Uncategorized

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.

Advertisements

on being a responsible monopoly

It seems that every professional conversation I’ve engaged in lately has touched on the tension between openness and branding in digital cultural heritage. That may be a bit of an exaggeration, but it really is coming up a lot.

Openness

The open culture movement is a very exciting trend in our field. More cultural heritage (CH) institutions are putting more metadata and digital reproductions online with as few barriers to access as possible. RBMS 2014 preconference attendees recently assigned the hashtag #bestplenaryever to Michelle Light’s rousing talk challenging the “permission to publish” culture, and its associated fees, that has arisen in our field. Light made an ethical argument about our responsibility to serve scholarship by providing as much access to material as possible. She also argued that requiring permission to publish is probably more trouble than it’s worth. Institutions that are able to make significant amounts of money charging publication fees are probably losing most of it in the labor required to manage the permissions documentation. The final nail in the “permission to publish” coffin was probably driven at the same time Light was preparing her talk, as the University of Arkansas Libraries made embarrassing news by asserting “intellectual property rights” over material for which they do not hold a copyright. Peter Hirtle just published an excellent (and scathing) explanation of the legal implications of Arkansas’ actions on the LibraryLaw Blog.

I hope that’s the end of the bizarre practice of requiring users to seek permission to publish material from our institutions just because we have physical custody of that material. But there’s much more conversation about openness going on in our field. There are a variety of grassroots movements, such as OpenGLAM, that encourage us to use our positions within CH and academic institutions to strengthen the public domain. It seems that there’s a new announcement of a major historic image set being released under a CC-BY license every day. Instead of building our own portals to collection information, the GLAMwiki community encourages us to put more information in Wikipedia, where is far more visible and useful. The Digital Humanities community is finding incredible ways to analyze, manipulate, and visualize CH data and metadata, and they are constantly hungry for more. Feeding scholarship is what we do, and having so many new ways to do it is incredibly exciting. Openness is where it’s at, it’s where I want to be, it’s the present and future of cultural heritage, and the academy.

Branding

Another trend shaping the profession within the specific context of research libraries is the desire to leverage special collections, archives, and other unique assets to distinguish libraries from one another. Increasingly, we hear the argument that general research collections will become more and more uniform in the age of digital information. Special collections will be the primary way that libraries are distinguished from one another. Organizations such as the Association of Research Libraries have fostered a great deal of discourse around this argument, bringing special collections out of the periphery and into the center of conversations about the future of academic libraries. This is obviously very positive for those of us who work in special collections in academic institutions.

From an administrator’s perspective, this thinking leads to a desire to leverage special collections to “brand” our individual institutions as places with unique, relevant, and exciting offerings. Good branding is incredibly important. It helps us explain our value within the context of our increasingly resource-strapped institutions, and it gives us a way to tell a story about ourselves to users that can excite and motivate them to explore our collections, services, and spaces (I hope). And, from a deeply personal perspective, I work damn hard for my collections at my institution, all in the service of my users. Branding gives us a sense of identity that helps us feel good about the work we do.

Tension

I recently read a wonderful essay by Ed Rodley about the “virtues of promiscuity” for museums. The article argues that we should stop trying to create “digital analogues of our existing museums” because “virtual museums… [fail] to take into account the reality of how people use the Internet. [People] don’t go to museum websites” (emphasis mine). His proposal is that we stop creating carefully designed websites and portals, and focus on making shareable metadata (including digital surrogates of material) broadly available. He makes a strong argument for this kind of “promiscuity,” noting that we can make ourselves more relevant in the digital era by embracing the open and distributed nature of Internet culture.

He does address the desire to brand ourselves and its role in our choices to attempt to control the way information about our collections is presented and used online. He tries to resolve the inherent tension here by arguing:

The more we sow these seeds of culture and the more effective we are at seeing those seeds take root, the more likely museums are to see cultural ideas persevere in the constantly-changing world.

By aligning CH institutions not just with the technology of the digital information age, but also with its principles and norms, we can ensure the endurance of engagement with the very heritage we work to preserve and promote. It’s a beautiful sentiment, but I still fear that we run the risk of losing a valuable and potentially crucial opportunity to tell our story when we entirely forsake branding for openness. Obviously it doesn’t have to be “either/or” (as Rodley acknowledges), but these tensions have been coming up quite a bit recently in my own work, and I am often challenged to strike the right balance. I imagine others struggle with the same issues.

Monopoly

I’m currently taking an online course about copyright. The very first thing we learned is that copyright is intended to create a “limited monopoly” on cultural expressions, thus creating market value where none might exist otherwise. CH institutions also hold a monopoly over many forms of cultural expression, as sole physical owners of unique materials. How do we wield this power responsibly? Openness has the obvious appeal of serving our mission to promote, disseminate, and provide access to our collections in support of scholarship, education, and other forms of creative use. Branding is a tool we use to strengthen our foothold in a world where support for traditional institutions of education and culture is rapidly eroding.

I would argue that our attempts at branding often miss the mark. We tell the story we want to hear, not one that resonates with a generation raised in a world where immediate access to rich and networked information is a given. (And yes, I am aware that this is not true for everyone, and I am making assumptions that are deeply rooted in privilege. Access to networked information and its relation to privilege is a subject for a separate post entirely.)

As I’ve said many times before, it’s incredibly exciting to be an information professional at the dawn of an information technology revolution, but it’s also frightening. The choices we make will shape the future of our institutions. And we do this not having any way to predict the outcomes. Bethany Nowviskie recently gave a wonderful talk on extinction at Digital Humanities 2014. The end of CH institutions as we know them could occur in my lifetime. The choices we make as a profession now could precipitate that death.

That’s a bit dramatic, but I do think a lot of this tension derives from our basic fear of extinction as a profession facing incredible challenges. But of course, we’re also facing exciting opportunities that our predecessors of just a few decades ago couldn’t have imagined.

Because I can’t predict the future, I tend to choose openness over branding. It makes me feel better about myself and my work today. But I’m very glad I’m not alone in making these choices. Working through these issues with colleagues is one of the main reasons that I love this work.

The Great War’s reach and visual history

I’m preparing an exhibit on World War I, which has been something of a challenge given that I knew little about it before embarking on this project. Like many exhibits, it fell in my lap–a private collector offered to loan us a set of stunning WWI posters to display in the library. With the WWI centennial upon us, it seemed a perfect opportunity to showcase our collections related to the war. But, since I’m new in my job, there were the obvious first questions: What collections do we have? And what stories can I tell with them?

It turns out that there is a strong connection between Cleveland and the history of the war. Newton D. Baker, the Secretary of War, was also a Mayor of Cleveland and a Western Reserve University (WRU) trustee. His papers are at the Western Reserve Historical Society. The Lakeside Unit, the first US military contingent deployed abroad, was a medical unit organized by Cleveland surgeon and WRU faculty member George Crile, and consisted of many medical personnel from the Cleveland area. The Dittrick Museum on campus is actually currently displaying a wonderful exhibit on the Lakeside Unit.

We have quite a bit of material in our special collections related to the war as well. Particularly notable are the Benedict Crowell papers. Crowell was the Assistant Secretary of War and also served in the capacity of Acting Secretary of War. The collection contains a great deal of correspondence and other records related to the prosecution of the war. Notably, there are several letters from Woodrow Wilson to Crowell addressing various war-related matters. Other relevant holdings in special collections are described here.

I’ve become particularly interested in all the material we have related to the war in the university archives. I’ve been wondering: How did American universities respond to the war? What was the experience like for students? The answers I’ve been uncovering have been quite interesting. With the US declaration of war, both the Case School of Applied Sciences and Western Reserve University changed dramatically. The declaration came on April 6, 1917, and by the end of the month, both universities were requiring students to participate in military drills in order to prepare them for service. Many students and faculty enlisted in the summer, and universities struggled to maintain operations during the 1917-1918 year.

During the summer of 1918, the government considered lowering the mandatory draft age to 18 from 21, which would have emptied universities nationwide. Many university administrators, including those at Case and WRU, protested that the US would need educated men to lead the country in peacetime. The army was also discovering an increasing need for educated personnel, such as engineers, doctors, and dentists. Thus, a compromise was reached: the Student Army Training Corps (SATC). In the fall semester of 1918, all eligible male students remaining on campus at Case and WRU were actually enlisted in the military at the same time they were enrolled in the university. The military paid their tuition, and built barracks near campus for them to sleep in. They drilled daily, and were marched to class. Class time was the only time they were considered students. The rest of the day, they were soldiers in training. The plan was to allow them to receive an education, while also preparing them for military service, and establishing formal relationships between institutions of higher education and the war effort. Many men of college age still chose to enlist. The government began issuing propaganda telling them that the best way to serve their country was to stay in school, where they could still wear a uniform and participate in the military. We have hundreds of pieces of correspondence between university officials and the US government arranging this program. Considering that these were only two of many universities participating in the SATC, this gives a sense of the immense bureaucracy of the war effort.

letter from woodrow wilson to benedict crowell Wilson_letter_19180905_2

Above: Images of a letter from Woodrow Wilson to Benedict Crowell, about Wilson’s desire to fully control foreign propaganda related to the war. One of many letters related to the administration of the war in our collections. (From the Benedict Crowell papers, currently housed in the KSL Manuscript collection.)

I’m very interested in how students reacted to all of this. Reviewing student newspapers, I found little about the war in student newspapers until the US entrance in 1917. This surprised me, given that there was quite a bit about the war in Europe in major American newspapers at the time. After April 1917, the student coverage of the war effort seems quite flippant, focusing mostly on the fun of drilling, wearing uniforms, and carrying rifles. I’m sure this voice in the papers doesn’t tell the whole story of the students’ reaction to the war, especially as some of their enlisted and deployed classmates were wounded or killed, but due to the nature of our institutional archives, there is less personal documentation of the student reaction to the war than the administrative reaction to the war. The yearbooks from Case and the various colleges of WRU vary dramatically in their presentation of the war. The WRU yearbook from 1918 is somber, while the Case yearbook from that year looks more or less the same as those in other years, with some added pictures of military drilling. I haven’t yet looked at other student publications.

There are a number of challenges for me in building this exhibit. The material isn’t exactly the problem–it’s incredibly rich. As anyone who has ever done archival research knows, history is messy, complicated, and fragmented. There are so many small stories represented in the archives. For example, the US Army assigned a military instructor to WRU to train SATC students. The army was supposed to pay his salary, but the individual involved actually tried to hustle the university for more money. That story probably won’t make it into my exhibit, because I have no way to represent it visually–it’s just something traced through reading a series of plain documents in folders. The immensity of the war effort bureaucracy that I described above is one of the most interesting things about the WWI story that I’ve uncovered through this project, but again, how do I communicate that visually? Stacks of archival boxes just don’t make for a compelling exhibit.

And most importantly, how do I represent the students accurately and honestly? I don’t believe that student publications represent the full spectrum of student thought on the war, though of course they are important documents. We don’t have many unpublished documents from students that might provide access to a more unguarded voice.

Exhibits are about 3-dimensional artifacts. When one works with collections that are primarily textual in nature, it’s a real challenge to build something that will both engage visitors and teach them something interesting. I am always looking for ways to communicate the richness of the exhibit research process through the reductive lens of the exhibit itself. Suggestions welcome. 🙂

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!

RBMS14 Closing Plenary: Library/Archive as Place

rbms14_plenary3_abstract

The description of the closing plenary from the RBMS 2014 Preconference above is from the preconference website. My notes are below.

Jim Reilly

Reilly took the most pragmatic approach to the plenary theme of “library/archive as place,” discussing current thinking about environmental control of physical archival material. He began by asserting that environmental stability is not as important as was once thought. Instead, maintaining temperature and relative humidity within a range over time offers demonstrated benefits for collections. Specifically, temperatures between 35 and 55 Fahrenheit are ideal for special collections materials. Maintaining a temperature in this range can slow the deterioration of collections by four times that of room temperature conditions. Combined with relative humidity between 30 and 50%, collection deterioration can be slowed sevenfold. Reilly also noted that this conditions can mask a “host of sins,” including acidic paper and metal fasteners. So, proper environment reduces the urgency around item-level processing.

Reilly also focused on sustainability. Obviously, constant environmental control is generally at odds with lowering one’s carbon footprint. He noted that by using ranges, instead of absolutely values for temperature and RH, it is possible to experiment with turning environmental controls off for periods of time (such as overnight), and allowing spaces to “coast.” This may reduce energy usage over time, increasing sustainability and decreasing costs, even if reducing temperatures to 55 or below initially seems an insurmountable barrier. He cited UK PAS 198 as a standard that incorporates this latest research, and builds in sustainability concerns.

Emily Gore

Emily Gore is the Director of Content for DPLA, and she talked about that institution’s role as a virtual place for aggregating local content. She described the content and service hubs model that DPLA uses to feed content from individual institutions, some of which are quite small, into the DPLA architecture. DPLA’s excellent API offers a platform for playing with metadata from a wide variety of sources. But, as Gore noted, there are significant challenges to the DPLA model. For example, there are currently 26,000 different rights statements associated with images in DPLA. Thus, users have no way to browse by simple rights categories such as “public domain” or “orphan work,” etc. She is currently working on a major project to standardize rights categories, which will (hopefully) provide a model for all of us digitizing content in the US.

Shannon Mattern

Mattern gave and extremely well-written and dense talk on the aesthetics of special collections spaces. I will admit that my brain was a bit fried from the fabulous information overload that is RBMS, and I was unable to take any notes that would do this talk justice. Fortunately, you can just go read it (and view the slides) yourself on Mattern’s blog.

 

RBMS14 Plenary 2: Marketplace

rbms14_plenary2_abstract

The description above for Plenary 2 of the RBMS 2014 Preconference is taken from the preconference website. My notes are below.

Nina Musinsky

Musinsky offered a bookseller’s perspective on the current state antiquarian book market and the forces that are operating on it. She noted that the market currently operates in a climate of scarcity; there are fewer customers interested in antiquarian books, and there are fewer materials in the market, because so many of them have been purchased by American research libraries since WWII. Since the 1970s, these libraries have been collecting less, and focusing more on other duties. However, our work still drives the antiquarian book market to a large extent.

She called out the Internet as a major force changing the market. It has introduced price competition, a focus on digital scholarship within the academic community, and the increasing emphasis on looking at books as artifacts, rather than texts. In response to these pressures, focus among booksellers is increasingly on “unique” materials, such as special copies of books, manuscripts, and ephemera. Libraries no longer desire multiple copies of books, so “common rare books” have become “dead weight” for booksellers.

She noted that foreign language study has been pushed to the “outer periphery” of academic study, and so academic libraries rarely purchase books in non-English languages for textual study. At the same time, an increased cultural focus on images has driven libraries to demand, and booksellers to supply, more and more illustrated books. She knows that special collections librarians often teach students to study books as visual artifacts, rather than texts, and encourages us to ensure that the students are also aware of the value of the textual content. She described several examples of books she has sold recently in detail, reminding me how much I benefit from the wonderful bookseller descriptions of books that I have purchased to use in the classroom an in exhibits.

Stephen Enniss

Enniss is the current director of the Harry Ransom Center, famed for its impact on the market for modern literary manuscripts, which it collected gluttonously through much of the latter half of the 20th century. Enniss began his talk by acknowledging his own discomfort with this legacy, but went on to describe other trends in the literary manuscript market that are driving (increasingly higher) prices, and threaten to destabilize the relationships between research institutions, manuscript dealers, and authors.

He described several recent high profile sales of literary archives, which garnered 7-figure prices. These sale prices have been prominently proclaimed in the press, but Enniss argues that they don’t necessarily represent market-driven competition. As he describes it, traditionally the institution to which an author will sell his or her papers is selected before any price is discussed. Manuscripts dealers serve as matchmakers in these situations, helping authors find institutions in which the collections will be valued and used. Once an institution has been selected, then exclusive negotiations on price begin, with both the seller and the buyer feeling motivated to achieve a fair price.

According to Enniss, there is a new player involved in these negotiations: the literary agent. Agents have traditionally negotiated contracts between authors and publishers, so it is somewhat natural for them to extend their services to archives sales. However, because of the potential for publicity, agents might be focused on finding the best price, instead of finding the best fit for the collection, and so introduce price competition by requesting bids from multiple institutions. Enniss warned that this trend has potential to curb our ability to build the research collections needed to fulfill our mission, and reminded us that “The market doesn’t just happen to us; it is our market too.” He described his ideal market, in which institutions would not compete with one another, but would focus on building unique strengths, for the overall improvement of the research collection environment.

Michelle Light

Light approached the plenary them of “marketplace” from a different angle, considering the ways that special collections and archives sell their own materials. She challenged us to question our use of “permission to publish” fees, which are common. Light argued that such fees are frequently not legal. She cited several authorities to note that because we do not hold the copyright for much of our material, we may be committing “copyfraud” by requiring our users to pay us for permission to publish intellectual material that we do not own. She noted that such fees have been common, and that there are certainly good reasons for charging them, such as the expectation of recovering some of the cost of caring for the material over time and protecting ourselves from copyright infringement claims, but argues that these fees are not only questionably legal, but also unethical, and antithetical to our institutional missions.

Light argued that when we charge permission fees, we are only punishing those good citizens who request our permission to publish. It is nearly impossible to prevent people from redistributing content once it has already been digitized. Often, those who choose to request permission are scholars who are the strongest supporters and most reliable users of special collections. By burdening them with fees to publish material from our collections, we may well be contributing to the decline of scholarship using our collections. She also addressed the specific concern of the use of special collections material in commercial publications. Many feel that if another entity is going to make money off of material in our collections, we should be able to share in the profits by charging fees. However, Light notes that commercial publications often have broader distribution than non-commercial venues, and thus offer the greatest visibility for our materials. “Widespread visibility of our content would make for a better, not a worse world.”

She went on to suggest that we can still make money from our materials by commercializing it ourselves. We can produce and sell prints and other items displaying images from our collections. Light closed by citing the new Reproduction and Use policy she wrote for UNLV, available here.

 

 

RBMS14 Opening Plenary: Book as Archive

rbms14_plenary1_abstract

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.

Discussion

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.