A very rare thing!

Yesterday I went to a meeting organised by the CURL Research Support Task Force (the Consortium of University Research Libraries in the British Isles, maybe best known for Copac, the online public access catalogue for CURL libraries).

This blog is inspired by the first talk, which was by Richard Ovenden, Keeper of Special Collections at the Bodleian Library. His subject was ‘The next 10 years’, always something that gets the brain firing off in many and various directions. One of the things that I particularly liked about the talk was his generally positive take on the outlook for Special Collections (usually rare books, manuscripts and archives and maybe other unique artifacts). When institutions are thinking about their priorities, one of the main drivers in this age of increasingly ubiquitous access to electronic information is going to be what makes their institution stand out – what makes them unique. Well, one of the selling points here has got to be the Special Collections, which are by definition unique and rare materials.

Richard pointed to the strategic aims of Emory University over the next 5 years they just have 3 aims digital innovations, a customer-centered library and special collections. If more universities in this country could see the sense in putting special collections at the forefront of their development strategies in this way we would really be getting somewhere!

Richard talked about the EEBO effect (Early English Books Online). This makes finding material very easy, but what are the implications for physical access? Will institutions start to become less inclined to plug gaps in their rare books collections as the electronic version is so easily available via EEBO?

Manuscripts and archives are a slightly different case to books because they are pretty much always completely unique. Maybe there will be a shift here to the idea of supporting new research areas, not just building on the same areas that the collections traditionally cover, to reflect the new research areas that are now developing. However, we are in an increasingly competitive environment, where our esteemed US colleagues (at least some of them) can often afford to purchase archive collections where we cannot. Maybe we need to counter this to some extent by being more collaborative across our special collections. A point that I had not thought about before is that digital material will increasingly become a valuable commodity, and we will need to think about buying a digital archive in the same way as we may have to bid for more traditional archives. Creators of this material will become more aware of its value and may start to think more about exactly where it is held they cannot easily make money from it if it is stored on a server elsewhere.

Richard pointed to the growing interest in visual materials, which surely will increase over the next 10 years. The Archives Hub team are well aware of this and are developing support for displaying and linking to digital images and surrogates. Equally, archives will become increasingly born-digital, so we can link to the real thing. He referred to the Barbara Castle collection that the Bodleian recently acquired, which included 3 PCs as well as the usual boxes of books and papers. When considering how we deal with digital collections, there must be some benefits to be derived from working more closely with Institutional Repositories, which are now pretty high profile within the HE sector there should be a good fit here with Special Collection materials.

Another positive note sounded by Richard was his belief in the growing awareness of the value of evidence he sees a move from the value of theory back to the value of evidence. Undergraduates seem to be more likely to be producing dissertations than they were and therefore there are opportunities for us to inculcate the value of archives to them.

Marketing strategies are becoming increasingly important the Hub team are well aware of this and very keen to develop our own strategy and get ourselves more out there and engaged with users and potential users of the materials (anyone got any good ideas about engaging academics??). One way of doing this is to use such things as blogs, podcasts and other social networking possibilities, which are likely to become more important, and clearly new possibilities in this social Web area will arise that we cannot yet predict.

To sound a rather less positive note, Richard made the observation that grant-giving bodies are not really giving grants for cataloguing anymore. It is something of a mystery to me why this should be, as it is at the heart of opening up access. They will often give grants for education and interpretation, but not to actually enable archivists to get the material to the point where it can be used in this way. The grants that JISC has given to the Archives Hub in the past to enable us to fund contributors had a huge impact on opening up collections, and as a colleague said to me, the Hub helped to shape the strategy of collection-level cataloguing as a result of this.

Overall, Richards talk made me feel positive about the way forward and I felt a real sense that the Archives Hub can play an important role in continuing to open up collections, raise the profile of archives and special collections and look for innovative and imaginative ways to engage our audience.

Image: from Mark Drasutis photos on Flickr ( Creative Commons licence), http://www.flickr.com/photos/markdrasutis/