Earlier this month, I was given the opportunity to attend the CILIP Rare Books and Special Collections Group Conference 2016. Held over three days in Liverpool, the conference addressed the challenges and rewards of developing diverse collections and audiences within the rare books, special collections and archive sector, and of creating an inclusive profession equipped with the resources to make such development possible.

This blog post is written by Samantha Smart. Sam is an Archivist at the National Records of Scotland. She was awarded Bruynzeel’s 2016 bursary to attend the CILIP Rare Books and Special Collections Conference.

Does your collection support diversity?
The keynote address, given by Kay Jones of the Museum of Liverpool, asked delegates to consider our own collections and services, starting with two questions that lay at the heart of the first two days of talks: do your collections represent a diverse body of people, and do a diverse group of people use your archives? As an employee of a national archive service, the National Records of Scotland, my own answer to the first of these questions was a qualified ‘yes’ – we hold administrative records of people who have lived in Scotland from the 12th century onwards, including statutory and parish registers, church records, court records, records of different groups (fishermen, bonnet-makers, gardeners, tailors, lighthouse keepers … orphans, those receiving legal aid, political campaigners, conscientious objectors), records of taxation, business or organisational archives, estate papers, and so on, meaning that it is possible to find a reasonable cross-section of Scotland’s population documented within the NRS collections.

Official voices
However, these records are predominantly created by (or for – thank you, clerks of yesteryear) elite or official institutions: the government, the monarchy, the church, the court. Many of the people mentioned in the records had little or no control over the way this ‘representation’ of themselves was made manifest; even witness statements or declarations made by the accused in a criminal case are mediated and shaped by the court officials and protocols. Thinking about the collections and users of our own organisations as a starting point in this way made it easy to take away practical ideas and inspiration from each of the talks that followed the keynote address.

Community engagement = meaningful interaction
Most of the speakers on the first day showcased projects or initiatives that had been designed to address one or both of these questions through community engagement. Kay described the outreach work carried out in her role as Curator of Urban Community History with different groups within Liverpool, ending with a number of moving quotations from visitors to the museum who felt – sometimes for the first time – that their stories had been faithfully represented in a heritage context.

British Army, LGBT+ and the grassroots
Suzanne Rose from the University of Sussex introduced a number of projects undertaken by staff of the Mass Observation Archive in partnership with community groups, charities or grassroots organisations. Sarah Griffin and Maria Nagle cited the example of their work with the British Army, which involved using specific items from the collections of York Minster to initiate discussion and exploration, drawing on the narrative inquiry method of analysing meaning via the construction of stories. Finally, Catherine O’Donnell of the People’s History Museum in Manchester recounted the process of developing their LGBT+ collections, putting together exhibitions to present these stories and histories, and engaging in dialogue with community groups to ensure that any representation is as full and nuanced as possible.

Revealing the hidden history of HIV
The focus of the second day was on diverse collections, and we heard from representatives of three different types of institution: a local authority archive, the special collections service at a university, and a library representing a particular section of society. Helena Smart of Liverpool Record Office discussed gaps and silences within traditional local authority collections by introducing us to three collaborative projects that had led to the record groups held within Liverpool’s local archive becoming more diverse and representative of the city’s communities. I was particularly interested in their participation in the Now+Then: Three Decades of HIV in Merseyside project, which included the collection and cataloguing of material from Sahir House, an information and support centre in Liverpool for those affected by HIV, as I had catalogued a very similar collection for an analogous organisation in Edinburgh last year (the papers of Waverley Care Trust, held at Lothian Health Services Archive).

Pop-up punk

We then listened to Valerie Stevenson of Liverpool John Moores University speak about the challenges of displaying their punk collections in a pop-up exhibition in a busy city centre shopping centre, a venture which engaged new audiences while simultaneously raising questions of freedom of expression, censorship and acceptability (my limited knowledge of punk tells me that this probably means the exhibition was successful!).

Glasgow Women’s Library
The final speaker before the group embarked on a series of afternoon visits to different repositories was Wendy Kirk of Glasgow Women’s Library, who shared her experiences of ensuring that the library’s collections represent the activities of as broad a range of women as it can through projects such as Celebrating Commonwealth Women’s Writing and Mixing the Colours, an initiative to capture women’s experiences of sectarianism in Scotland. This demonstration of GWL’s commitment to an intersectional feminism, which acknowledges and celebrates the many facets of female identity, was an important reminder that new meanings and resonances are made possible when the items within our collections are set in dialogue with different records, different people, different groups or in different contexts.

Workforce mapping
The final day of the conference invited delegates to scrutinise the library and information workforce itself. Yvonne Morris introduced CILIP’s new Diversity and Equality Strategy, which seeks to analyse and address the demographic imbalances identified in CILIP and ARA’s Workforce Mapping report. To cite a few telling examples, the survey found that 78.1% of the workforce was female (though there were around twice as many men in management roles as there were women, and men in general were more likely to be earning over £30,000); that the highest proportion of the workforce fell into the 45–55 age bracket; and that 96.7% of respondents identified as ‘white’ compared to 87.5% of those in the general UK Labour Force Survey. Particularly as this was only a preliminary discussion of the findings and an overview of the likely focus of the Diversity and Equality Strategy, the talk provoked a great deal of discussion, both in the tea break that followed and as part of the subsequent panel session, which also involved the two speakers representing professional networks (Tracy-Ann Smith of the Diversity in Heritage Group and John Vincent from The Network).

Questions to take away
I ended up thinking a lot about the issues raised in this final set of papers in particular on the way home and came up with a handful of half-formed questions, or strings of questions, about how the statistics outlined in the Workforce Map can form the basis for practical, positive action. Is it problematic that our workforce is predominantly female? (Initial thoughts: not inherently, but we should be scrutinising how library and archive work is perceived, analysing how this might fit into larger discussions of the devaluation of ‘women’s work’, and making sure that we are advocating the worth of information work.) Are we providing sufficient opportunities for colleagues of different ages to learn from one another and creating a culture where knowledge can be shared? Are employers open to and supportive of different models of flexible working such as job-sharing that might simultaneously help both employees with caring responsibilities and those who would like to work fewer hours as they approach retirement, say? Do particular organisations do enough to ensure that participation and decision-making isn’t reserved for those who possess particular characteristics (e.g. being a certain age or sex or from a certain ethnic or class background, or having, say, an ‘authoritative’ voice, being tall or slim, and so on) or who have the capacity to perform in specific sanctioned ways? (By ‘sanctioned’, I mean something like ‘culturally legible within a professional setting’.)

I could have put together a list of questions twice as long and quite as heavy on the parentheses for any day of the conference; each talk left me wanting to learn more and discuss more, and to go back to my organisation and put some of the ideas into practice. I’m very grateful to the organisers of the conference for putting together such a balanced and inspiring programme; to my fellow delegates for sharing their thoughts over the course of our three days together; and especially to Bruynzeel for the bursary that allowed me to attend.