, swords...) often accrue over the years too.
Why do they matter?
Special collections are important because they are unique records of some aspect of the past. Even a printed book produced in hundreds, or thousands, of copies often has unique significance through copy-specific details: who owned it, how it was bound, who has annotated it, which other books its owners bought, where it had travelled, how much it cost at various dates in the past, what sort of paper and ink were used to produce it, or errors that were made in its production.

Books as vehicles for texts and images are of obvious value to scholars of language, literature and art. But the copy-specific details can shed light on social history, economic history, cultural history and the history of ideas, the history of geographic areas, the history of education, the history of particular groups of people, and so on.
Where do they live?
The major special collections in the country are often located in the major libraries: the national libraries, and the large university libraries. The colleges of Oxford and Cambridge often have spectacular holdings of medieval manuscripts and rare books. But many other institutions also have notable holdings: modern universities may have fewer medieval manuscripts, but they often have other significant small collections of antiquarian material, and/or collections of more modern papers or publications (for example, the special collections at Bradford University included the papers of J.B. Priestley and the Peace Archives).
See also:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Special_collections
http://www.library.manchester.ac.uk/academicsupport/usingspecialcollections/whatare-specialcollections/
http://www.gla.ac.uk/services/specialcollections/whatarespecialcollections/
If you want to work with old and special things, special collections librarianship isn’t your only option: here are some related professions.
Archives
Archives and Records Association: http://www.archives.org.uk/
British Records Association: http://www.britishrecordsassociation.org.uk/
National Archives: http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/archives-sector/
Conservation
The Institute of Conservation: http://www.icon.org.uk/
Museums
Museums Association: http://www.museumsassociation.org/home
Research
If you’d rather stay wholly in academia rather than serving academia, then book history, manuscript studies and various areas of the so-called ‘digital humanities’ could be for you.
The Book Trade
Rare books dealers generally have a lot more time to handle, examine and research books in detail. Two of the major London rare books dealers are:
Bernard Quaritch: http://www.quaritch.com/
Pickering and Chatto: http://www.pickering-chatto.com/
Publications
Books
Journals
Alison Cullingford, Special Collections Handbook (London: Facet, 2011): http://specialcollectionshandbook.com/
Beth M. Whittaker and Lynne M. Thomas, Special collections 2.0: new technologies for rare books, manuscripts, and archival collections (Santa Barbara, Libraries Unlimited, 2009): http://www.abc-clio.com/product.aspx?isbn=9781591587200
The Book Collector: http://www.thebookcollector.co.uk/
RBM: A Journal of Rare Books, Manuscripts and Cultural Heritage, http://rbm.acrl.org/
The library: Transactions of The Bibliographical Society, http://www.bibsoc.org.uk/library.htm
Library & Information History: http://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/maney/lih
Mailing Lists
Still a useful source of information, discussion, advice and occasional arguments
UK rare books list, LIS-RAREBOOKS: http://www.jiscmail.ac.uk/lists/lis-rarebooks.html
UK library history list, LIS-LIBHIST: http://www.jiscmail.ac.uk/lists/lis-libhist.html
UK archives list, ARCHIVES-NRA: http://www.jiscmail.ac.uk/lists/archives-nra.html
International list of the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading and Publishing, SHARP-L: http://www.sharpweb.org/en/discussion/sharp-l.html
USA rare books list, EXLIBRIS-L: https://listserv.indiana.edu/cgi-bin/wa-iub.exe?A0=exlibris-l
ALA RBMS list: http://lists.ala.org/wws/info/rbms
ALA LHRT list: http://lists.ala.org/wws/info/lhrt
Social Media
Blogs
COLLECTIONS IN A COLD CLIMATE, blog of Alison Cullingford, Special Collections Librarian at the University of Bradford: http://alisoncullingford.wordpress.com/
LIBRARY MARGINALIA, blog of Anne Welsh, lecturer in cataloguing and historical bibliography at UCL: http://annewelsh.wordpress.com/
Wynken de Worde, blog by Sarah Werner, Undergraduate Program Director at the Folger Shakespeare Library: http://sarahwerner.net/blog/
RARELY SITED, a blog by Naomi
Herbert focussing on outreach in special collections. Includes a copy of her MA dissertation on the subject: http://rarelysited.wordpress.com/
Lots of special collections departments and libraries now have their own blogs. See for example:
St Andrews University Library: http://standrewsrarebooks.wordpress.com/
Bodleian Library, Oxford: http://theconveyor.wordpress.com/
British Library: http://www.bl.uk/blogs/
Cambridge University Library: http://www.lib.cam.ac.uk/specialcollections/blog/
National Library of Scotland: http://blogs.nls.uk/rarebooks/
PERSONAL BLOGS
Twitter
three
favourite
tweeters
List of institutional and organisational special collections accounts: http://twitter.com/Girlinthe/institutional-spec-colls
Personal accounts of special collections librarians, rare books librarians, archivists , book historians, manuscripts scholars and other interested people: http://twitter.com/Girlinthe/spec-colls-people
http://www.gla.ac.uk/services/specialcollections/whatarespecialcollections/
Illuminated Manuscript, Map of the coast from Medulin as far as Pula (Croatia) from Book on Navigation, Walters Art Museum Ms. W.658, fol.171a: http://www.flickr.com/photos/medmss/4685658907
Lecture Series
PANIZZI LECTURES, British Library (no fixed webpage available).
LYELL LECTURES, Bodleian Library, Oxford:
http://www.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/bodley/about/exhibitions/lyell.
SANDARS READERSHIP IN BIBLIOGRAPHY, Cambridge University Library:
http://www.lib.cam.ac.uk/sandars/index.html.
JOHN COFFIN LECTURES, Institute of English Studies, London:
http://www.ies.sas.ac.uk/events/lectures-and-readings
Academic Centres
Centre for Material Texts, Cambridge: http://www.english.cam.ac.uk/cmt/
Centre for the study of the book, Oxford: http://www.bodley.ox.ac.uk/csb/.
Events are also advertised via HoBo: http://www.hobo.org.uk/
Institute of English Studies, School of advanced studies, University of London.
Medieval manuscripts seminar, library history seminar, book collecting seminar: http://events.sas.ac.uk/ies/seminars
Centre for the history of the Book, University of Edinburgh:
http://www.hss.ed.ac.uk/chb/
Bibliographical
Societies
Cambridge: http://www.lib.cam.ac.uk/cambibsoc/
Oxford: http://www.oxbibsoc.org.uk/
The Bibliographical Society (UK): http://www.bibsoc.org.uk/
York: http://www-users.york.ac.uk/~pml1/ybs/
Edinburgh: http://mcs.qmuc.ac.uk/EBS/
USA: http://www.bibsocamer.org/
Organisations
UK
International
American Library Assocation (ALA) groups
Rare Books and Manuscripts Section (RBMS): http://www.rbms.info/
Library History Round Table (LHRT): http://www.ala.org/lhrt/
International Federation of Library Associations (IFLA)
The Consortium of European Research Libraries (CERL) maintains a number of very useful databases, holds training workshops, and organises and published the papers from annual seminar: http://www.cerl.org/
The Society for the History of Authorship, Reading and Publishing (SHARP) is a global research network for book historians and organises a major annual conference: http://www.sharpweb.org/
Rare Books and Manuscripts Section: http://www.ifla.org/en/rare-books-and-manuscripts
Library History Special Interest Group: http://www.ifla.org/en/library-history
CILIP special interest groups
The Rare Books and Special Collections Group (RBSCG) has a newsletter, annual conference and training events.
Homepage: http://www.cilip.org.uk/get-involved/special-interest-groups/rare-books/Pages/default.aspx.
Twitter: http://twitter.com/CILIPRareBooks.
Alison Cullingford, http://twitter.com/speccollbrad/
John Overholt, http://twitter.com/john_overholt
Lynne M. Thomas, http://twitter.com/lynnemthomas
The Library & Information History Group has a newsletter, organises visits, talks, and an annual conference.
Homepage: http://www.lihg.org/
CILIP page: http://www.cilip.org.uk/get-involved/special-interest-groups/history/Pages/default.aspx
Historic Libraries Forum
An independent organisation for people working in and interested in historic libraries. Membership is free. The Forum runs rare books cataloguing training courses, has a mentoring scheme, organises an annual conference and produces a bulletin: http://www.historiclibrariesforum.org.uk/.
AMARC
The Association for Manuscripts and Archives in Research (AMARC) holds meetings and produces a newsletter: http://www.amarc.org.uk/.
The National Archives
The National Archives (TNA) produces various useful resources, including:
Information management: http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/archives-sector/
Archives sector information on policies, funding, developing archives, studies and reports, projects, etc.: http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/archives-sector/
Palaeography tutorials: http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/records/reading-old-documents.htm
Preservation Advisory Centre
Based at the British Library, publishes free information leaflets and holds training events: http://www.bl.uk/blpac/index.html.
tweeters
John Overholt, http://twitter.com/john_overholt
Lynne M. Thomas, http://twitter.com/lynnemthomas
MA Degrees
The MA in Library and Information Studies at UCL has traditionally been the degree of choice for people interested in special collections librarianship. It offers modules in historical bibliography, manuscript studies and advanced preservation, and the Department of Information Studies also teaches an archives and records management course: http://www.ucl.ac.uk/dis/taught/pg/lis.
The MscEcon in Information and Library Studies at Aberystwyth offers optional modules in rare books librarianship and archives management: http://www.aber.ac.uk/en/study-schemes/deptcurrent/?s=P194D-MSCEC.
Other training
Two expensive, but very good courses:
London Rare Books School: http://www.ies.sas.ac.uk/study-training/research-training-courses/london-rare-books-school.
University of Virginia Rare Books School: http://www.rarebookschool.org/
Further Reading
There is a vast and growing literature on book history, manuscript studies and related fields. General librarianship publications are listed in ‘Keeping up to date’, but if you’re looking for more academic reading, then here are some suggestions (listed alphabetically):
Brown, Michelle P., A Guide to Western Historical Scripts From Antiquity to 1600 (London: British Library, 1900).
——— Understanding Illuminated Manuscripts: a Guide to Technical Terms (London: British Library, 1994).
Carter, John, ed. Nicholas Barker, ABC for Book Collectors, 7th ed. (New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll, 1995).
Carley, James P. and Colin C.G. Tite, Books and Collectors 1200-1700 (London: British Library, 1997).
Finkelstein, David and Alistair McCleeryBook, eds, The Book History Reader (London: Routledge, 2006).
Gaskell, Philip, New Introduction to Bibliography (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1974).
Gillespie, Alexandra and Daniel Wakelin, eds, The Production of Books in England, 1350-1500 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011) .
McLean, Ruari, How typography happens (London: British Library, 1999).
Morison, Stanley, ed. Nicholas Barker, Politics and Script. Lyell Lectures 1957 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972).
Needham, Paul, Twelve Centuries of Bookbindings, 400-1600 (New York and London, Oxford University Press, 1979).
Pearson, David, Provenance Research in Book History: a Handbook (London: British Library, 1994).
———, Books as History: the Importance of Books Beyond Their Texts (London: British Library, 2008).
Roberts, Jane, Guide to Scripts Used in English Writing up to 1500 (London: British Library, 2005).
Sherman, William H., Used Books: Marking Readers in Renaissance England (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008).
Steinberg, S.H., Five Hundred Years of Printing, new ed. (London: British Library, 1996).
Suarez, Michael F. and H.R. Woudhuysen, eds, The Oxford Companion to the Book (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).
Various eds, The Bible as Book (series), (London: British Library, 1998-).
Various eds, The Cambridge History of the Book in Britain, 6 vols (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999-).
Getting Experience
The key to successful job applications is to show that you have experience and skills relevant to the role. Do not despair if you’re not currently in a special collections role: there’s lots you can do to get experience that will be relevant.
Make it known that you’re interested in special collections. That way, if your organisation has hidden collections that need some TLC, or if any other special collections opportunities come up, you’re more likely to hear about it!
Make the most of that to which you have access. You can develop relevant skills and experience without having immediate access to special collections. Many of the skills listed above can be developed in lots of situations. Small or non-special-collections institutions often have some ‘special’ material that might have had much attention due to lack of time/expertise. If you are interested in it, you can be a boom to your organisation and to yourself – even basic listing is useful for the institution and will give you knowledge of and experience of working with rare or special material.
Get to know the resources as far as possible. The print resources listed above are a good start. Also get to know some of the printed catalogues and guides to major collections, as well as the digital libraries being developed in the UK and elsewhere. Some of the big digital collections require subscriptions, but if you can, get a feel for these or others:
Early English Books Online (EEBO): http://eebo.chadwyck.com
Eighteenth Century Collections Online (ECCO): http://gale.cengage.co.uk/product-highlights/history/eighteenth-century-collections-online.aspx
Early European Books (EEB): http://eeb.chadwyck.co.uk/
Digital Image Archive of Medieval Music (DIAMM): http://www.diamm.ac.uk/
top tips
Just as librarianship in general isn’t just about liking to read books, special collections librarianship is about more than liking old books. So explain your interest in the field in detailed, not general terms.
As with all librarianship, it’s key to demonstrate that you’re interested and experienced in customer service, for example answering reader enquiries.
Highlight your specialist skills or interests, be they technical, linguistic, historical knowledge, or something else.
For many jobs, it will be important to demonstrate that you understand the researchers’ interests in the collections, so show that you have read around the subject.
Cathedrals and country houses can both have (generally rather different) historic libraries, as will some schools with long heritage (both in the public sector and outside it). Some public library authorities have significant special collections: though sadly these collections have been known to fall victim to attempts to raise money. Many public libraries have very important local history and local studies collections which may include local publications, image archives, ephemera, and information about local people. Learned and private societies often have long-standing libraries with interesting and significant holdings connected to their history, work and areas of interest. Museums and other cultural institution will often have book collections worthy of special collections designation. Even corporate and business libraries may hold special collections material, although this material is often inadvertently hidden from view through lack of understanding and perceived irrelevance to the modern work of the organisation.
What do they do?
What skills do they need?
Subject-specialist knowledge
A knowledge of book and printing history, of manuscript production, of the subjects covered by your library, of the lives and work of the collectors of your material.

Latin and a modern European language (or better still, a reading knowledge of several) will be very useful indeed. Few people today have Greek: it’s very useful, especially for early-printed books, when they do. Other specialist languages can be vital in certain libraries. A knowledge of palaeography (old handwriting) is vital in manuscripts librarianship, and can be useful elsewhere, too.
Cataloguing
Rare books cataloguing is generally done according to the Anglo-American Cataloguing Rules 2nd edition (AACR2) modified by Descriptive Cataloguing of Rare Materials (Books) (DCRM(B)). These rules will likely also be modified by in-house practices, and will require knowledge specialist vocabularies for the description of items. Archives are catalogued according to the General International Standard Archival Description (ISAD(G)) – http://www.icacds.org.uk/eng/standards.htm, the Manual of Archival Description (MAD) and other standards.
Communication
Good and flexible written and verbal communication skills are vital. Special collections librarians communicate with specialist readers, the general public, teachers, children, students, the media, organisation management and funding bodies via telephone, email, letters, personal contact, blog posts, twitter, taught classes, lectures and talks, press releases, reports, and funding proposals.
Management
Special collections librarians have to manage budgets, staff and volunteers, none of which are necessarily straightforward. Many special collections librarians work on their own for a lot of the time; this requires good self-management of time and priorities.
IT/technology/web skills
Special collections librarians use a wide range of IT and tech beyond the standard office programmes and library management software. A few examples include digital cameras and image manipulation software, graphic design of posters/promotional materials/exhibition materials, specialist software for environmental monitoring, social media used for promotion and education, web design (either in html or via a web editor or content management system) and image and metadata management software for digital collections.
Collecting
PURCHASES. Not every special collections librarian has the luxury of an acquisitions budget, but where one exists, material of all kinds and monetary values can be acquired from specialist dealers. Selecting material for purchase that will build on the current strengths of the collections is an important skill.
DONATIONS Members of the public or members of institutions will often offer material as donations. Managing donors and their donations is not always straightforward. It is is important to have an institutional policy detailing how donations will be evaluated, selected, what will happen to material that the library does not want, how the donation will be processed, and how the donation will be recognised. As with all areas of librarianship, the work of the special collections librarian is not just to collect everything that exists: it’s important, as with purchased acquisitions to be selective and choose items which will benefit the collections as a whole in proportion with the resources needed to manage them.
PROACTIVE COLLECTING. In institutional situations, the special collections librarian will be trying proactively to collect institutional publications and papers to form a record for the future. Some of this activity, depending on the institution can or should also be undertaken by records managers or archivists.
REFERENCE COLLECTIONS. As well as collecting special collections themselves, special collections libraries need to keep an up-to-date reference collection for their own use, and the use of readers consulting the collections. This will include dictionaries, catalogues and bibliographies, handbooks and guides to book production, indexes of authors, printers, scribes and artists, and relevant periodicals.
Collections Care
UNDERSTANDING YOUR HOLDINGS. In order to be able to care for your collections, you need to know and understand what you have. No-one can be an expert in everything, but having a clear concept of the scope and significance of your holdings and of the particular interest of selected items or collections is a must. There’s no better way of getting to know a collection than just browsing the shelves and seeing what’s there. Working through a collection item-by-item in a stock check will give you a really good feel for what’s there, but unless your collection is very small you’ll never have time to cover it all that way!
PRESERVATION. Preservation, as distinct from conservation (see below), is generally taken to mean the passive, non-invasive processes and actions by which we try to prevent materials deteriorating over time. There are two main strands to preservation:
STORAGE. The different materials of which special collections items are comprised all have ideal conditions in which they can be stored at length with a significantly reduced risk of deterioration. Books (generally made of some or all of made of paper, parchment, vellum, leather and wood) should be stored at around 14-16°C, with 40-60% relative humidity. Photographs and film need different conditions (and not that some early film is highly explosive and needs very special storage). Obviously it’s not always possible to store every item in its perfect habitat, and special collections librarians have to decide on compromises and undertake regular monitoring of conditions and delicate items. Poor and poorly-monitored storage can lead to crumbling, mould growth, attack by pests (e.g. beetles or mice), or the disintegration of a photographic image. The use of appropriate storage materials (acid-free folders and boxes) can help preserve materials even when atmospheric control is not possible.
HANDLING. White gloves are rarely used in most special collections departments. In general, they make the user less dexterous and therefore more likely to cause damage to the item by tearing or creasing. Users should have clean hands, not touch the printed, written, or painted areas of a page, not touch any part of the page more than necessary (using weights to hold down pages when necessary), support books on appropriate stands and rests, and treat any folded or rolled items with appropriate attention and delicacy. Gloves will be worn for handling photographs or film, or other material that will suffer immediate damage from skin oils. The special collections librarian is responsible for ensuring that staff and readers are handling the collections appropriately.
CONSERVATION. Conservation, as opposed to preservation, is active and potentially invasive action undertaking to strengthen, recover or render usable material that is in a poor condition. Conservation, except for the most basic actions (for example, basic cleaning, or tying books with loose boards with cotton tape), should be undertaken by trained conservators. Their work includes strengthening the edges of pages that have been damaged, rebinding books, re-attaching detached boards on books, cleaning damaged items, unfolding crumpled sheets, and much else. Few librarians have sufficient budget to buy conservation work on all items that require it, and it is therefore necessary to prioritise work according to the importance of the item and its physical condition.
SECURITY. Managing the security of collections against their accessibility to readers will always be a balancing act. Precise procedures will depend on individual institutions, but it is important to consider how you record the identities of your readers and the items they consult, how you invigilate readers’ use of materials, what items you allow in the reader space (bags, writing implements, liquids), and how you check material before and after it is consulted. The security of storage spaces should be as high as possible in your institution.
EMERGENCY PLANNING. It is important for any librarian with special collections to have considered how they will cope with an emergency in their library. The major threats are fires and flooding: it is important to have a plan for dealing with these, including knowing the locations of the items that should be saved first if possible, and having protective and cleaning materials available (simple things such as having plastic sheeting available if a pipe bursts can make a great difference). Professional companies provide services to libraries to help plan for emergencies and to help with recovery and cleaning afterwards.
FUNDRAISING. While not strictly part of the care of the collections themselves, this seems a sensible place to discuss the constant need for special collections librarians to find additional funds to support their work. Donations of money may come from organisations or individuals, often to support acquisitions in a particular area or to cover conservation work. Other cultural funding bodies may contribute funds to projects to expose collections and to building work. There is an increasing need to demonstrate to funding bodies that any externally-funded work benefits audiences beyond the holding institution itself: outreach is taking an ever-greater role in special collections work partly for this reason.
Access
The whole point of having any special collections holdings is so that people can see them, either now or in the future. The work of a special collections librarian, like other librarians, is fundamentally all about providing services to a wide range of readers and other ‘customers’.
KNOWING WHAT YOU'VE GOT. Fundamental to access of all kinds is having a documented record of your holdings. For rare books today that generally means cataloguing in a library management system and publishing the records online in an OPAC. Increasingly, rare books records are available via collaborative catalogues covering multiple institutions, such as COPAC. Archives are very often now also catalogued online, as are some manuscript collections. However, printed catalogues of manuscripts are still regularly published, and as a special collections librarian you will be expected to have a good grasp of all the finding aids to your collections, which might also include local print-outs, files and card catalogues.
PROMOTING WHAT YOU'VE GOT. Even once you have catalogued your holdings you will need to promote them to your target audiences. For academic and researchers this may be as simple as having a clear introduction to your catalogues on your website. For other audiences (such as undergraduate students, target audiences for outreach activities) this will involve many different channels, including a lot of personal contact with interested parties.
LETTING PEOPLE SEE IT
RESEARCHERS IN READING ROOMS. Providing a secure space in which people can consult your material can take a significant investment of staff time, but is the mainstay of access in many institutions.
EXHIBITIONS. Physical exhibitions are not possible in all buildings. They require exhibition cases, which, for long-term or permanent exhibitions, need to be of a very high specification to allow for security and preservation. However, when they are possible, they are a superb way of allowing a large number of non-specialists to see some of your holdings.
ONLINE RESOURCES. Online resources, such as collection guides and online exhibitions open up your collections to global audiences. They can be compiled relatively cheaply and simply, and allow material that cannot be displayed in a physical exhibition to be displayed safely.
DIGITISATION. Digitisation of entire books or collections is a serious undertaking, but is increasingly common and increasingly expected by the general public and by researchers. As well as the costs of the photography itself, it incurs costs in managing the copyright and data protection issues that may arise in publishing your holdings, in conserving items that would not otherwise be in a safe condition to be photographed, in creating the meta-data to accompany the images, and in preserving the digital material for the long term. Small-scale digitisation of small items of individual items can be achieved by relatively small institutions for use in online resources and exhibitions.
REPRODUCTION. Special collections reading rooms are increasingly allowing their readers to take their own digital photographs of materials, with the stipulation that such photographs are used only for private research. But readers still do request photocopies of material, and also publication-quality photographs for use in articles and books. Special collections librarians have to manage the fulfilment of such requests.
HELPING PEOPLE UNDERSTAND IT
ENQUIRIES. Enquiries come in from all sorts of people from all over the world. It is important to have a policy on how much research you can do for people enquiring by email or phone. Readers visiting in person will also have queries about the items they see and about the collections more generally.
OUTREACH. Outreach is a broad term that can be used different by different people. I’m using it her to cover any sort of work which aims to increase the number and type of people accessing your material.
INTERNAL 'OUTREACH' might otherwise be called promotion and marketing to your main audiences. In an university library this might be offering introductory classes and sessions for new undergraduates, for students starting their dissertations, or for particular subject groups organised via lecturers and tutors.
EXTERNAL OUTREACH can take very many forms, including working with community groups, schools, teachers, and the general public. Events may take place in the library or elsewhere, aiming to provide an educational and/or fun experience for the intended audience, introducing them to material they have never seen before and helping them to learn about it.
DOING EVERYTHING LEGALLY
COPYRIGHT. The laws of copyright govern what material can be reproduced and it what ways. There are different rules for manuscripts vs published material, for anonymous works vs those with a known author, and for images vs maps vs music vs literary/dramatic works. It is important to have a clear understanding of this legislation, and to keep abreast of changes.
DATA PROTECTION. Many archival documents will contain personal information about living people, and the librarian is responsible for not producing to readers material or information that should be kept private, and for advising readers on what information they can use in published works.
FREEDOM OF INFORMATION. Publicly-funded organisations are subject to Freedom of Information legislation, and may be subject to requests for information about their collections and about their procedures and work.
HEALTH & SAFETY. Libraries may seem like quiet, sleepy, safe places to work, but the health and safety of everyone in them must be considered. Common problems include the handling of heavy boxes stored on very high shelves, the dangers of the dusts and moulds present on old documents and books, and the fact that very many historic library buildings are very poorly heated.
EQUALITY & DIVERSITY. Equality legislation governs the recruitment and employment of staff, and the accessibility of the material to readers. Librarians also should also be aware of the need to collect diversely to represent the constituent groups in the their organisation or location.
Some hashtags:
#specialcollections
#speccolls
#rarebooks
#histbib
Book History Research Network
Has a particular focus on the history of the book trade. Has mailing list, directory of members and organises seminars and other events: http://www.bookhistory.org.uk/
Find lots social media activity on this wiki of special collections departments' social media presences (and add any others you find!):
http://specialcollectionssocialmedia.pbworks.com
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