RBMS14 Summary

The 2014 RBMS Preconference in Las Vegas was spectacular. I always leave RBMS feeling so inspired and stimulated, and this year was no exception. I have posted my notes from Plenary 1, Plenary 2, and Plenary 3. Here are a few of my takeaways:

Openness: “The future of special collections is openness” –John Overholt. Among all the incredible talks at the preconference, Michelle Light’s plenary takedown of the “permission to publish” culture in special collections and archives truly stood out. I will admit to having been guilty of protective and overly conservative thinking with regard to open access for digitized special collections. Light’s talk was a stimulating reminder to remain fully committed to openness. I want to live in a culture of free access to information, transparent exchange of scholarly ideas, and creative uses and reuses of the materials I am privileged to work with. I have to actively participate in that culture as a professional. Fortunately, I got a bit of an opportunity to do so at the Wikipedia edit-a-thon hosted by Merrilee Proffitt and Bob Kosovsky at the end of the conference, where I learned a bit about Wikipedia culture, and started a page (which I intend to finish!) on the Cleveland Free-net.

Metadata dreams and nightmares: Brian Schottlaender’s opening plenary talk exposed some major challenges for special collections when metadata for our unique materials scales up into aggregators such as ArchiveGrid, and other web content platforms such as Wikipedia. Immediately following that plenary, I saw a wonderful session on Digital Humanities projects, in which Anne Bahde, Mitch Fraas and Melanie Meyers, and Alison Jai O’Dell** all described projects that use metadata in innovative ways to create online collections that are richer and more meaningful than the “standard” digital collections we typically create. It was a heady morning for me, thinking about how we spend so much time generating “correct” metadata that can fail us spectacularly at scale, as Schottlaender demonstrated. And, digitizing our collections and describing them at item level using Dublin Core or a similar descriptive standard often has the consequence of removing those items from their context in the online environment. The projects presented at the DH panel offered elegant solutions to this quandary, using metadata to create and reinforce context. However, they don’t address the scale question, which still troubles me. Of course we have to digitize at scale. And of course we need good metadata aggregators that take our items and place them in new contexts, where they can be compared with related items in other physical repositories. But I want to spend more time thinking about how we can also engage in these smaller-scale projects to find ways to better represent the relationships in our collections. The items in collections relate to one another, and to their creators, and creators relate to one another also. Many DH projects explore ways to represent these relationships digitally, which is very exciting. Staring into Schottlaender’s metadata “hot mess” can be paralyzing. How can we do anything when we don’t know what the future looks like? What if we get things spectacularly wrong, and make the mess even bigger? Hearing about the three wonderful DH projects helped me remember that we have to keep moving forward regardless, and sometimes we have to relax and “just play” to discover new ways of exposing our collections online.

**The projects described were: “Dear Einstein” at Oregon State University (Anne Bahde, not live online yet, but stayed tuned to @rarelibrarianne on twitter for an announcement soon); Mapping Books (Mitch Fraas); Bookstamps from the Offenbach Depot (Melanie Meyers); and Book Artists Unbound (Allison Jai O’Dell).

The Market: My first experience actually working in a special collections setting was as a graduate assistant to the wonderfully knowledgeable Charles McNamara, former Curator of Rare Books at UNC. Collection development was my primary responsibility in that job, and Charles taught me so much about navigating the market and building collections. As a professional, collection development has always been part of my responsibilities, but it hasn’t always gotten my full attention, as I’ve focused on instruction, outreach, and digital projects. One of my major responsibilities in my new job is to create a collection development policy for my department, so the market is very much on my mind these days. Hearing Nina Musinsky’s wonderful plenary talk reminded me how much I benefit from bookseller knowledge. So much of the knowledge that I (hopefully) pass on to students and exhibit viewers about materials has been derived from bookseller descriptions. As a profession, we are so fortunate to work with the incredible individuals in the trade. However, as both Musinsky and Steve Enniss pointed out in that plenary, the trade is changing, and there are a variety of forces with the potential to destabilize the relationships between librarians and dealers. We need to think more about how we can nurture and strengthen our mutually beneficial relationships with the trade.

Teaching the seamless research experience: I really enjoyed the panel on “teaching ambidextrously” with Regina Lee Roberts, Mattie Taormina, Alanna Aiko Moore, Heather Smedberg, and Lance J. Heidig, which focused on instructional collaborations between special collections librarians and subject specialists. All of the speakers emphasized the value of presenting special collections as part of a “seamless research experience” incorporating research materials and strategies from all parts of the library. I am fortunate to have had some wonderful classroom collaborations with brilliant subject specialists (you know who you are!), but I have generally tried to look for the most interesting and valuable ways to incorporate special collections materials into classroom teaching and curriculum development. Thinking about presenting special collections as a normal part of library research had never actually occurred to me (shame on me), but it’s a spectacular idea, and I’m excited to work with my fantastic new subject specialist colleagues in this way moving forward.

The state of the profession: One of the best things about this year’s preconference was the incredibly strong group of first-time attendees. I love RBMS, and it’s great to see so many fabulous new people interested in the organization and its annual conference. At ALA, I attended the Membership & Professional Development and Diversity committee meetings, and I was excited to see all the great work both of those committees are doing to support people entering the profession. AND, while I missed Info Exchange, I heard that there was a long line of people who responded to the call for job announcements. The state of the profession seems strong! Yay!

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