RBMS14 Opening Plenary: Book as Archive


The description above for the Opening Plenary for the RBMS 2014 Preconference is taken from the preconference website. My notes are below.

Brian E.C. Schottlaender

Schottlaender focused on on the theme of “special collections at scale” in a digital information environment. He started by showing some usage statistics from UCSD, indicating that just a few years ago, circulation and reference statistics in special collections at the institution were high, but dwarfed by the hit counts for digitized items. More recent stats showed increased circulation, decreased reference and gate counts, and a new way of looking at web statistics, focusing on social media, digital exhibits, and records in the Online Archive of California. He used these numbers to illustrate a point about the administrator’s view of special collections. As we have all heard before, these unique materials distinguish research libraries from one another, and digitization can create new users and new uses of these materials. He also described his experience as a special collections user in the digital age, saying that the internet makes him a more sophisticated user. He arrives at the reading room knowing more about what is in the collection and what to expect from the experience because he can do so much preliminary research online.

He then transitioned to arguing that the great challenge and opportunity for special collections in the current information environment is to demonstrate coherence at scale. To exemplify this challenge, he described searching various online platforms for primary source material related to one of his own research interests: William S. Burroughs. In metadata aggregators such as ArchiveGrid and DPLA, he found large numbers of hits and greatly varying results when he used different name forms (“William Seward Burroughs,” “William Burroughs,” etc.). He also described a failed attempt to search Tumblr, our profession’s social media platform of choice, noting that the search interface is simply awful. He resorted to Google to find results for William S. Burroughs on Tumblr, and found a few hits, none of which were from the country’s major Burroughs repositories. He also noted the importance RealityStudio for Burroughs enthusiast, a community-driven site created and maintained by fans, which has rich content, but no contributions from the institutions holding major Burroughs collections.

He succinctly described this apparent disconnect between the most valuable primary source content and our ability to find it online as a “hot mess.” He challenged those of us in the profession to take on this problem as we move forward with digital content creation, and cited the CLIR Committee for Coherence at Scale in Higher Education as an early and important attempt to address these issues.

Andrew Stauffer

Stauffer began by quoting Philip Larkin’s poem “Church Going.”

Yet stop I did: in fact I often do,
And always end much at a loss like this,
Wondering what to look for; wondering, too,
When churches will fall completely out of use
What we shall turn them into, if we shall keep
A few cathedrals chronically on show,
Their parchment, plate and pyx in locked cases,
And let the rest rent-free to rain and sheep.
Shall we avoid them as unlucky places?

He wondered aloud whether libraries of [circulating] books will also “fall completely out of use” like Larkin’s churches, and went on to discuss what might be lost if this happens. He described the experience of finding copies of 19th century books in the circulating collection at UVA that had particularly interesting provenance markings, such as inscriptions and annotations. These books are often considered unsuitable for rare book collections, and are in jeopardy of being discarded as collections are dramatically weeded. He notes that books published between 1820 and 1923 are especially vulnerable–research library policies frequently place books printed prior to 1820 in special collections, where they are safe from weeding, and books published after 1923 are not in the public domain, and are thus unlikely to be discarded because of a freely available digital copy.

Stauffer noted that 19th century books can be studied as interfaces between readers and texts, where readers left traces in the form of marginal notes and inscriptions. These artifacts provide valuable evidence about the culture of readership of the time. But, because circulating books are often not viewed as artifacts, but rather as copies of texts, they may be weeded without consideration for their unique qualities. Stauffer is aware that libraries are under intense pressure to weed for a variety of reasons, and may not be able to afford to maintain a level of “bibliodiversity” that provides a physical record of all the unique copies of books currently extant. He also understands that special collections also have limited space and scope, and transferring large collections of 19th century books to rare books stacks is not a viable solution. As a way of exploring this issue at scale, he founded the Book Traces project, which asks users to look for 19th century books in circulating collections that contain unique elements, and to post photographs of these books along with some basic metadata.


During the q&a, Schottlaender was asked to address the vulnerability of 19th century books as a library administrator. He said that it will never be sustainable to argue for the value of individual copies of books “one at a time,” but that there might be ways to address the problem at scale, and preserve large collections of 19th century books in certain repositories.


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