The National Library of Finland (from Wikimedia Commons).[/caption]
On Monday, 13 August 2012, IFLA’s Rare Book and Manuscript Section hosted a special topic day during the WLIC2012 event. This was a full-day conference held off of the WLIC site at the National Library of Finland. This library sits at the heart of downtown Helsinki and is a beautiful example of 19th century Empire architecture, blending nicely into the surrounding square. The conference included a tour of the library’s main rooms as well as a guided tour of the current exhibitions on offer by our kind host Sirkka Havu, Rare Books Librarian at the National Library of Finland. The conference took place in one of the educational rooms of the library, normally providing around 50 seats, however the day was so popular that at its height there were close to 80 observers crammed into the room, a wonderful turnout! Delegates came from a wide range of countries including U.S.A, Canada, U.K., France, The Netherlands, German, Italy, Switzerland, Russia, Botswana, Brazil, Turkey, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Portugal, Spain, China and Singapore.
In this post, I’ll provide a brief summary of the day’s papers, and provide a link to each of them (where available), and hopefully provide some insight into the discussions that followed.
The day was begun by a welcome from the National Library of Finland and an introduction by Garrelt Verhoeven (University of Amsterdam) on behalf of the RBMS Standing Committee. Both of these short sessions stressed the fact that curators of our documentary heritage collections are ambassadors in every sense of the word: they have to promote usage, they have to preserve and describe their collections, they have to stay connected to the public and the profession, they have to make their collections matter in the modern world.
The first session was themed “Exhibiting special collections to a wider audience”, originally planned to be two papers, was cut short due to the absence of the first speaker and so Laila Österlund gave her presentation on “The ways of using the special collections at Uppsala University Library”. Much of this presentation offered and inside look at how the collections are managed and used at Uppsala, most interesting is the case of the Codex Argentus, or the “Silver Bible”, which has been added to UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register and been given a permanent exhibition within the library. One service that was discussed afterwards was Uppsala’s “Book a Librarian” service which allowed a reader to schedule a time with a curator or specialist for research enquiries.
“We need to realize that our audience, out beyond our physical walls, is not likely just one audience, but many and we can’t really know who will be in that group and how they will find us”
Following the coffee break, the second session, themed “Digital displays for special collections”, featured three papers. The first paper, entitled “Utilizing social media to promote special collections: what works and what doesn’t” was given by yours truly, the author of this blog, and I’ve included my accompanying Prezi below.
The second presentation in the session was given by Dennis Moser (University of Wyoming) on “How Ebooks, Apps, and Other Realities are changing the face of special collections”. Moser used the example of William Gibson’s Agrippa as a jumping-off point to discuss the inherent problems of collecting and curating e-books, hybrid books and virtual texts. These new types of works are challenging the traditional role of a special collections librarian, and staff competencies on how to deal with these will need to change to meet demand. Moser also explored the advantages of meeting potential new users of special collections in virtual environments and social networks and used the example of SULAIR‘s use of a Second Life environment virtual archive.
The third presentation in the session was by Helen Vincent (National Library of Scotland) on “The Library and the display of text”, which was based on the work that her and her colleagues have done for their new publication Exhibiting the Written Word. This presentation provided a great overview on the general challenges that special collections departments face when setting up an exhibition, an environment much more familiar to our museums and galleries colleagues. Vincent discussed the integral issue with displaying a book: one page of a book does not fully express its beauty, interest or importance. She provided some useful tips in considering interpretive text, events and ways of engaging the visitor. She emphasized the develop a story that a visitor could follow and the need to provide ways for visitors to interact with these books outside of the exhibition (providing modern editions for visitors to read through, design handling sessions in which the books on display can be explored closely, develop web exhibitions alongside the physical ones which compliment what is on display).
After a lunch break and tour of the National Library, the third and final session began which focused on the “Strategic use of special collections”. Gillian McCombs, Dean and Director of Central University Libraries at Southern Methodist University (Dallas, Texas) opened the session with her paper entitled “The Scholar / Librarian goes digital: new times requiere new skills and aptitudes”. McCombs paper was a welcome perspective, as she is not a special collections librarian but an administrator who controls the purse-strings of the library. She addressed problem not unique to special collections administration: often a scholar or figurehead is put in charge of an institution that truly needs functional leadership. Her paper also identified a common paradox with academic special collections: they are often the “star” of a library (i.e. the bit that everyone shows off) and the “backwater” (i.e. relatively poorly funded and often with entrenched attitudes towards change). McCombs pressed the audience to become more functional and to look towards co-operative partnerships in order to raise visibility and use of the collections.
Next up was Jennifer Garland and Sean Swanick from McGill University (Canada) with their presentation on “Curating print collections in the digital age”. The main focus of this pair’s paper was trying to maintain relevancy and currency in a new digital age with new types of events centred around exhibitions. They presented from their experience of having recently displayed material from the University’s Islamic manuscript collection. They showed how pairing a small, specialist exhibition with a web-based exhibition, classes for undergraduates and handling sessions raised awareness and use of their collections and helped cure “archival anxiety” for new students.
Finally, Julia Walworth, Fellow Librarian at Merton College (Oxford), closed the session with her paper “Is this a real library, or a museum?”. Walworth presented on the topic of historical libraries being used as museums in Oxford and Cambridge. Many of the old college libraries in these institutions, and elsewhere, still retain period features from the 15th-19th century, and the job of the librarian as not only custodian of books but of the building as well become important. Walworth explored the ways that Merton College, and others, promote, staff and capitalize on “accidental tourists” who are interested in what an old library space was like.
Edwin Schroeder, Librarian of the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library (Yale) provided some closing remarks on behalf of the RBMS group. Schroeder encouraged us to ask ourselves “What is marketing, how can we use it?” and to realize that our audience, out beyond our physical walls, is not likely just one audience, but many and we can’t really know who will be in that group and how they will find us.
The day was closed by a poster session and wine reception. The poster session featured works by librarians and students from Brazil, Germany, Portugal, Turkey, Finland, Sweden and the UK. This was a great off-site day with a wonderful group of people. If anyone would like further insights, please just comment below or get in touch!