The CILIP Rare Books and Special Collections Group Conference 2017, held at the University of Sussex, had ‘Collections at Risk’ as its theme. Over the course of the three-day conference we heard a fascinating selection of talks from people working with rare books and special collections in very different capacities and with varied experiences of risk to collections.
Day One: Physical Deterioration
On the first day, the CILIP RBSCG Conference 2017 focused primarily on physical deterioration of collections and challenges posed by the inherent properties of the materials our collections are made up of. After a practical session with Emma Dadson of Harwell Document Restoration Services, during which we were asked to imagine how we would rescue our poor collections from a flood, it was a pleasant relief to have Sarah Bashir from Lambeth Palace Library share some of the effective low-cost methods she uses to proactively prevent problems from developing (including a genius alternative to expensive dust-measurement techniques – double-sided sticky tape).
Lost Radio Archives
It was enlightening to hear about two libraries that are working with audiovisual collections and racing against time to digitise what they have before the instability of the material and the obsolescence of audiovisual technology makes it impossible. Both Stacey Anderson of Plymouth City Council and Will Prentice of the British Library stressed the socio-historical value of audiovisual collections and the unique insight into the past that this form of record can provide. Will made the interesting point that most of the local radio broadcasts in this country are not retained, which means that significant aspect of our local culture is passing by unrecorded.
Day Two: Theft and Vandalism
The focus of the second day was theft and vandalism. Anke Timmerman of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association outlined the various measures that booksellers use to prevent book thieves selling their ill-gotten items. She also highlighted a fascinating example of how a bookseller tracing the history of a book can shed light on other histories: a first edition of Bewick’s A History of British Birds has been identified as being owned by Frances Currer, a 19th century book-collector with a famous library that was almost certainly visited by the Brontës – Charlotte Brontë (writing under the pseudonym ‘Currer Bell’) included a scene in her novel Jane Eyre in which the titular character admires a copy of Bewick’s A History of British Birds.
Knives and Physical Damage
Adrian Edwards from the British Library discussed the complex security measures in place to secure their collections from theft and vandalism and illustrated the need for such measures by showing us examples of people who had cut pages out of the library’s rare books. It was alarming to hear how many knives where confiscated from visitors to the British Library when scanners were used at entrances!
Miraculous Recovery of Books Stolen from Lambeth Palace Library
Giles Mandelbrote of Lambeth Palace Library told us the incredible story of the recovery of stolen books after 40 years. A confession in a last will and testament that books belonging to the library could be found at the deceased’s home led to the discovery of not the dozen or so books that were known to be stolen, but 1,400 books that nobody had realised were missing! The cunning thief had tampered with the card index when he had stolen the books, and as approximately 10,000 books had been destroyed when a bomb came through the roof during World War II, it was assumed that anything unaccounted for had been lost at that point.
To add injury to insult, in an attempt to obscure the provenance of the stolen books the thief had cut away identifying marks, meaning that a considerable amount of restoration work was necessary. That the books were recovered at all is likely to be a result of the scrupulous attention of booksellers who probably challenged the thief about the provenance of the books and caused him to abandon his attempts to sell them.
Day Three: Sale and Dispersal
The third day’s theme was the sale and disposal of collections, which is a miserable subject for librarians to consider, but it is a very common threat facing libraries with limited resources. Alixe Bovey from the Courtauld Institute recounted her experience of the unexpectedly sudden dissolution of the Mendham Collection previously held by the Law Society.
Miserable and Emotionally Charged
Her account was emotionally charged and reflected the painful reality of witnessing the irreparable destruction of something of significant but intangible value. Alixe discussed the various methods they used in an attempt to prevent the sale, ranging from social media campaigns to legal opinions, but to everyone’s disappointment the Law Society was determined to go ahead with the auction. As the decision was almost certainly the result of a sudden but short-lived dip in the Law Society’s finances (as many of these types of decisions are) Alixe suggests that stalling for time so that the financial incentive becomes less pressing may be the best approach.
Collections At Risk From Their Owner Organisations
The story of the Mendham Collection shows that sometimes collections are most at risk from the organisations that own them. An idea that ran through all of the talks is that in working with rare books and special collections we are custodians of our heritage and we have a responsibility to future generations to preserve the material produced by our predecessors. Ensuring that collections are physically cared for and protected is only part of the story – we also need to make the intangible value of collections obvious to those outside of our profession. Elizabeth Oxborrow-Cowan discussed how libraries can leverage the UNESCO brand to this aim if they have items of unique and extraordinary cultural significance, but it seems other libraries will have find inventive ways to demonstrate the value of their collections.
Collaboration a Bulwark Against Risk
A key message from the conference was that an essential component of ensuring the survival of collections is collaboration. This can take the form of training colleagues who work in different departments in basic conservation, forming a resource-sharing network with other libraries, or sharing information about thefts with the world. Pooling our resources and specialist knowledge can mitigate many of the risks our collections face.