the future of special collections is community

Below is my talk from Acknowledging the Past, Forging the Future, October 21-22, 2014. It was an honor to share a stage with so many fabulous folks. Like everything else published on this blog, the talk below has a CC-BY SA license.

Putting on my program planning committee hat, I want to start by saying that it is such an honor and a privilege to host all of you. I am so proud to be a part of this community.

But, as I have listened to the distinguished speakers on this stage, sometimes I have looked around and wondered, what are we all doing here? After all, forging the future is going to be a lot of work. Let’s review our to do list. We have to digitize our analog collections, create robust, open online platforms for them, and create rich, linked metadata to facilitate discovery. We have to advocate for our value within our communities, developing innovative outreach and instruction programs. We still haven’t settled on perfect practices for collecting and creating access to the avalanche of print and manuscript information that the 19th and 20th centuries produced, but even as we continue to work on this problem, we must substantially increase our capacity to collect, preserve, and provide access to the born digital content that is produced at astonishing volume.

We’re all familiar with these challenges, and the opportunities they present. And yet, we are all here, instead of at our individual institutions, working. Why?

In an attempt to answer that question, I want to reference John Overholt’s wonderful essay, “Five Theses on the Future of Special Collections.” If you haven’t read it, I can’t recommend it highly enough. And, since John released it under a CC BY-SA license, I can riff on it a bit without fear of infringement. So, I want to create my own thesis statement.

  • The future of special collections is community.

In her opening keynote, Sarah Thomas emphasized the need for collaboration at scale in our profession. I think we are all here because we more or less agree that we need to scale up our collaborative efforts in order to meet the challenges we face collectively.

Alice Schreyer has already alluded to one of the barriers to collaboration: we do, at times, exist in an environment of competition. But I think the more significant barrier is a simpler one: collaboration is hard, and we’re all so very busy. How do we scale the walls of our individual institutions, and reach out to one another?

I have a couple of suggestions.

We’ve talked about open access, but I also want to mention the open source movement in software development. Open source creates development communities around the problems that software can solve. In these communities, shared expertise and open dialogue are tools for solving these problems collaboratively.

I propose that we view our profession in open source terms. Just as we think about distributing our collections, I would encourage all of us to think about distributing our expertise and our resources to one another. Conferences like this one are good places to have these conversations, but can we extend the conversations into our daily work? Multi-institution collaborations shouldn’t be occasional or superficial, they should be fundamental. Library leadership should develop structures that treat collaboration as core work.

I also consider the word community in another sense. My esteemed Case Western colleague Jill Tatem says that archivists “build strong communities through awareness of shared history.” Shared history can be a loaded term. We all know that there are many communities, with many histories, represented in our archives. There are many communities who use our collections, for many reasons. We must engage these communities as partners in documenting shared histories, and creating and exposing an archival record that is vibrant, complex, and diverse. If we tear down the walls between our professional communities, our user communities, and the communities we wish to document, and treat all of our stakeholders as true collaborators, that will increase the value, relevance, and resonance of our collections more than any exhibit program or show and tell session ever could.

To build a community of stakeholders, we need to advocate, but we also need to listen. To ensure that our collections are truly open, and to facilitate transformative uses, we shouldn’t ask ourselves what our users want, we should ask them, and we should find ways to incorporate their answers into the core of what we do.

We can’t predict the future, but if we build relationships that help us clarify our priorities, meet our challenges collaboratively, and discover opportunities that we can’t yet imagine, we may be able to forge the future we want to see.


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