7 Oct 2015

DIY until you die - an ode to the Dublin Zine Fair

picture courtesy of Mick O''Dwyer

Guest post by Mick O'Dwyer, a zine librarian with the Forgotten Zine Archive

If you were to ask me what my favourite zine of Dublin Zine Fair this year was, I would be hard-pressed to answer. It could be either Rachel Ang’s stunning perzine The Craft, or Cal Folger Day’s Domestic Labor Manual - a chapbook about cleaning houses in New York. If I'm honest, however, I think my favourite was a zine called FUK U. It contains 24 images of Bono with the words FUK U. It’s a mini-masterpiece.

The fifth annual Dublin Zine Fair took place in the Chocolate Factory, Dublin, over the weekend of August 15th and 16th. It was originally set up by the artist Sarah Bracken as a means to celebrate, support, and promote independent publishing. Without a doubt, it’s one of the most unique events in the Irish publishing calendar.

Zines are independent, self-published magaZINEs, created out of desire for self-expression rather than profit. They’re passionate, delicate, and intimate, borne out of their creator’s curiosities, and alive with a Do-It-Yourself spirit. As zine librarians for Ireland’s only dedicated independent zine archive (the Forgotten Zine Archive), fellow librarian Tom Maher and I were asked to help organise the fair for the second year running (for a more detailed description of zine librarianship, click here).

This year’s Dublin Zine Fair was the best attended yet, with over 40 self-publishers selling and trading their work. The variety of high quality alternative publications on display was astounding – independent comix, artist books, chapbooks, and zines could be found on every table. There were zines about theremins, photography zines of punk gigs, and even a comic about a talking rock. Anyone who feels that print is dead hasn’t checked with the zine community.

picture courtesy of Mick O''Dwyer

The whole Forgotten Zine Archive (comprised of over 2000 zines) was on display throughout the fair, as we ran a pop-up archive for the third time this year. It’s always fascinating to see an archive in operation outside the more traditional library/museum spaces, allowing people to delve in, rifle through it, and get lost in its contents. To see the interest and respect people showed for the collection was quite heartening. I’m always a little apprehensive of zines getting damaged or stolen at pop-ups. As zines are items of ephemera, and often more or less unique, if any were taken, it might be impossible to replace them. But none were, and I can’t wait to showcase them again!

I love how empowering creating a zine is. One of the main messages of the fair is that anyone can make a zine, and people from all over the world are welcome to showcase their work. At this year’s event, we had zinesters from as far afield as Malaysia, Australia, and New Zealand. Everyone is encouraged to self-publish, regardless of their artistic or literary level. Each zinester manages every aspect of their creation; they write, edit, publish, and distribute every zine. In a world of internet trolling and cyberbullying, these kinds of positive messages are invaluable and should be available to everyone.

It was great to see support for the event from NIVAL (National Irish Visual Arts Library), who were there purchasing material for their collection. The librarians at Limerick School of Art and Design have also been at fairs, and have even run their own event, the Limerick International Publishers Salon (LIPS). Further interest in the Dublin Zine Fair from the wider library community would be more than welcome, as it is vital that libraries seek out and support alternative publications. Libraries typically purchase their materials from a narrow list of corporate vendors. As vendors conglomerate and collections homogenise, the need for alternative voices grows ever stronger. Vendors may not always cover unpopular and underrepresented viewpoints, or house unusual formats, as there is less commercial value in doing so. As a result of this, it is becoming increasingly difficult for librarians (and therefore library patrons) to be aware of the wealth of independent, local, or alternative publications available. Librarians must actively search for them.

During the fair, we ran various workshops on weaving, needle felting, bookbinding, and creating zines and comics. I was struck by how easily these workshops could be adopted by libraries. Zines have been used successfully in many libraries as teaching tools, for people from Montessori school age to adults. Teaching with zines demonstrates the wealth of alternative information sources available. These lesson plans on Barnard College's website are an example of how teaching using zines could benefit a student’s information literacy. Zine-making workshops are fun, easy to run, and can be of particular benefit to those who learn visually, or kinaesthetic learners.

The zine community and the library community currently exist as separate entities in Ireland. Libraries are starting to become more aware of zines, but tend to be slow to begin creating their own zine collections. Events like the Dublin Zine Fair highlight how both communities can benefit from one another, and perhaps will be the first steps towards creating an open dialogue between the two.

picture courtesy of Mick O''Dwyer

5 Oct 2015

Let's all learn from each other

I was really struck by a comment that Aoife Lawton made in her recent post on public libraries, about how we should try and share experience, ideas and expertise across all library and information sectors:
"As librarians we must continue to support each other, to network, to learn from our mistakes, to build on our successes and most of all to share all of our learning with each other. There needs to be cross-fertilization of ideas amongst the different sectors of librarianship, from special to academic, from public to school, from health to legal to corporate. Our combined experience will drive librarianship forward."
Based on data from Census 2011 (thanks to @usernameerror aka David Hughes for the reference), 1,807 individuals identified their profession as "librarians" (as an aside, there were significantly less registered members of the LAI in 2014 - thanks @farragher aka Louise Farragher for this one). That is an awful lot of people, and there are potentially others working in information and knowledge management (and indeed other areas) who may have identified themselves under other titles/areas.

I wonder how effectively do the wide-ranging and varied library and information sectors and professionals currently communicate with each other and work together? Certainly at a personal level, I am guilty of being overly-focused on academic and research libraries myself - my blog posts are probably indicative of that alone. Moreover, most of the LIS professionals I network with work in academic or research libraries. In fact, I don't really know many, if any, people who work in public libraries at all.

I am a member of the LAI, an organisation that represents all libraries, and in doing so opens up channels to communicate and network across sectors. However, I wonder if those working outside libraries who also work with information in other ways feel connected to the Association? There are also a lot of other "traditional library" professionals who are not members of the LAI (a topic for another post!). These are people we can learn a lot from too, but how can we connect? Individuals and sectors have strengths and weaknesses in different areas, and have faced successes, challenges and experiences that we can all learn from, and ultimately improve and develop as a profession. Whilst there are many great examples of collaboration across sectors, I do wonder if a lot of this potential expertise and learning still remains untapped?

Library, information and knowledge professionals are not all homogeneous, but we do share something: we are part of the same community, with the same core values around access, preservation and learning. This is something we should leverage and exploit. We should support and advocate for each other, and not just for our our own sectors or issues. It is much more difficult for an individual library, or even a sector, to achieve visibility and to get on the agenda at a national level. However, there are at least 1,807 of us. If we work together, and share our expertise and experience we will have a much better chance.
Posted on Monday, October 05, 2015 | Categories:

28 Sep 2015

Mapping Popular Music in Dublin

pic courtesy of Aine Mangaoang

 Guest Post by  Dr Áine Mangaoang,  Research Fellow Dublin City University , Visiting Lecturer Iceland Academy of the Arts

“To ask for a map is to say ‘tell me a story’” (Turchi, 2004:11).

Once known as the city of a thousand bands, Dublin’s reputation as a city of popular music-making is largely considered as one that consistently, even if somewhat unknowingly, “punches above its weight”. Yet within the realm of academia, literature on Dublin’s vibrant and internationally popular music scenes are surprisingly scarce. The few academic studies that do mention Dublin’s popular music culture either focus solely on rock music, or speak of Dublin as part of a national, or nation-wide, “Irish popular music” aesthetic without teasing out the particular (and perhaps peculiar) Dublin features. Indeed, Dublin’s exciting, extensive popular music culture and heritage and their potential to enhance tourist and civic experience have received relatively little attention until quite recently. Policymakers at government and agency levels currently operate within an information vacuum, and as such there is a significant need for empirical, evidence-based research on popular music in Dublin, particularly if we are to support current industry needs and potentials.

Enter Mapping Popular Music in Dublin (MPMiD): a twelve-month research project based at St Patrick’s College, Dublin City University, thought up by Dr John O’Flynn, Head of the Department of Music, with funding from Fáilte Ireland’s Applied Research Scheme. Informed by scholarship on Irish popular music, Irish music and identity for two recent book projects (The Irishness of Irish Music (2009) and Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond (2014)), O’Flynn is the project’s Principal Investigator. Postdoctoral Research Fellow Dr Áine Mangaoang joined the project with a background in popular music research and teaching at the University of Liverpool, University College Cork and the Iceland Academy of Arts.

Mapping Popular Music in Dublin aims to map popular music experience in Dublin by looking at popular music from the viewpoint of fans (citizens and tourists), musicians, and music industry personnel through a series of quantitative and qualitative methods. The overall purpose is to inform tourism, culture and music industry organisations by providing the first comprehensive overview of popular music experience in Dublin to date. Building on recent research projects from Liverpool, Portland, Reykjavik, and Rotterdam, MPMiD seeks to continue such interdisciplinary work that brings together urban geographers, cultural historians, musicologists, music collectors and curators. Collaboration is central to such a project. We are delighted to be supported by local and national stakeholders including Dublin City Council, First Music Contact, and Irish Rights Music Organisation, in addition to regular contact with the MPMiD Steering Committee.

pic courtesy of Aine Mangaoang

By employing the cartographical sense of mapping and its associations with real and imaginary ideas of space and place, MPMiD  links in with headline events and initiatives organised by civic bodies /music agencies, investigating the ‘everyday’ and/or underground PM practices and ‘happenings’. We have ‘mapped’, as participant-observants, a wide range of Dublin gigs and music events (approaching 70 at the last count) from award shows (e.g. Meteor Choice Music Awards at Vicar St), film-musical adaptations (Once: the Musical at the Olympia) and new festivals (e.g. Canalophonic and MusicTown) to established festivals such as Longitude (Marlay Park), the Tiger Fringe Festival, and Record Store Day that utilises various venues and spaces across the city. We’re equally interested in surveying the more ‘hidden’ popular musical life in Dublin by following different scenes and genres that encompass the rich and varied popular musical experiences on offer in Dublin today. We are interested in how individuals/groups negotiate Dublin as a place for popular music, what popular music sound(s) are associated with the city, and how various popular music networks, scenes and ‘musical pathways’ can criss-cross in people’s experiences. Findings of the research will be published in an executive report and co-authored peer-reviewed journal article(s), along with conferences papers at various national and international symposia. We will also produce an interactive, user-friendly web article. Initial findings from the project are quickly revealing several other gaps in Irish popular music heritage provision – not limited to the lack of a centralised (popular) music archive (Irish traditional music and contemporary Irish music have established genre specific, state-funded archives). As such, we are exploring the possibilities of developing a physical archive of popular music memories and memorabilia with a view to hosting a popular music in Dublin exhibition in 2016. Several potential collaborators have emerged through researching this project. If you have any thoughts on such a venture, then do get in touch – we’d really love to hear from you.

pic courtesy of Aine Mangaoang

If you are interested in being part of this research and adding your experiences of popular music in Dublin to our “map,” we have several ways of participating in our project. The first is taking our short online survey, where we ask questions about your own musical memories and experiences in and of Dublin. Certain cities are synonymous with particular sounds, and we are interested in finding out if people make particular musical or sonic associations with Dublin as a city or place, and if so, is it informed by certain artists, albums, films or other media. The survey also asks for details of participants’ musical lives, both past and present, to gather data on who, how much, and what styles of music are happening in Dublin.  This survey will remain open until mid-October 2015. The second is our musical mapping workshops, which were officially launched as part of the Culture Night programme at St Patrick’s DCU, September 18 2015. Our next collaborative workshops are in partnership with the Hardworking Class Heroes Convention, October 2-3 2015. We’ll be running public workshops, free and open to all, at the NDRC, Crane St, Dublin 8. (We’d love to see you there! Go here for details.) For both the online survey and workshops we’re looking for an array of responses from fans, musicians, industry personnel, tourists and locals, so do share our project details with interested friends, family, and colleagues in any part of the world.

For those unable to attend the workshops but would still like to share with us their musical maps of Dublin, please feel free to send us your own maps, memorabilia, and memories of popular music in Dublin. We accept scanned documents , photographs, images, and multimedia links until 1st November 2015. We are also pleased to accept hard copies of hand-drawn maps, along with copies or original posters, tickets and zines, however please clearly notify us if you would like these returned to you after the project commences.

Email enquiries to Dr Áine Mangaoang: aine.mangaoang@dcu.ie
Postal address: Mapping Popular Music in Dublin, c/o Dr Áine Mangaoang, Dept. of Music, St Patrick’s College, Drumcondra, Dublin 9.
Follow us on Facebook / Twitter
For more details visit our website: https://mappingpopularmusicindublin.wordpress.com

25 Sep 2015

Go, present! Or a brief note on reflective practice

The prospect of speaking at a forthcoming LAI CDG event next week, has really reminded me of the benefits of doing presentations to the presenter, rather than the audience (though hopefully they will find it of value too - please note, no money back guarantees are offered!).

There is nothing quite like having to encapsulate and articulate your thoughts:
for other people,
in a relatively short time frame,
being ultra-concise,
whilst make it interesting.

From previous experiences of presenting, I have found that it's a process that intrinsically forces you to really, really think about how you really, really think about things. It necessitates that you pare down projects and strategies to the key ideas and messages, remove the fluff, and identify what is most important about something. It impels us to reflect on how we operate and interact every day as a matter of course, and to think about how and why we do things, or how and why we don't. Too often, we don't get prompted to do this, to think about how others might see our projects, the value of them, and what our work might mean in the overall context of things.

So yes, presenting is just as much about learning for the presenter, as it is for those in attendance. If you get the opportunity, take it.

Posted on Friday, September 25, 2015 | Categories:

18 Sep 2015

Second Chances

Guest Post by Aoife Lawton, Systems Librarian, HSE Library, Dr Steevens' Hospital

I first visited the LexIcon Library & Cultural Centre in Dun Laoghaire in January this year. This was just a few weeks after it had opened its shiny new doors to the public. First impressions were mixed, but I’ll come back to that. I was a supporter of the library from day one, despite the public backlash and attention grabbing headlines about cost and controversy. Yes it reportedly cost €36.3million. Yes it was spent on a library. It was years and years in the planning. The competition for the architect was awarded in 2007, it opened its doors some 7 years later. This was a mega project. This was the result of an inspired vision. Overheard conversations on the DART train line raised concerns over the seafront façade and how the building might fit in. However it fits right in. Big buildings need big ideas, big budgets and bold plans.

The bold plan paid off and just 9 months later the library has led to a rebirth of Dun Laoghaire. The place, the peacefulness, the public access and the possibilities that the library brings are on offer to all. I’m writing this because I’d like to encourage people to visit it. If you haven’t already, take a half day off work, make an evening visit or go at the weekend. If you have children or teenagers, bring them. If you have aged parents, bring them. If you have a visitors staying, recommend it to them. If you have a disabled friend or relative, encourage them to go. Public libraries capture the essence of democracy. This brings me back to my initial mixed feelings. My worry was the wholly democratic nature of the library meant it was open to the masses, and I speculated over how it might be treated. On that cold rainy day in January, it was wide open to the public, it was a brand new place that many people had come to explore who may never step foot in it again, or who may have just passed through to see and be seen. It was the place to be. Yes we know public libraries are not exactly trendy, but the LexIcon was and is pretty trendy.

That Saturday afternoon in January at about 4pm, the library was alive. It was packed, not crowded, but full. I entered the library at ground zero with a sign showing the promise of a ‘café coming soon’. The steps lead up to a staircase welcoming visitors with an impressive 5.5 metre high stained glass artwork by an Irish artist, Katharine Lamb. I walked up the stairs to the first floor where there was a hum of activity and the noise increased with every mounting step. There are wide open spaces, an art exhibition, rooms with spectacular views of Dublin bay, these views are now open to everyone, not just the Bonos and the Louis Walshes of this world.

It is a pleasure to pause in awe at the natural beauty of the bay. The vista is breathtaking, matching some of the best scenic seascapes in the world especially on a summer’s day.

I paused at a room where boys were playing an intense game of chess, other rooms were empty with lingering hints of recent activity. The second floor reminds the visitor that the building is in fact a library, with people sitting in rows reading, huddling, talking, browsing. The technology is impressive. Laptops are available for loan and computers are plentiful. What struck me was the number of teenagers sitting at tables, some with paperbacks, others scribbling notes, others tuned into a virtual environment with headphones on and smartphones aplenty. Involving young people in the design and space of a library is key to getting them to feel a type of ownership over the place and become invested in it. Having dedicated areas that appeal to teenagers has been shown to encourage library use and has been highlighted by several Government reports about public libraries in Ireland (Department of the Environment and Local Government (2008) & McGrath et al. (2010)). The LexIcon clearly appeals to teenagers.

The attention to detail here is commendable. The library staff have listened to the voice of the customer. More than that they have involved them and enabled them to participate. The designs of the cushion covers that sit on the soft furnishings in the children’s and young people’s section were designed by local children. A local artist brought the children to the seafront and surrounds of the library and they were inspired by the environment which led to the colourful designs. What a novel idea.

Image Source: “DLR LexIcon: What’s On April-June 2015 DLR”
The bookshelves are low in the centre, leaving wide open views into the distance of space and the sea beyond. Books are arranged sparingly with some empty gaps where books should be, but perhaps are in use. There is a strong local history section, in fact a floor is dedicated to it. There are talking books, DVDs, all the usual stock picks from the traditional public library on display. Self-service is available on every floor with queues forming. There is a toddler/wobbler area on level 2 and you’d be forgiven for thinking you had walked into a crèche, for this is how it feels. I’m not giving out. I’m just saying if you want peace and quiet, go straight to the top floor. The top floor is a kind of reader’s paradise. A place of sanctuary, a shelter from the cold Irish sea winds outside. A place to just be.

What worried me on my first visit was the apparent scarcity of library staff. The few I had seen appeared ruddy faced, stressed and slightly overwhelmed. The people appeared to be in charge. The people were raising or lowering the tone, depending on one’s perspective. It is a building for the people who must make of it what they will. But make no mistake, it is theirs, it is ours. I hoped that it would be cared for and receives the respect that it deserves. Having visited several times since then, all seems to be well. I didn’t just return to check out the ground floor coffee shop either. Whoever is in charge of curation and of events at the LexIcon is doing a top job. The exhibitions, the galleries, the writers, the events are first class. There has been a Matisse art exhibition, Father Browne’s ‘Life Through a Lens’ photographic exhibition, creative writing with Colm Keegan, a beautiful outdoor photo exhibition celebrating unique personalities of Down Syndrome children in Ireland and a summer garden party. Librarians from other sectors could stand to gain a lot from the event management and professionalism involved in the offerings by public libraries in general. They are the event managers extraordinaire. They are doing a good job at social media and their Twitter account is active. If anyone wants to find out what’s on, follow the @DLR_Libraries account. Like many other public libraries in Ireland, they have embraced Twitter in a big way, with strong engagement with stakeholders including local communities and councillors. Many public libraries have events on for culture night which is a national celebration of culture, creativity and the arts. This special event takes place annually giving the public have open and extended access to cultural institutions with all events made freely available.

The LexIcon is a place to visit, to sit, to browse, to read, to stand, to relax. It’s a place to take in the views, to breathe in the sanctity. The LexIcon has brought new life to a new place in Dun Laoghaire. It’s free, it’s open for all and it is inspired.

I attended the AGM of the Academic & Special Libraries section of the LAI in June this year. Marian Keyes, senior executive librarian from the LexIcon spoke with passion about the project. Of course, there were ups and downs along the way, but mainly it has been a hugely positive development for libraries and most importantly for the community.

Public libraries are being brought under fire in many countries, particularly across the water, in the U.K. The situation is so bad that a website was set up to keep an eye on the closures and track threats. Since 2009/10 some 357 libraries have closed with more under threat of closure. I’m not naïve enough to think that all libraries should stay open no matter what, but this rate of decimation has to act as a serious wake-up call to all librarians, not just public ones. In Ireland there has been a long gap in recruitment to public library posts, with very few positions advertised as new graduates know only too well.

The LexIcon didn’t happen overnight, nor did any other big public library project in the country. It takes vision, resilience and a fidelity to implementation for success to happen. Luckily we have leaders in libraries. I remember as an LIS student in 1997 conducting an interview with Fingal County Council’s then county librarian Mr. Paul Harris (retired in 2009). He struck me as a man with a plan. A plan for what was to become the then biggest public library in the country, which opened a few years later in Blanchardstown in 2001. The library is another fine example of an embedded public library. It is embedded into the community, easily accessible to Blanchardstown’s key attraction, its shopping centre, and sharing an entrance foyer with a cultural outlet, the Draiocht theatre. For most public libraries, location is everything. Whilst in the planning Paul had many obstacles to overcome, including having an answer to the question “How can we justify spending this amount on a library?” People thought the plan was far-fetched, over-ambitious and impossible. People said he was basically mad. But perseverance won the day and again, a clear vision for the future of the public library meeting the needs of an evolving community. Paul had taken a research approach to the project. He looked at the data for the shopping centre, at the time (from memory) it was attracting a million shoppers a month, just after a year of being open. This data provided a ready made readership for the new library. It was a plan that paid off and now the library is another key attraction for Blanchardstown with over 113,498 registered members in 2011(Public Library Authority Statistics, 2011). Of course there are other great examples of public libraries throughout Ireland but I’ve just highlighted two.

As librarians we must continue to support each other, to network, to learn from our mistakes, to build on our successes and most of all to share all of our learning with each other. There needs to be cross-fertilization of ideas amongst the different sectors of librarianship, from special to academic, from public to school, from health to legal to corporate. Our combined experience will drive librarianship forward. Public libraries are on the brink of a new era. They are experimenting with new ideas and making brave choices. A major development in Ireland is the introduction of a joint public library system. The first phase includes an online catalogue currently available in Fingal Libraries, libraries in Dublin City, Dún laoghaire-Rathdown, Kildare, South Dublin and Wexford. Another interesting idea is that all public libraries will share a common brand. According to the latest “Strategy for Public Libraries 2013-2017” “Local authorities will agree a universal library brand based on an agreed core service, available to every library and promoted nationally” (p.46). Libraries have always been open to co-operation. This is emphasized as one of the 7 strategic priorities of the plan under the heading ‘Cooperation, Partnership & Promotion’. They need our support. Let’s lend it. One way to do this is to be positive about public libraries, obviously within reason. We can’t ignore that there may be staffing issues and funding obstacles, but it is important to focus on the good work being done and the unique value proposition that public libraries offer their communities. Nick Poole Chief Executive of CILIP has emphasised the need to change the negative narrative around public libraries and start promoting the positive. He questions “Why would anyone want to invest in a service that sounds like it’s failing?” (CILIP Update, Sept 2015 p.30). I’d have to agree. Dun Laoghaire’s LexIcon is a public library success story. The public librarians are doing a good job. Let’s help spread the word.

16 Sep 2015

“The walk to the library is the most painful thing ever”

A while back I searched for tweets about DCU Library, where I work. A recurring theme was students complaining about the horrors of walking to the library:

I dismissed this as whinging but something I read later reminded me of this. The Dutch urban planner Jan Gehl wrote this about monotonous walks:

The “tiring length perspective” describes the situation in which the pedestrian can see the whole route at a glance before even starting out. The road is straight and seemingly endless, with no promise of interesting experiences along the way. The prospect is tiring before the walk is even begun.

If you look at the walk from the nominal centre of campus to the Library, you’ll see that it fits that description. It's not that long: 350m, taking about three minutes:

But it feels very long because of the unvaried block of buildings on the left. You can walk for a minute and your view barely changes:

The book Planning Academic and Research Library Buildings suggests that a library is best located near classrooms for HSS students, who generally use the building more than other disciplines. But for better or worse, DCU Library is on the edge of the Glasnevin campus: its nearest neighbours are the School of Biotechnology, five-a-side pitches and the commercialisation centre. And anyway, central locations can bring problems like space limitations, restricting future options to expand. 

A visit from Rachel Van Riel of the library design consultancy Opening the Book  made us aware that our building had a quite formal character. It was somewhere students only went with a specific purpose: go there, borrow a book or study, and leave. It wasn't a very inviting place to linger and the location made it a place you wouldn't just casually drop into. From the tweeting students POV, it feels like work to get to a place to just do work. Academics very rarely visit the Library and I don't think this is just because they only use our online resources. 

While there are plans for a major redevelopment of the Glasnevin campus, including improving its permeabilitythis will take some time, and I doubt that moving the Library will be an option. Instead, in the last year the Library has made a number of changes to the building to give our users more reasons to visit (not exclusively motivated by the tweets!):

We refurbished part of the ground floor into a more relaxed, informal space:

Also on the ground floor we invited the university's Maths Learning Centre and the Writing Centre to set up camp:

And we acquired parts of AIB's art collection on loan:

And the Library Café was refurbished:

So while it's not in a central location, hopefully now the Library is more at the centre of campus life. The number of tweets complaining about the walk has actually gone down - I'm happy to accept this correlation as proof of our success ;)

Posted on Wednesday, September 16, 2015 | Categories:

7 Sep 2015

Getting to know collections: Collections Review at the Royal College of Surgeons of England

Guest post by Sarah Kennedy, Collections Review Assistant

I often feel that with the constant innovations in technology and the focus that is put on the digital world it can be quite easy to move to a completely outward facing mentality and think less about our actual, physical selves. This is also true for those of us working with collections – we are bombarded with the attitude that we must go digital or decline. We are told that an online presence will make us findable and advances like linked data will break down barriers and forge new links between collections, nationally and internationally. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m all for innovation and I am aware of some really fantastic technology-based projects out there. However, sometimes I think that in the rush to keep up we can lose some perspective and in doing so forget that the physical objects can be as, if not more, important. The opportunity to work with the physical objects and gain a better understanding of their needs was one I was really hoping for in this early part of my career.

As luck would have it the perfect position opened up early this year, Collections Review Assistant in the Royal College of Surgeons of England. My application for the job was successful and in April I made the big move to London. I had some experience of working with similar collections in previous roles and really enjoyed it. I wanted to expand on this experience and learn more about the items and collection management. I also liked the idea that the position would give me the opportunity to work a little with museum and archive collections and professionals from those domains.  Of course I was broadly aware of collections reviews in libraries, usually with a defined purpose, e.g. to weed collections using set criteria, but this Collections Review is something more than that; it is on a very large scale and is innovative and collaborative which makes it all the more interesting.

Like many institutions the Royal College of Surgeons of England collections contain items that span different domains. In 2014, following an award of Designated status to the Library, Archive and Hunterian Museum by the Arts Council England, funding was obtained from the Arts Council’s Designation Development Fund to carry out the pan-domain Collections Review. The aim of the review is to give a high level overview of the collections and use the data gathered for future strategic planning.

The review is being carried out using a single methodology based on Reviewing Significance which was developed by consultant Caroline Reid and a team from University College London (UCL) and is available online through the Collections Trust. The really exciting thing about this review is that it is the first time the adapted methodology has been used across domains or to review library collections. Essentially we are reviewing journals, skeletons, photographs, books, specimens and a whole variety of other items using the same tools.

My colleagues and I conduct the review using specially created rubrics to score units in two different areas – collections management (which includes aspects such as documentation, storage and condition) and usage (including potential usage). The units can be a shelf, a drawer, a box, a bay, one large item on its own… it really just depends on the level of detail you want to achieve. The rubrics provide a framework and we discuss our work on a daily basis to ensure that we are consistent in our approach, as well as scheduling calibration exercises throughout the project.

It is a mammoth task with over 54,000 museum items, over 100,000 books and 2,200 archival boxes to be reviewed and graded. There are three assistants and a project manager running the project and we receive support and guidance from others including the collections managers.

The review is proving to be exactly what I had hoped it would - a chance to really see the full scope of the collections, document good practice, highlight collection management issues, draw attention to important items and most importantly provide data which will help collections managers to prioritise projects and make decisions into the future. On a personal level I now have a much better understanding of collection management best practice and the types of decisions collections managers have to make in all three domains. The collaborative nature of the project also ensures that I am learning a lot about archives and museum collections.

Interestingly, rather than emphasising the differences, the project has made me see the similarities in the way we work; although the processes may be different the overall aim of our work is the same – to look after our collections and to provide access to users. In fact, the experience has cemented my belief that the domains have a lot to learn from each other. It is also thought-provoking that we have encountered similar difficulties across the domains, for example the lack of set processes for documenting and assessing usage of the collections.

This collaboration also means that we are forging links between items in the collections which will be useful for future exhibitions and for researchers using the collections. Significance Assessments are another aspect of the methodology which prove very useful in this regard. They are used to examine items or groups of items in order to establish their uniqueness, importance or relevance to the rest of the collections. This is a very exciting process as staff and invited external experts pool their knowledge and expertise in order to explore the potential, meaning and value of the items in question. They can be used very effectively to make collection management decisions with regard to de-accessioning or actively seeking to complete collections or for planning exhibitions (an activity more and more libraries are becoming involved in).

With this experience I feel more than ever that libraries (along with museums and archives) can benefit from taking a step back and seeking to really understand their collections. Although there is time and effort involved in a review of this kind, a greater understanding allows us to prioritise tasks and items, create manageable work flows and identify worthy projects considering our limited time and budgets. Finding links between different collections also enhances their worth and enriches experiences for users. Even if there is absolutely no capacity for a full review, libraries and other institutions could use the Significance Assessments methodology to examine smaller groups within the wider collections.

If you are interested and you would like to learn more about the Collections Review please feel free to contact me at skennedy@rcseng.ac.uk.

Or to see some of our interesting finds see the Library blog http://www.rcseng.ac.uk/library/blog or follow us on Twitter @HunterianLdn #CollectionsReview