Report on the LAI RBG Workshop: ‘The changing nature of Special Collections’


Regina_0.jpgRegina W. Richardson, Subject Librarian for Music & Modern Languages, Literatures and Cultures at Maynooth University Library, has written the following account of her experience at the RBG Workshop which took place at the Royal Irish Academy on Friday, 23rd September 2016.

This late September LAI Rare Books Group Workshop was a source of some lovely and striking images on screen as part of the presentations of the university libraries of Aberdeen, Manchester, and Maynooth.  Even before the workshop began, those filling up with tea and coffee were treated to a cheering view of the Mansion House fountain surrounded by colourful flowers as seen through the window of the RIA venue. There was a huge amount of very inspiring, useful and illuminating information packed into a short span of time and most people will have come away with some new ways of considering their libraries’ collections and new possibilities for them.

The fountain stands in the grounds of the Mansion house, the official residence of the Lord Mayor of Dublin, and was first shown on an ordnance survey map of 1872.

The theme of the workshop  related to ‘The changing nature of Special Collections: Producer and user expectations’ and presentations included:

  • From Department to Centre: shifting Perceptions and Ambitions. Siobhán Convery, Head of Special Collections, The Sir Duncan Rice Library, University of Aberdeen
  • Great Expectations: Special Collections at UML.  Rachel Beckett, Associate Director,  John Rylands Library and John Rylands Research Institute, University of Manchester.
  • From UDC to USP: How Special Collections got its Groove back. Hugh Murphy, Senior Librarian, Collection Management Services, Maynooth University Library

Siobhán Convery opened by telling us of the aspiration of Aberdeen University and Library: to be a cultural gateway for the region of Scotland, along with its attendant custodial responsibilities.  A new library build was the catalyst for planning a strategy for dynamic development.  This led to opening up the collections in new ways to new audiences, such as establishing public learning spaces, satellite exhibitions, bespoke tours and displays, and supporting scholars to come and work on the collections. And to underlining a cultural value beyond the academic, presenting the collection as a source of inspiration and participation for the wider community, including schools, musicians and artists. I particularly liked how the Library’s Flash Fiction Competition for Book Week Scotland displays images from their special collections online and invites adults and children to be inspired.

Enabling this outreach and development means going out to get money – meeting with bankers and investors, press, trusts, charities, alumni, Friends of the Library, along with bid-writing, fund-raising and seeking lottery funding. Of great advantage is to embed the collections in structures new and established, linking in with events such as heritage, library and national book weeks, and culture nights.

Exhibitions have attractive titles such as Gilded Beasts, Pharmacopoeia and Rebels with a Cause, and digitisation brings collections beyond the library into the international arena – the Aberdeen Bestiary has been digitised, with commentaries, a transcription and translation. Siobhán drew attention to their provenance database, and to the importance of a preservation and assessment survey. Among their very varied collections are lantern slides, ostraca, and intriguingly, squeezes (broadly, paper impressions of low relief ancient inscriptions).

A wide variety of professional qualities and skills are called for now, such as strategic and political awareness, ability to see the long and the short gains, influencing skills, writing and editorial skills, building and nurturing a wide network, looking for engaged champions and supporters, collaborating with other institutions.

I liked this trio of professional qualities Thinking internationally, Vision and pragmatism, and Generosity in sharing and learning.

Rachel Beckett’s watchword was “Expect Great Things”. This means world class research (including beyond academia), outstanding learning and student experience, and social responsibility. Special Collections contribute to all these goals – by managing, engaging, and enabling access and discovery.  Rachel’s presentation placed a keen focus on market research, taking into account a space which is a visitor attraction as well as a research library.  Ideally, we need external consultants to identify who is the core audience and to target different types of people.  We were shown a variety of groups identified by market research to which the library might direct marketing of different aspects of the collections.

The importance of cataloguing in order to enable research was underlined – a cataloguing project led on to a research fellowship funded by a benefactor. An MA in Medieval Studies is firmly rooted in the collections.

Again, energy in seeking finance is vital, allied to income generation. Research output and impact is an important consideration. Funding can have its own momentum in that if the library receives funding for a project or event, the perception is that it is important. Allied to this is boosting student recruitment, career opportunities funding, providing help with grant writing, research projects on various specific collections, exchange fellowships, early career fellowships, seedcorn funding can be a stepping stone. It’s not about ‘stuff’ but about what we do with it.  We need to look for relevance and opportunities everywhere, nationally and internationally, for example, a cookbook from the collection featured in the food history section of the Great British Bake Off.  New skills within the digital humanities are necessary, along with an understanding of the research landscape.

A descriptive trio of words I liked from this talk describe a library as Welcoming, Engaging, Inclusive. And certainly food for thought in the speaker’s averment that the Library is a partner, not a service.

Hugh Murphy brought us into the realm of Kinaesthetics, referring in particular to Maynooth’s collection of cuneiform tablets as an opportunity for tactile-kinaesthetic  learning through the touching of a primary source.  Oral history collections are another important means of learning. We need to think about how others view our collections.  For the Irish government they can be seen as a means of leverage to emphasise our cultural heritage and attract tourism. In Ireland, institutions and collections relating to the Irish roots of our diaspora are a key element to be developed and financed.  Other foci of government such as Ireland’s Decade of Commemorations are also elements to exploit. This is one aspect of how we might look at the unique selling points in our special collections.  Special collections must show relevance and justify themselves; there is an increasing premium on Unique and Distinctive Collections (UDCs) to find their Unique Selling Points (USPs) and to generate revenue.

He referred to 2 very interesting reports and a survey:

He also touched on the expectations of donors, and how a library might assess a potential donation. This with regard to not only its suitability but to the Library’s responsibilities to the donor, including having the resources available to properly curate it. Digital curation, digital output, digital footfall, virtual archives are increasingly important along with increasing emphasis on metrics in the universities and the profession.  Returning to the theme of learning, Hugh reversed the spotlight to ask two important questions. Is the importance of Special Collections reflected in our learning?  What do libraries need from the teaching of librarianship? These questions were taken up in the workshop discussion which followed.

A trio of ways of learning in this talk – Kinaesthetic Learning, Enhanced Learning and Librarians’ Learning


A discussion followed the presentations, and participants could ask questions of the panel seated at the top table. On the panel were the three presenters, along with Marta Bustillo, Chair, Career Development Group, Library Association of Ireland, Gerry Long, Assistant Keeper in Special Collections, National Library of Ireland, and Kalpana Shankar, Head of School, School of Information and Communication Studies, University College Dublin.  The room layout was perhaps unsuitable for the workshop and it would have been better to have divided the group in two around two tables, or several groups even without tables. The discussions in the workshop mainly centred around teaching and learning, and knowledge transfer.

The first question was from a participant who had come to rare book and special collections librarianship in late career and asked about opportunities for continuing to operate in this area after retirement, in both a personal development capacity and in order to mentor new entrants to the field.  Alas, such opportunities are few and the unavailability of rare books modules in current library studies in Ireland was lamented.  Following on from this was a discussion of how to arrange for transfer of knowledge from staff who are retiring to current members of staff; timely planning is essential.  Also under discussion was the UCD course as it now stands, how applicable is it to library work, and is more library content needed?  With a broad spectrum of students, the course is currently more directed towards information knowledge. It was agreed that this is something the LAI can address, for example with short courses and workshops more directed to specific needs of librarians.

Note: Thanks to Dublin City Council Archivist Mary Clark  for information about the Mansion House fountain for this report.

Regina W. Richardson

October 2016


One thought on “Report on the LAI RBG Workshop: ‘The changing nature of Special Collections’

  1. Carole Connolly October 14, 2016 / 3:51 pm

    I really enjoyed reading this, well done Regina.


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