Fran Blouin, talk at UC Berkeley

The UC Berkeley Libraries are going through a future visioning and planning exercise and are bringing in a number of outside speakers to help spur thinking in a number of areas. This is called the New Directions initiative. Since the Berkeley campus is close to where I live, I’ve been meaning to attend one of these talks, and found the perfect opportunity with Fran Blouin’s recent visit. (Note: if you want to watch or listen the talk yourself, the webcast/podcast can be found here)
Fran Blouin is the director of the Bentley Library, a special collections library at the University of Michigan. The Bentley is home to Michigan historical collections, and the university archives. Blouin was asked to speak on special collections in the 21st century. I found several aspects of his talk particularly intriguing.

He started out by talking about the shift from physicality to the digital. Increasingly, attention is shifting to digital collections; largely scholarship wants this shift to happen, Blouin claims. Digital has been supplemental, but is increasingly moving towards “adequacy.” I am taken with the idea of digital becoming increasingly adequate for many types (but not all) scholarship, and the idea that adequacy allows us to serve many needs. In discussion, there was pushback against digitization, that digital surrogates don’t fill in for the importance of materiality. While there is a place for materiality, Blouin underscored that the digital surrogate is increasingly adequate for many purposes. Digital may in fact create new opportunities for scholarship. There will be an interweaving of digital and print, just as print and manuscript are currently integrated in many collections.

So what’s rare about rare books? Providing access, for one thing, Blouin says. Institutions take rare books and other treasures out of private hands (or keep them from private hands) in order to support a public good. Digitization helps to further this goal, and supports the democratic goals that many such institutions have. We now have enough books in our (special) collections, Blouin says, to support history of the book and other such studies. Books will for the most part be available digitally, so we can shift attention to manuscript and visual materials, or materials that will continue to be uniquely held. Putting manuscript materials online is complicated, and thought needs to be put into how to do this. I agree with this. The model of turning each page in a book doesn’t work with archival collections, somehow.

University archives: the record and reputation of the university, where you go for accountability. There has been what Blouin characterizes as a “seismic change” in university archives: the introduction of the personal computer, centralized data files (a la Peoplesoft), dSpace, email, numerous peculiar file formats… Couple this with the fact that there are no longer departmental secretaries who have the function of maintaining files and transferring to archives. The legal surround is also greatly changed: FERPA, FOIA, IRB, and privacy concerns are all part of the new landscape that should be (but are not yet) pushing us to be more concerned about records and record policy. Archives are or should be part of an information flow, and systems need to be designed to route information this ways. Information flow needs to be considered before documents are created. Having university archives in the library is problematic, because this puts too much hierarchy and too many barriers between the central recordkeeping agency of the university. Michigan is looking at creating a system that “validates” (in the digital archiving sense) documents and moved them to a central file. Privacy concerns in many institutions work contrary to the record keeping function of the institution. First urge is toward “read and shred,” and Blouin wants this conversation to move more towards the accountability and responsibility that are part and parcel of a public institution. For me, Blouin underscored the complexity of electronic records. Perhaps moving this collecting activity to a higher level, organizationally, would help. But as special collections themselves become increasingly digital, I wonder if this wouldn’t create additional pressures.

Special collections as an academic center: we need to be less a place that “holds” things, but increasingly need to be a place where there are encounters with people and texts that are as important as a faculty member in terms of what can be learned from them. Special collections need to develop visible academic programs, and need to connect with other circles of discourse. Course built around collections may be one way to do this. The Bentley has a new lecturer in history who works to teach from collections.

Archival divide: In the 19th century, archives and historians were on the same path. Both archivists and historians were centered on personalities. There was a view that good histories could be validated by archives. Nowadays, there was been a turn away from archival authority, and an interest in history from below. Experience and memory are important, and this undermines and in some ways invalidates the archival record (as it’s is constructed now). Problems in the bulk of materials, and also into the identification of authorities in the appraisal process. With a shift towards every source being valid, identification of voice or subject is too diffuse for identification. Archivists are working at their roots, and identifying “important” individuals and institutions. Challenges in serving many constituencies, bringing in different kinds of materials, bringing in different audiences. Putting materials online in some ways has drawn attention away from engaging with this historical field.

Solutions to this divide? Scholars need to understand how librarians think (as they understand other colleagues’ mindsets when working in an interdisciplinary fashion). Archives need to become integrated with academic work. Get academic input on the content of collections, on language used in finding aids. Special collections need to be continually reinvented in relationship to the campus: in terms of technology, academics, administratively. There was acknowledgment in discussion that it would be difficult for librarians to be perceived as the equal of faculty.

Blouin is writing a book of the subject of the “archival divide” and I look forward to its publication.

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