Visiting libraries in London is always an exciting experience, but this year’s CILIP Rare Books and Special Collections Group Conference 2015 was particularly interesting as it took place over three days in three very different venues: the Friends Meeting House, Lambeth Palace Library and the British Library. The theme of the conference – “Hidden Collections: Revealed” – served to unite these venues and demonstrated that many issues facing rare book and special collections are common to all institutions and collectors. The conference discussed how collections can become underused or ‘hidden’, but also generated a wide variety of ideas about how to bring them back out into public and academic awareness. Here are the main points I took away from the conference:

This blog post is written by Joanna Baines. Jo is Senior Library Assistant with the Special Collections team at the University of Kent. She was awarded Bruynzeel’s 2015 bursary to attend the CILIP Rare Books and Special Collections Conference.

Collaborative action makes collections discoverable
Collaboration with other institutions and projects can be the key to revealing collections previously hidden. We discussed the benefits of adding records to collaborative online catalogues, such as COPAC and the ESTC. Addressing the conference, David Prosser, Executive Director of Research Libraries UK, talked about the benefits of working on collection development policies collectively. He used the example of the UK Research Reserve project (UKRR), which has been very successful in managing journal collections across academic libraries, ensuring that copies are available across the UK while also allowing institutions to review stock in order to free up space. Taking the success of UKRR and applying to special collections – particularly in relation to more recent 20th century material – is an idea of special interest for me, due to my current work at the University of Sussex Library, where I’m working with the Collection Development team to create a new collection for lesser used 20th century documents. There was a great deal of positive discussion of digitisation as a method to both work collaboratively and increase access. For example, the Ministry of Defence’s Admiralty Library, previously hidden due to issues of national security, has been successfully opened up to a wider audience through its partnership with the Royal Naval Museum at Portsmouth.

The life of a collection is (entirely) dependent on its institution
Investment from institutions behind collections is crucial in revealing hidden material – and this can change over time. The University of Birmingham gained valuable press coverage earlier this summer surrounding the discovery of one of the oldest Qur’an manuscripts in existence; institutions can harness this publicity and make special collections the unique ‘jewel in the crown’ of their research offering. When institutions lose interest or fail to see a collection’s potential, the impact can be catastrophic for material – as illustrated by Karen Pierce’s talk about the Cardiff Rare Books collection. Despite being carefully managed and curated by Cardiff’s main public library for decades, the collection fell into obscurity following a lack of investment and shifting priorities. In a conference focused on bringing underused collections back into the mainstream, the Cardiff example initially appeared to represent the ‘cautionary tale’ scenario for a collection at risk of being dismantled. Fortunately, there is an upbeat ending: the University of Cardiff were able to purchase the collection and now, thanks to ongoing investment in cataloguing, the rare books are open for use by both academics and members of the public.

Think creatively about projects to reveal collections
There are many reasons why collections become hidden. While finances are often at the heart of cataloguing backlogs, sometimes the reasons are more obvious! An inspiring talk by Lara Haggerty from Innerpeffray Library discussed the challenges of attracting visitors when your location is very remote. Working to reveal hidden collections can be a challenge: cataloguing backlogs of material requires significant financial investment and can be hard to justify. Across all three days, speakers discussed innovative ways to promote collections without breaking the bank. Several talks discussed the benefits of hiring students to help with cataloguing material. Although this is sometimes seen as too time-intensive, as cataloguing skills take a while to learn, it has several mutual benefits. As well as becoming more employable due to their newly-learnt skills, students get to know the collections being catalogued and become advocates for the material amongst their peers. There are benefits to hiring project workers, who focus on straightforward tasks which relieves pressure on professional cataloguers. Being able to catalogue rare books and special collections material well is a professional skill in its own right, and much discussion at the conference surrounded how best to harness the knowledge of those working in this field. When cataloguers were working on items from the Cardiff Rare Books collection, they discovered one title had once belonged to the scientist Issac Newton; this fact would not have been uncovered were it not for the in-depth research skills developed by rare book cataloguers. I write about collections for two different blogs as part of my job, so found this discussion particularly inspiring.

Don’t be afraid to try new things
It’s been a fortnight since the conference, and I’m still gathering my thoughts – my colleagues will be hearing about it for weeks to come, I’m sure! Here are some of my final reflections:

  • You may think you are the only institution with a terrifying spreadsheet of items in your stores that aren’t on your catalogue yet. You are not.
  • It is more important than ever before to collaborate with other institutions – whether that’s through big groups such as Research Libraries UK, as part of local associations such as the Association of Pall Mall Libraries, or by getting involved with CILIP RBSCG.
  • Don’t be afraid to try new things. There isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ formula for bringing hidden collections out into the open; knowing which audiences you’re aiming at and how to target them is more important. But never forget signage to your institution/exhibition/library; it’s surprisingly effective. Posters are still useful!
  • The best kept secret to revealing hidden collections? Your staff. You can’t fake passion and enthusiasm for collections; visitors and researchers will remember it above everything else. If your staff are engaged, get them involved with sharing what they’ve learned; who knows who they’ll inspire next?

Thanks very much to CILIP Rare Books and Special Collections Group for organising a fantastic, unforgettable conference – and to Bruynzeel UK for my bursary; I’m going to harness the discussions from this conference into ideas for my MA dissertation. If you’re interested in reading more about “Hidden Collections: Revealed”, you can find my tweets from the conference here and everyone’s tweets from the three days, curated by the CILIP RBSCG, here.