Rare Books Group Annual Seminar 2017:‘Bringing new audiences to special collections’

The LAI RGB 2017 seminar with the theme of Bringing new audiences to special collections took place on Friday, 24 November 2017 in the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin. Patricia Moloney presents an overview of the day’s proceedings. 

Alison Cullingford (Special Collections Librarian, University of Bradford)

‘Reaching In, Out and All Around: why and how to develop new audiences for unique and distinctive collections’

Regarding outreach, Alison Cullingford (Special Collections Librarian, University of Bradford), identified possible barriers to new users as (lack of) awareness, location, relevance and perceived elitism and she suggested that the way forward lay in being more welcoming, and thinking like a user. The current trend in terms of outreach, she said, was not just to focus on the content or informational side of the collections (some which is often online), but to engage people by emphasising the experience side: a day out, quirky unusual aspects. The use of the expertise of museum and art gallery professionals in terms of attracting visitors to collections is valuable and the importance of proper signage, decent toilets and somewhere to eat cannot be underestimated.

The use of intermediaries is crucial. Library collections can link up with other projects: local people working with other local cultural groups on funded projects often have an education officer part of whose job remit is outreach, who can help with publicity. Planning ahead well in advance (often a year) in terms of links to events connected to anniversaries and festivals e.g digitisation of collections was also very important. Outreach need not be getting people into your building, Bradford do a lot on other people’s premises as their own isn’t suitable. The use of social media can encourage users to explore archives which are seen to contain stories of human interest. Hashtag campaigns help to drive attention.

Pamphlet from the University of Bradford

100 Objects Bradford is an online exhibition highlighting the most exciting and important items in Special Collections at the University of Bradford, which began in January 2011 and unfolded weekly, curated by Alison Cullingford. The exhibition was inspired by A History of the World in 100 Objects, a joint project between the British Museum and the BBC. Social media, including Twitter, Facebook, and Flickr were used to promote and to reach new audiences. 100 Objects Bradford includes documents, photographs, books, artworks, events, and ideas, drawing on the University of Bradford’s large collection including notable material such as  the Commonweal Peace Pamphlets and the  J.B. Priestley Archive  who became very well-known as a result of his BBC Postscript broadcasts. The exhibition got high use and a great response from the public and the material is re-used regularly with the result that the outreach very successful. It is important to ensure that projects like this are sustainable in the long term. If it works, reflect on why and keep it up in order to maintain connections. Build on it and share it.


Dr. Mary Clark  (Dublin City Archivist, Dublin City Libraries and Archives)

‘Archives for all: surely not!’

Dr. Mary Clark opened her talk by highlighting the fact that public archives are property of the public and that duty of the archivist is to prepare archival collections for public inspection, a task which involves accessioning; conservation; preservation; cataloguing (listing) and promotion. The Dublin City Library and Archive has a dedicated furniture-free space for exhibitions in addition to a conference room which currently hosts an impressive three events per day. Lunchtime lectures on historical topics are also held regularly in Dublin City Hall in Dame Street.  Recent themes for lectures included the Battle of Clontarf  and the Decade of Commemorations.  She and her colleagues have found that an insatiable appetite for history exists among the Dublin public and the opening the Council Chamber in Dublin City Hall for use by the public at these events have proved to be very popular.


Other outreach initiatives include two local history courses run by Dublin City Archives which are offered to the public as part of Dublin City Council’s commitment to life-long learning: the Lord Mayor’s Certificate in Oral History, and the Lord Mayor’s Certificate in Local Studies. The bulk of the participants come from lunchtime lectures attendees who heard about the courses at these lectures. The conferring of the certificates is presided over by the Lord Mayor at a ceremony in the Mansion House and the alumni group continue hold monthly meetings which are self-organised. Each participant on the courses gives a talk on their own dissertation and often then publish the research in the Dublin Historical Record.

Material held by Dublin City Library & Archive on the Theatre Royal have proved to be very popular and also the Jimmy O’Dea Collection, which was deposited by his godson Conor Doyle who toured the related exhibition around Dublin libraries. This material was later developed this into a show Dublin’s Theatre Royal, Remembered which is performed twice a year in National Concert Hall. The most popular collection requested in the reading room is the Monica Roberts Collection, which contains letters from Irishmen serving at the Front during WWI and also Monica Roberts’ contemporary diary from Easter Week 1916, which includes her eye-witness account of the Rising. This unique collection was digitised, transcribed and published online as fully-searchable online database in 2014. Other successful outreach projects include the exhibitions Jacob’s Biscuit Factory and Citizens in Conflict: Dublin 1916 and the blog post from Nelson’s head: News from Nelson

Barbara McCormack (Special Collections Librarian, Maynooth University

‘Learning to share: how academic libraries can reach new users through special collections’.

Barbara McCormack began her talk by mentioning the importance of striking the right balance between preservation and access in discussing how academic libraries can reach new users through special collections. Citing Tina Schneider (2003) she listed three possible reasons for outreach: (i) an external request outside academy, (ii) an internal request arising from the institutional mission, and (iii) as a response to a problem or issue.

Barbara McCormack speaking at the RBG Annual Seminar

Maynooth University uses a targeted approach which is multi-faceted and visitor numbers are way up. Examples of ‘quick wins’ in terms of outreach to the local community include participating in Culture night; National heritage week , Explore your archive;  Library Ireland week; Seachtain na Gaeilge  and National Science week. Also local festivals often include scheduled visits in their programmes by arrangement. She pointed out that all these organisations promote these events themselves and so involve little or no costs to the institution in order to engage.


Collaborations include a seminar including a display on the Otway-Maurice Collection of St Canice’s Cathedral Library, which is on long-term loan from The Representative Body of the Church of Ireland;  an exhibition of material relating to  the Grey Nuns and other religious orders in Montreal, who provided care and shelter to Irish immigrants in Canada during the Great Hunger curated by the Director of Ireland’s Great Hunger Institute at Quinnipiac University, and Dr. Jason King; an exhibition of material and talk on the playright Teresa Deevy, in partnership with Waterford Institute of Technology. The Jacobite Risings Exhibition a collaboration between Maynooth University Library, the Jacobite Studies Conference, St. Patrick’s College Maynooth and the Church of Ireland RCB Library and curated by Dr. Éamon Ó Ciosáin, Maynooth University French Studies and Barbara McCormack took place in July 2017. In August 2013, a collection of fifty Gaelic manuscripts from the Library at St. Colman’s College, Fermoy were relocated to the Russell Library on long-term loan to Maynooth Library Special Collections which intends to prepare digital images of the manuscripts from the collection as resources allow, with the intention of providing an electronic copy of the entire collection to St. Colman’s College, Fermoy and University College Cork.

Finally Barbara McCormack’s recommendations included (i) pop up displays for variety of academics which can developed at short notice; (ii) creating a bank of exhibition labels with basic info about popular items;  (iii) the inclusion of information on Special Collections in new staff orientation packs and (iv) forging links with professional bodies, museum curators and historians. Currently the library is actively working with former Governor General, Domhnall O Buachalla’s family, who have some of his personal papers which are being scanned by Maynooth Library and added to the digital collections.

Samantha McCombe (Librarian, Linen Hall Library)

‘Diversifying audiences: an overview of collection based outreach projects at the Linen Hall Library’

Samantha McCombe explained that the Linen Hall Library (officially known as the Belfast Society for Promoting Knowledge) is the only remaining subscription library in Ireland. Founded in 1788, the Linen Hall Library is the oldest library in Belfast and is a self-governing, nonprofit charitable organisation that relies on a variety of funding sources for its activities. Always outward-looking, it  is anxious to promote the Linen Hall as neutral, welcoming inclusive space.

Linen Hall poster

While the culturally curious, educated, literate people are easier to attract, other groups such as children and emerging communities have tended to be more difficult to reach. The Linen Hall Library receives some government funding as part of wider community-based projects as part of government strategies such as TBUC (Together Building United Communities), a which aims reconciliation and shared safe communities where people can live, work and socialise together.

One of the Linen  Hall Library’s  most significant outreach projects is the Divided Society Project. Since the late 1960s the Linen Hall Library in Belfast has been collecting material relating to the conflict in Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland Political Collection now consists of over 350,000 items including books, pamphlets, leaflets, posters, manifestos, press releases, newspapers, objects and many thousands of periodicals. It is a completely unique collection that is unrivalled throughout the world. As part of the library’s efforts to protect, develop and promote  the Northern Ireland Political Collection the Divided Society Project has digitised and catalogued a significant section of the Northern Ireland Political Collection making it available online as an online digital archive. Arising from this project two exhibitions were commissioned and are available to exhibit in other spaces. We Lived It – the Social Impact of the Troubles, and Laughter in the Dark – Illustrating the Troubles (political cartoons) Other outreach activities associated with the Divided Society Project include an oral history in the form of digitised audio interviews and study toolkits aimed at GCSE students are also available online.

Niamh Ní Riain (Education Assistant, National Library of Ireland)

‘Special Collections, Special Connections: Summertime fun at the National Library’


Niamh Ní Riain of the NLI Learning and Events  outlined some of the outreach events for children which have been run in National Library of Ireland recently as part of the library’s 2016-2021 Strategy and its  five key pillars of activity: ‘Collect, Protect, Connect, Innovate and Collaborate’. Recent events included The Bigger Picture: Old Maps in the National Library, workshop which focused on how maps are made and how we understand them while using the brightly coloured, digitised Richard Bartlett maps which date from the late 16th to early 17th centuries and available on the NLI digital library.


Another workshop Catchy Captions – Capturing Newspapers at the National Library introduced children to newspaper cartoons contained in the NLI’s Newspaper Collection. A bi-lingual Irish/English workshop Design a Book Cover / Ceardlann Dátheangach Leagan Amach Clúdach Leabhar provided children with the opportunity to visit the Yeats exhibition after which they thought of a catchy title and then designed a book cover. After exploring Miss Battersby’s sketchbooks with their beautiful watercolours of exotic birds, dating from 1801-1841 and held by the NLI, participants in the workshop: Miss Battersby’s Birds – Flapping Good Fun, were encouraged to create their own bird pictures.

When running workshops for children Niamh Ní Riain recommended starting by asking lots of questions and having back-up staff available on-site to call upon if necessary. All these workshops were publicised using social media, the NLI website, posters and brochures and three approaches which really helped were (i) targeting parental groups; (ii) a poster at the front gate of the NLI and (iii) word-of-mouth.

Dr. Jason McElligott (Keeper, Marsh’s Library)

‘Screaming children, demanding parents & dumbing down: your worst nightmares about outreach’

Jason McElligott began by explaining that since its foundation in the early eighteenth century, Marsh’s Library has always been associated with (but not owned by) a minority church, and the building and its historical collection of 25,000 books receive funding under the category of tourism rather than education. In the past, some scholars had limited sympathy for technology and new audiences, and the general consensus was that the books had to be protected overall and that security was paramount. Nowadays visitor development includes the use of social media such as pinterest, twitter and Facebook.

In terms of outreach tension exists between the three functions of the library as (i) a protected structure; (ii) a tourist attraction; (iii) an academic research library the challenges were knowing one’s audience and building a tourist attraction in a protected structure. Marsh’s Library now has 25,000 visitors annually with varying interests. Some might appreciate the charm of the building but not the books. For European audiences Marsh’s Library collection is now recognised as part of the European Enlightenment movement, as do Irish audiences but the latter also understand the value of the collection in terms of the difficult religious and political context in Ireland in 18th and 19th centuries which might not be immediately understood by some visitors from abroad. With this in mind, tour groups are catered for according to their own particular interests.


Regarding academic researchers, connecting with current scholarship in the history of the book is becoming increasingly important. Rather the text, the way books were produced; the marks left by readers; how books were read; the importance of the physical object and materiality of the book are emphasised. Specialised tours are available by arrangement and classes are provided for graduates and undergraduates in order to train students on how to use rare books and manuscript materials. The Muriel McCarthy Research Fellowships provide an opportunity for advanced scholars to carry out in-depth research on the collections.

In terms of outreach to children (all under16 are admitted free), the use of very clear simple language is essential and the attractions of the physical building and the physical collections are emphasised. Special school tours are available and the Children’s Trail  has led to the development of a comic Scary (and Hairy!) Tales from Marsh’s Library by Julie Burke, the Education and Outreach Officer which is available to purchase at the library and is also available free-of-charge online at Marsh’s Library.

All speakers agreed with the importance of having a presence on social media in addition to other outreach strategies. All in all, the seminar provided plenty of food for thought for the attendees.

Patricia Moloney

National Folklore Collection, UCD



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