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


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


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


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.