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.
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!
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.
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.
Digitising material is often seen as the most effective solution to balancing the needs of preservation and access. Creating digital versions of existing items allow the original material to be stored safely in optimum conditions, minimising handling of fragile items. Digitisation can also open up collections to global audiences; for example, the British Cartoon Archive, housed at the University of Kent, has online resources that are regularly accessed by people from the USA, Canada, Australia and across Europe as well as the UK.
Digitisation is not a cost free exercise. As Simon Chaplin, Director of Culture and Society at the Wellcome Trust points out in his Idiot’s Guide to Building a Digital Library, digitisation can be immensely time consuming and costly:
“Our board of directors demonstrated what I guess we could call the Google complex: ‘Why don’t you just put all this stuff online?’ The difference working at the Welcome Trust is our board also said ‘Here’s some money to go ahead and digitise all those things’.” If you are not in the fortunate position of Chaplin at the Wellcome, with a war chest of £20m to put towards your digitisation project, what other alternatives are there?
A recent exhibition of material from the University of Kent’s Special Collections & Archives was held away from the reading room, in the Gulbenkian theatre housed in the University’s dedicated Arts Centre. Original material – in this case, 19th century playbills – was digitised and printed onto Foamex board, creating physical surrogates. The exhibition’s location was specific to the material displayed and attracted new audiences to explore collections for the first time, while also ensuring that the original items were kept safe. Now that the playbill surrogates have been created, staff will be able to use these items off-site again for future outreach work.
As discussed at the CILIP Rare Books and Special Collections conference in September 2015, thinking creatively about how to open up your collections is key. It is often via collaborative projects that the potential of digital material can be uncovered. Stand + Stare is an artists’ collective that uses technology to help tell stories within collections. In 2013, the Mass Observation Archive commissioned Stand + Stare to create a ‘Theatre Jukebox’, a freestanding booth where a range of postcards trigger audiovisual information connected with the image on the card. The audiovisual element encourages interactive accessibility for everyone – you don’t need to be able to decipher old handwriting or know how to handle fragile books to explore archival treasures.
Taking collections out of repositories directly into the hands, eyes and hearts of users is something all heritage professionals enjoy. What’s even more interesting, however, is the idea of taking the archive, museum or library service out of the building and into the wider world – and how innovative storage solutions can aid this.
The range of engagement opportunities for heritage professionals has never been broader: digitisation and technological developments are creating potential to open up collections to communities across the world. At the heart of engagement, however, lies the need to protect the precious objects in our care – and to do this, we need to consider how best to store archive materials for hundreds of years to come.