Monday, June 22, 2009

Rare Books and Manuscripts June 2009

The RBMS "Preconference" took place in Charlottesville, VA, June 17-20, 2009. The theme of the meeting was "Seas of Change" and there was a special emphasis on "new and emerging voices," but the meeting was also devoted to a retrospective look back over RBMS' fifty-year lifespan.

I presented at a seminar called "Finding Common Ground: CLIR Postdoctoral Fellows on Scholarly Engagement with Hidden Special Collections and Archives." Our aim was to show the value of "scholarly engagement": the value of holdings are increased and research becomes more efficient and exciting when librarians and scholars colloborate. Specifically we focused on the opportunities that arise on the "common ground" of special collections for conversation. What do librarians learn about their holdings when they talk with scholars, and what do scholars learn about their research areas when they talk with librarians? We presented several "case studies" that demonstrated the potential of the special collections conversation to lead to new knowledge. But because the session was a seminar, we were also really interested in hearing about the experiences of session attendees. People told many wonderful stories about special collections interactions that led to concrete outcomes like publications and performances, but also less tangible outcomes like creating excitement for primary source research among high school students. Out of these stories, we drew up a list of ideas about how to encourage meaningful, productive conversations in the special collections environment.

I was pleased to discover that the issues our group addressed were also addressed--somewhat differently--in several other sessions. One in particular that seemed to represent, perhaps, the conference's high point was "Public Services and 'Un-Hidden' Collections: What We Know and What We Need to Know," with Shannon Bowen from the University of Wyoming; Jennifer Schaffner of OCLC Research; and Victoria Steele of the New York Public Library (but until recently, head of special collections at UCLA). After presenting evidence of the impact of the "More Product, Less Process" approach to processing backlogs, the presenters made the case that this shift has led to more pressures on public services. Ie, as more finding aids and even container lists have become available to researchers, especially online, reference requests, copy orders and other kinds of research services have increased to the point that many libraries are finding it difficult to both process and service special collections. It was recommended that special collections staff need to keep careful statistics to show their impact quantitatively, but also that other kinds of evidence needs to be amassed. (Hence the connection to my group's "scholarly engagement" session.) A call also went out for a sexier name for "public services"! If anyone has any good suggestions, let me know and I'll pass them along.

--Gabrielle Dean

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