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


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