Monday, July 07, 2008

RBMS: Informal notes and impressions

For those of you who were interested in the program for this year's Rare Books and Manuscripts Section Preconference but unable to attend, I'm posting here the informal notes I wrote up for staff here at OHSU (slightly expurgated). If you have any questions or comments, feel free to contact me at homref @ ohsu dot edu.

RBMS Preconference, June 24-27
Rare and Special Bytes: Special Collections in the Digital Age

June 24:
Booksellers’ Showcase
UCLA Special Collections Tour, 1:30-4:30
Tours of the Charles E. Young Research Library, Center for Primary Research and Training, and the History & Special Collections for the Sciences Division of the Darling Biomedical Library.
The Center for Primary Research and Training is a new initiative that seeks to pair scholars with collections, to train scholars in basic processing and bring expertise to collections description and arrangement. Students and faculty, from UCLA and other institutions, are paired with a collection and produce a finding aid, inventory, or other document describing the collection.

June 25:
Plenary I: Digital Special Collections, The Big Picture
Speaker Alice Prochaska (University Librarian, Yale)
“This is our time” was the opening theme, meaning that special collections are coming to the fore in research libraries across the country. What are special collections? An ARL Working Group on Special Collections will soon issue its report, in which the focus will be on collecting materials in ALL FORMATS (read: born-digital), heightened emphasis on collection analysis, and coordinated collection development.
The report also advocates: minimal restrictions on access, transparency in provenance, effective records management, exposing hidden collections, and maximum “discoverability.” The mantra here was “NO DIGITIZATION WITHOUT METADATA.” Which is well-taken, and (but) was disputed somewhat in later sessions.
Serious issues that come into play with digital collections include: digital curation (how do we prevent materials from being taken out of context, or misinterpreted?), capturing user-based descriptions of collections, the need to cope with storage volume, and the lack of technical solutions (or, the need to wait it out). We also need to build digital infrastructure and be able to address the increased demand on reference services that accompanies the mounting of large amounts of data on the web.

Plenary II: Permissions Limbo, Intellectual Property and Licensing
Speakers Peter Hirtle (IP Officer, Cornell) and Maureen Whalen (Assoc. Gen. Counsel, Getty Trust)
Whalen, a lawyer, has just finished a program in library science and has her MLS. One theme: “Beware the quitclaim.” (The form that you have a donor sign that says they assign copyright to you. It’s almost never entirely theirs to give away!)
She also highlighted the Bridgeman case (Bridgeman Art Library v. Corel Corp., 1999) that declared there could be no copyright on digital reproductions themselves: so, what basis is there for charging fees or limiting access to digital copies of works in the public domain? (none?) What right do we have to charge licensing fees? (maybe none) Also, you cannot copyright facts, so inventories and metadata are probably not protected; users can grab this information and repurpose it legally (probably).
In Whalen’s opinion, the law is moving in the direction of allowing thumbnails as fair use, but caution!: thumbnails have not yet been defined under law. Orphan works legislation is not yet law!
The final word: due diligence usually saves the day. Document everything, all attempts to contact copyright holders, all information you can get from your scholars/patrons about their efforts to contact copyright holders… It will help you if you are ever sued.
Peter Hirtle talked about “lessons that we can learn from Google.” He referred us to Charles Bailey’s bibliography of works about Google Books (
Basically, his point was that libraries readily criticize Google, but have we done any better?

Seminar C: Teaching and Outreach in Special Collections, from K-12 to Undergraduates and Beyond
Speakers Lisa Berglund (Professor of History, Buffalo State College), Yolanda Theunissen (Map Curator, U. Southern Maine), and Pablo Alvarez (Rare Book Curator, U. Rochester)
Berglund admitted that faculty are oblivious—or shy—about approaching special collections for curricular support. She encouraged librarians to work with faculty, suggesting that less valuable books (working copies) be used for hands-on experiences, while more expensive titles can be shown in facsimile or digital versions. Now is the time, she thinks: with the rapid changes in information technology, students are primed for understanding the changes in book technology and production and are very open to information on the history of the book and its impact on scholarly communication.
Theunissen described her programs for working with K-12 students, all of which were developed by education majors who were looking for internships. And Alvarez talked about his history of the book class, offered for no credit through the university extension program to members of the general public.

Seminar E: Collecting Strategies, Working with Private Owners
Speakers Leslie Morris (Curator of Modern Books and Mss., Harvard) and Joan Winterkorn (appraiser, Bernard Quaritch Ltd)
Morris handed out Harvard donation forms, which specifically note that copyright is NOT transferred with the donation. She stressed the importance of formalizing every donation with a deed and a letter of acknowledgment.
She also talked about the changes in the tax law, and form 8283 which donors use when taking donations as tax write-offs. The new rules about materials over $5000 are being enforced—Harvard has been audited on this—and donations of materials valued at more than $5000 MUST be kept together for three years before any of the material can be sold or discarded.
Winterkorn brought her perspective as an appraiser of private collections, noting especially that the donation (or sale) process “is always new to the donor.” Never assume they know their options/rights, or that they understand your internal processes. Also, look at a collection when it comes in, try to ascertain whether it’s complete, and ask the donor about things you might expect to see but which are missing from the papers as offered.
In the Q&A, several interesting points came up. One person asked whether any libraries are paying for appraisals to be done on collections that have been offered as donations; the consensus is that this is not ethical, since the library has something to be gained by the donation.
Q: can you assign a monetary value to the research value of a collection? Winterkorn noted that this is hard to justify when appraising, but Morris cautioned that curators must always focus on research value over monetary value.
Q: how can you cultivate donors? Morris and Winterkorn both agreed that the donor relationship was a very personal one, dependent on what curators were willing to do (walk someone’s dog, in one instance!) and what donors wanted to get from the transaction. Winterkorn noted that “archives are very people-intensive. One becomes a therapist and an advisor.”
Q: what are the ethics of publishing purchase prices of collections bought by libraries? It drives prices up, and increases expectations that collections are worth enough to sell on eBay rather than donate to repositories.

June 26: (all day at Getty Center)
Plenary III: It’s All About Access
Speakers Karen Calhoun (OCLC) and Tom Scheinfeldt (Omeka)
Calhoun talked about the “Calhoun Report”. Her motto was “integrate outward, not inward”—meaning, spend your time and effort developing integrated search tools for the web rather than getting all your local back-ends on the same platform. (Cornell actually dropped a project to create a unified system for its local digital collections and opted for the integrated web search instead.) This is what she called the “GLocalization” of library collections.
She insisted that librarians have a lot to bring to the table in discussions of scholarly communication and digital assets, most notably preservation expertise and the outreach skills to bring scholars’ work to the attention of other researchers in other fields.
Echoing Prochaska, she agreed that metadata makes things findable, but encouraged libraries not to get stuck on perfecting the metadata: “some access is better than no access, really!” She actually said “Quantity trumps quality.”
Scheinfeldt talked about the open-source exhibit software, Omeka (

Seminar I: Blog Boot Camp
Speakers John Overholt (Harvard), Nancy Kuhl (Yale), Stephanie Horowitz (Charles Babbage Institute), and Kathleen Burns (Yale)
A quick overview of how to set up a blog.

Getty Tours, 12:30-5:00
Tour of the Getty Research Institute; self-guided tours of the rest of the campus.
At GRI, people who wants to use the collections must register and be issued an ID for use in the library, although most of the collections are available through ILL. We got to visit the special collections reading room, the conservation lab, and the closed stacks areas. They used to use thin metal bars on the shelves for earthquake protection (they would slide into place much like the bar on a roller coaster car), but now use straps that are sort of like bungy cords (though less elastic) that can be tightened with buckles. The library makes custom boxes for EVERY item it adds to the collections, which also provide some protection from falls.

Plenary IV: Selection, It’s Not Just for Curators Anymore
Speakers Richard Szary (AUL for Special Collections, UNC Chapel Hill) and Merrilee Proffitt (OCLC)
Szary identified six themes for digitization of special collections: user demand; identifying/unifying subsets of collections; “expeditionary approaches” (get in there and do it, worry about perfecting it later!); prioritization; incorporating digitization into existing workflows; and developing a cache of repurposable objects (repurposing by repository as well as by users)
He cautioned that if we engage in massive digitization without proper contextualization (through web exhibits, e.g.), users “won’t know what to do with it all.” So, we need to think like curators when prioritizing materials for digitization. What we select “sets the terms of the discussion”—so, beware bias, etc., as you would when creating an exhibit or selecting for acquisition. (But later, he said we should separate the digitization from the “digital publishing”, noting that there are others out there who can do this for us. It seemed contradictory to me, but I may have missed a subtle point.)
Don’t neglect the basic duties of special collections: acquiring, preserving, making accessible materials in all formats.
Recalling Prochaska and Calhoun, Szary’s advice was to give the digital object the same amount of metadata that the physical object has: folder-level access is ok for single items! The opportunity for much more metadata is there in digital systems, but do we have to take it every time?
Also echoing Prochaska, he agreed that “this was our time”—but insisted that it was because special collections has “always dealt in exceptions”. Everything we get is non-standard and outside of normal workflows, so we can easily adapt to these new technologies and new formats. I thought this was a really interesting point.
Proffitt was essentially reading a presentation prepared by Barbara Taranto, who could not make the conference. Her main point was that selection for digitization is a “red herring:” we’ve already collected the physical material, so the selection has been made. It’s all worth digitizing if it was worth collecting in the first place. So, you don’t need curatorial expertise: open up the digitization processes to other departments, other staff at your institution.

June 27:
Plenary V: If We Build It, Will They Come? Strategies for Teaching and Research
Speakers Matthew Fisher (Professor of English, UCLA) and Stephen Davison (UCLA Digital Library)
Fisher is a scholar (medieval manuscripts, paleography) who has started his own digital collections to fill what he sees is a huge gap in library offerings. He urged libraries to consider the purposes to which scholars will want to put digital objects, encouraging high-res scanning, lots of metadata, lots of information on provenance (of the physical object and the associated metadata, interestingly enough), and repurposable files with harvestable metadata.
Davison echoed the need for repurposable files and mentioned OAI-ORE. He also advocates systems that encourage and capture user-supplied metadata and user feedback.

Huntington Library Tour, 11:00-6:00
Tours of the library buildings; self-guided tours of the museums and gardens.
The new library building, opened only recently, has a huge conservation lab (where they actually make their own knives, cut calf and other skins for bindings, and have a complete wet lab), a new reading room, and curators’ offices. A recent archival acquisition is the complete papers of poet Charles Bukowski.

2009 RBMS in Charlottesville: 50th Anniversary Preconference.
Keynote speaker will be Robert Darnton!


Anonymous said...

Sara, thanks for the very thorough notes! I'm glad you raised the "no digitization without metadata" banner that was waved during the first plenary. I almost wrote about this in my own notes (, but my posting was getting long and I wanted to get to the next day of conferencing!

This statement is so opaque that no one can disagree with it. In digitization, you will always have some metadata (even a file name is metadata). I would have liked to see a discussion around this statement, particularly a discussion that ties into demonstrated researcher needs. I also think that for different materials, what constitutes adequate metadata probably varies considerably.

I'm also looking forward to the line up for the 2009 preconference, particularly Darnton and Blouin.

Sara Piasecki said...

Thanks Merrilee. What I "expurgated" from this section was my comment to our local folks that this comment--and similar ones by Richard Szary and others--and really made me rethink how we approach metadata for our local digitized materials ( I've really been afflicted with the "no-field-left-behind" attitude, I think--which has seriously hampered my ability to get digital materials loaded at all. I may have to revert to a "folder-level" type of description, and then pledge to go back later to flesh out the record with additional information. Which is more efficient? I guess we'll need to try it both ways to find out.