Readers, I know some of you just come here for the interesting stories about OHSU, Oregon history, or the history of the health sciences generally. If you're of that type, you might want to stop reading now. Being the only Oregon attendee of the preconference of the ALA Rare Books and Manuscripts Section, I do feel compelled to share my notes with area colleagues who may not have had a chance to go to Philadelphia. Colleagues, this post is for you.
A caveat: these are my notes, not a transcript, and as such they are both highly subjective and very selective. I suggest you check out the conference web site to see the full schedule (and what I didn't attend). I believe that some of the presentations will be available on the site eventually; in the meantime, here are some thoughts:
Impressionistic Notes from RBMS Preconference, “Join or Die: Collaboration in Special Collections,” June 22-25, 2010
Workshop: Building Collections: Acquiring Materials and Working with the Antiquarian Book Trade
I have the reading list and course outline for those who are interested. The class had two (and then four after lunch) booksellers who kept chiming in –which made for a fascinating double perspective on acquiring rare materials. Unfortunately, the course instructors got only about half way through the topics to be covered.
Some key points:
• Develop a collection development policy that reflects your active collecting interests and either mount it on your website or send it directly to sellers. This is a really great idea, both for you and the seller.
• Don't go to auction yourself, always work through a bookseller who acts as your agent (for lots of reasons, primarily because auctions are very risky ways to buy material).
• Develop a robust, respectful relationship with all your bookseller contacts; always be prompt in replying; pay as quickly as possible (although they do understand institutional bureaucracy); treat the sellers as the subject experts they are and always feel free to ask them questions about their stock.
• Think about eBay, but don’t think too hard. It can take a lot of time, so only invest in monitoring it if you think the materials you want to collect will come there rather than the book market (e.g. ephemera, realia).
Plenary 1: “Philadelphia Area Consortium of Special Collections Libraries: Achieving Sustainability through Shared Endeavors”
A “how we done it good” session. Eric Pumroy from Bryn Mawr made the distinction between “common problems” and “shared problems”—the latter being the only ones that will be solved consortially. I think he was saying that consortia can help as much (or more) with advocacy than with stewardship (i.e., you make yourselves more visible to the public, even if you can’t always agree on which processing models to follow).
Now the part to scare the OHSU Archivist with: PACSCL received a CLIR Hidden Collections grant to tackle member backlogs. All collections processed are pre-20th century, non-institutional records. The processors' quota was 2 linear feet per hour (!). All were student workers who were trained in a mini Boot Camp. The suggested processing workflow, which used Archivists Toolkit, is available on their web site. Manager Holly Mengel noted that this pace “is really, really fast” and left no time to find out what the collection was about, or what it covered. The processors note preservation needs and “gems” for possible exhibit. This proposed pace/methodology was the “toughest sell” for member libraries, and Mengel asserted more than once that they would prefer a pace of 4 hours/linear foot, and that the minimal processing was only good enough to discover which collections should be made priorities for full processing.
Her final point was a good one, I thought: MPLP works for some collections, but it’s not based on age or even format of the materials: success will be determined by the original state of the collection when accessioned (i.e., if it comes arranged in good order, all is well; if it comes jumbled up, you’re going to need to spend the time to do it right). I think this is an excellent observation, and is certainly borne out by our experience with, for example, Harold Osterud’s papers on the one hand and School of Nursing records on the other.
In the Q&A, someone asked whether the group has developed any metrics to measure increased usage of the collections now that they have been “unhidden”—and the answer was no.
Seminar A: Cutting to the Core: Letting Go of Functions and Services
Moderator Merrilee Proffitt spent a bit of time talking about how hard it was to get speakers for the panel, since everyone wants to know how to stop doing things, but few have actually addressed the challenge.
One of the speakers was Mark Greene of MPLP fame, who is at the University of Wyoming’s American Heritage Center. He noted that proactive, “strategic thinking about efficiencies” in the unit got them “difficult-to-quantify good will from university administration.” They tightened up the collection development policy to limit intake of out-of-scope materials and deaccessioned 75 collections of 10 cubic feet or more in size. Other tactics involve “macro-appraisal” and appraisal in the field, both of which help to determine what materials come in the door at the archives. The first determines what institutional record series are wanted before records are shipped, and the latter lets archivists survey collections in situ before accepting them. The first of these might be doable at OHSU in conjunction with the (brand new!) records retention schedule; the latter would require a lot more staff.
Greene also noted that he has made digitization an equal priority with reference and processing (although there were not many details about that). Under-processed collections that are served out to patrons can be “triaged back” to processors for fuller processing to help ease the burden on public services staff. Which is what we've been doing on an ad hoc basis here, since we're not big enough (yet) to need a formal process.
Eleanor Brown talked about Cornell’s move to “tiered” reference services, breaking users down into three categories of priority. Tier 1 was Cornell affiliated users; tier 2 included “onsite patrons, scholars, regional historians, local outreach, peer institutions, and state organizations”; tier 3 was everyone else. In particular, they have stopped responding to requests for appraisals, devote little time to “random” questions, and refuse to jump at the request of commercial firms with short timelines (there is no longer an option to pay more for rush services, because they refuse to privilege patrons with money—which I think is an interesting idea).
Case Studies: Panel 1: Outreach
Richard Ring from the Providence Public Library talked about a few projects, including one collaboration with a local printer to publish an occasional newsletter based on his blog posts. Once he had one issue, he then suggested to readers that they could become sponsors (with various levels based on size of gift). A Friends group grew naturally out of that effort. His advice was “Do something first, and then ask for money.”
Discussion Session: Small and Medium-Sized Libraries
What turned out to be a lively discussion on primarily three topics: assessment (we should all be doing more), Web 2.0 tools (lots of us are using blogs and Facebook, fewer on Twitter), and budget cuts from the recession (mostly on whether hours have been cut and an appointment-only policy instituted). A group will be forming on ALA Connect, so watch that space for continuing discussion.
Seminar E: Collections Processing: Innovations in Student Involvement
Both panelists, Goucher College and the Amistad Research Center, had CLIR grants to hire students for specific projects. There were some good tips on getting all the students on the same page, in terms of processing knowledge, but most were applied in groups. For students and volunteers that come in sporadically or sequentially (as they do here at OHSU), you could still apply the following suggestions:
• Have a sign-out sheet with a small comment box, so that the processor can note problems or the need for more supplies or some question that they need to discuss with the archivist the next time they come in. This helps both the student and the archivist remember where they were in the process.
• Send an email survey out after the student/volunteer/intern leaves, soliciting feedback on the process
• When starting a new collection, go over the accession sheet and any correspondence pertaining to the collection with the student to give them as much context as possible about where the materials came from, etc.
• Start the process by having the student do a general collection survey, including apparent arrangement, processing plan, and the outline of a biographical/administrative note to really put the whole collection in perspective.
Seminar G: Bridging the Gap: Communication Between Catalogers and Archivists
Since I am an old rare books cataloger and Karen is an archivist, we’ve had a long time to observe and develop the yin-yang dynamic between us, leveraging the strengths of each to best advantage. Margaret Nichols (cataloger) and Kathy Wisser (archivist) did a good job of outlining the basic differences (and similarities) in approach to book cataloging and manuscript cataloging. There were a lot of references to cowboys and farmers getting along.
As a side note: both my morning sessions on Thursday were at the Chemical Heritage Foundation, which is such a awesome space that I was tempted to skip a session and walk around more. I definitely recommend a visit for all you science history geeks out there who may find yourselves in Philly with some free time.
Tour: American Philosophical Society
The tour was a nice peek into the shop that holds original Lewis & Clark journals, Neil Armstrong’s transcript of the Apollo 11 mission, Ben Franklin’s whole library, etc. The coolest thing I saw was an original sketch of Franklin's suggested method for steering a hot air balloon: harness eagles to it! (yes, eagles, not turkeys…)
[I was caught in a vicious thunderstorm on my way from the APS to the Union League, and so missed the Thursday night plenary. But I made the reception!]
Seminar K: Taking Our Pulse: the OCLC Research Survey of Special Collections and Archives
I had to leave part way through to make my train, but I did see Jackie Dooley’s overview of the report and the first response, from Bill Joyce at Penn State Libraries. He made a couple of interesting observations/comments.
• Focusing on the uniqueness of individual special collections can limit their usefulness by confining them to silos. This I suppose was particularly meant in the context of large universities with multiple special libraries, but is more broadly applicable, I think, to scattered collections at different institutions. If we can work together to reunite resources that have been spread around (think Lovejoy’s papers at OHSU with the AMWA and AWH materials at Drexel, for instance), we can better serve the user, but also better advocate for and preserve our collections.
• Beware the politics of gifts. I didn’t note to myself exactly what Joyce said here, but I believe it was in the context of space, i.e., don’t take in out-of-scope collections. My note was more interpretive: “Collaboration could help reduce political fallout, if we could direct important donors to other repositories.” I think that’s very true, and while we may be doing some of that now, we’re not doing as much as we need to do. It is, to some degree, a matter of trust with other institutions, not just an awareness of who’s collecting what. Space may need to become a bit more scarce before we really start engaging each other on this level.
Survey at: http://www.oclc.org/research/activities/hiddencollections/default.htm
RBMS 2011 will be in Baton Rouge, LA, June 21-24; theme TBA.