Archive for December, 2012

Over two months ago now, I attended a CILIP-organised Rare Books and Special Collections Group (RBSCG) Conference at Lady Margaret Hall in Oxford, and at last I am writing a blog post about it!

The conference was entitled Speaking Truth to Power: Making Special Collections Work in Times of Recession; I attended the third and final day, when the focus was on what special collections can contribute to communities.  Perhaps the main attraction for me was the second talk of the morning, given by Judy Faraday, Partnership Archivist, John Lewis.  (To all John Lewis lovers, I am sure it will be obvious why!)  Whilst she was approaching the importance of special collections from a very specific, corporate point of view, Faraday’s understanding of her own role within John Lewis was so relevant to libraries and the contemporary issues they are facing.  She described how she needs to justify her existence to the John Lewis Partnership, by demonstrating that her work can and does have an impact, as well as being relevant to the company’s overarching agenda.  For us, then, as future librarians, the key to making special collections – or indeed the regular library catalogue – work in times of recession is simply to find ways to make them work.  We must be able, and willing, to either see possibilities for the books and spaces over which we have guardianship, or create possibilities so that we can always justify their and our existence.  The answer won’t always be the same in every situation, and perhaps this is where the true variety and enjoyment of librarianship lies.

Neil MacInnes, Head of Libraries, Information and Archives, Manchester City Library, began the morning’s talks, explaining to us the work being done in Manchester to reassert the city’s Central Library as a valuable space and resource for the community.  He spoke of special collections touring the local libraries nearby in order to expose them to new audiences; café tabletops onto which images of special collections will be projected; displays and exhibitions on local history, which people will hopefully want to engage with.  For more details see:


As well as making special collections seem more relevant, I think that this focus on visitor experience, which it is often suggested has been undervalued in the past, will potentially help visitors to feel more relevant to the library and the things it has to offer.  This is of course the key to community living – understanding the nature and importance of our relationship to the spaces in which we move, and in which we encounter others.

Christopher Parkin, Lead Education Officer, Museum of the History of Science, Oxford, provided a third insight into the importance of special collections to the community, focusing on the relevance of the Museum’s antiquarian science books.  Parkin’s was a unique insight, since the objectivity of the book offers scope for discussions on the science of materiality and construction.  The book itself, as well as what it has to say, is thus relevant to the aims and purposes of the Museum; its calls to be viewed, touched and utilised are all the louder for it.  This, along with the fact that the Museum accommodates visits from many school children, for whom interactions with actual objects and not just ideas can really bring the history of science to life, reminds us just how problematic a special collection’s relevance can be.  Its ‘special’, individual quality is both the reason it should be protected and cared for, and the reason for utilising it.  I think that this dichotomy of utility and preservation will prove particularly prevalent within the public library sector in the future, for two reasons.  Firstly, it must surely be the case that public libraries are custodians of special collections on behalf of the communities that they serve; the public therefore has a right to access and enjoy the collections.  Secondly, as Neil MacInnes highlighted, librarians’ plans for their libraries must tap into Councils’ agendas; anything that contributes something positive and enticing to a public space, and which is made relevant to people of all ages and backgrounds, will almost certainly do the trick.

What with justifying ourselves and our libraries, making our collections interesting to those whom we serve, and taking responsibility for the preservation of special collections, it seems to me that there’s plenty to keep the library and information profession, and its professionals, relevant for a good while yet.

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