“Dare to share” – new approaches to long term collections management

I’ve spent today with a lot of librarians (mostly) at the Dare to Share conference, jointly organised by the British Library’s Preservation Advisory Centre and Research Libraries UK (RLUK – formerly CURL), whose vision is “that the UK should have the best research library support in the world”.

The conference aimed to consider how libraries and other research institutions can benefit from integrating preservation into broader, long-term collections management strategies, with a particular emphasis on collaborative preservation ventures. I understand that an earlier RLUK/BL Preservation Learning Project identified high demand for skills development on strategic issues in collections management amongst staff in research and higher education libraries, and the importance of preservation within an encompassing and strategic perspective.

You can judge for yourself from the papers (to be now published at http://www.bl.uk/blpac/dare.html) and to some extent from the twitter stream, but I’m not sure to what extent the conference achieved its aims.  There was a strong line-up of speakers, mixing a case study approach with some wider reflection on collaboration and strategic planning.  Speakers from the University of Leeds, the Koninklijke Bibliotheek (in the Netherlands), and the United Kingdom Research Reserve (UKRR).  A particularly interesting paper was presented by Roger Schonfeld on research including into needs/demands of faculty (ie academic staff) library users in the US.

However there was an overwhelming focus on managing print collections – perhaps inevitable, given the conference organisers, but rather disappointing, particularly when Neil Grindley of JISC emphasised that “Universities need access to useful, informative, interesting and novel content”.

Sounds to me like something archives have in spades – but the conversation wasn’t really broad enough to encompass beyond print (= librarian shorthand for published?) whether analogue or digital.  The very name of the UK Research Reserve – a fantastic project – implies a much broader focus than its scope encompasses: low-use research journals.  I agree with Deborah Shorley, head of UKRR, that the “research information infrastructure” is more important than individual collections.  However surely such an infrastructure must be broader than the published? – it must encompass raw reseach data, unpublished records in all forms and formats.

Extensive digitisation of holdings was also a theme of the day.  One of the main things that bothers me with this is the focus on known and catalogued holdings – this makes the digitisation process easier of course (my experience with Church Plans Online is proof!).  However a circle of usage then ensues – which may be vicious or virtous, depending on the content of the uncatalogued holdings.  What happens to the unknown material – do marginalised communities or interested groups continue to be excluded by the volume of cataloguing backlogs?  can we justify digitising some archives when others remain uncatalogued even at the fonds or series?

In library terms, usage is often a criteria in appraisal.  This is different for archives, where once items are selected for indefinite preservation as archives and catalogued, actual usage (or lack of) is not often – ever?? – used as a criterion for disposal.  The work described by Brian Clifford at the University of Leeds to categorise (printed) collections into the heritage, legacy, self-renewing (ie used for current teaching & research) and finite (no longer relevant to the University and considered for withdrawal, an estimated 10% of stock) is interesting.

A lot was spoken about high level initiatives, policies and strategies but less on examining the whys of appraisal.  Perhaps I still had last week’s hat on.  But it was accepted by speaker after speaker, and unchallenged by the audience, that “we can’t keep everything”, the continual growth of print collections cannot be sustained, preservation of “what we need to keep”.  Some massive assumptions encompassed here which will affect collections management decisions – whether self-consciously or not.

I guess especially in the current climate it will be harder than ever to balance the present needs of students and researchers in an individual institution against a long-term duty – yes, a duty, not just a responsibility – to the past and future.  Surely there’s a place for both and, rather than either or?  But the harder it is, the greater the imperative to have a broad and deep conversation at both the institutional and the national levels?  Perhaps more strategic or systematic collaboration over the idea of the distributed national collection of published materials might leave a little more scope for attention and funding for the distributed national collection of unpublished and unique – the “useful, informative, interesting and novel content” or the national “research information infrastructure”?


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