Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Hidden Collections Symposium

On March 29 and 30, I attended the Hidden Collections Program Symposium in Washington, DC. The Hidden Collections program--officially its title is Cataloging Hidden Special Collections and Archives: Building a New Research Environment--is administered by the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR). Its goal is to identify and catalog collections of national significance that are currently invisible to researchers, with the complementary aims of applying description standards that provide interoperability and long-term sustainability for project data and designing streamlined work-flow processes.

The symposium offered grantee institutions the chance to present information about the progress of their projects, share solutions and ask questions. I was there as part of a team that is conducting a parallel study of the projects, called “Observations on Scholarly Engagement with Hidden Special Collections and Archives.” We are looking at the grant projects as an opportunity to learn more about how special collections librarians and curators conduct outreach and work with scholars--and to think about innovative ways to carry out these essential activities. So, during the symposium, we facilitated a workshop asking participants for feedback on our observations to date and ideas about how to implement some of our recommendations.

Image: Portolan atlas of the Mediterranean Sea, western Europe, and the northwest coast of Africa. Attributed to Joan Oliva, ca. 1590. Library of Congress Map Collection. The Library of Congress Geography and Map Division was one of the recipients of a Hidden Collections grant in 2008, for their project cataloging multi-sheet maps of Africa.

The three things I learned that were most interesting:

1. Catalogers are hungry for community. A lot of enthusiastic networking took place! 2009 grant recipients sought out advice from 2008 recipients; recipients working on specific formats (posters, photographs, audio archives) were eager to meet each other; break-out sessions were full of Q and A. The meeting was so successful in this respect that CLIR is now thinking about ways to build this sense of community.

2. Catalogers around the country are developing technological solutions to all kinds of problems, from customizing Archivists’ Toolkit to adapting Office and Google software to processing needs. One particularly interesting idea: using WordPress + CommentPress to solicit user contributions to help with the identification of arcane Islamic manuscripts.

3. If you introduce persuasive new vocabulary to catalogers, they will run with it! Our study team started talking about “scholarly engagement” to describe a range of activities in which collaboration produces new knowledge, and “emerging scholars” to describe the students who often work as cataloging assistants. By the end of the two days, these terms had become a regular part of the conversation.

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