Libraries Rebound: Special collections and institutional mission

Continuing with our series on Libraries Rebound, we’ll now look at the session on special collections and institutional mission. Here we asked speakers to talk about how custodians of rare and unique materials are emphasizing engagement with the mission of their parent institution.

Tim Pyatt from Penn State University spoke about assessing special collections, and aligning with institutional mission. He described a recent assessment exercise as an opportunity to correct alignment challenges — at Penn State (as elsewhere) special collections have been opportunistically built, are underpinned by dedicated or inflexible endowments. To cast a fresh look on the historic base collection, the library dean charged a task force. The task force includes a mix of librarians (none from special collections) and faculty. The project is ongoing, but there already have been positive outcomes. The group has identified collection gaps, and established a policy for deaccessioning materials. Another benefit of a process that included “outsiders” is that there is now more potential for integrating with the “main” library. Special collections also benefits from having gained buy-in from others on campus.

Lisa Carter from Ohio State University told us that distinctive collections are relative to impact; special collection are less about what you have and more about what you do (or better, someone else does) with them. Special collections are certainly embedded at OSU in various ways (providing consultation, presenting in classes, etc.) but it can be difficult to quantify the impact of outreach. Ohio State is undertaking a more formal assessment of their collections, using a slightly tweaked version of the PACSCL survey tool. Measuring the impact of special collections is difficult, because there are few community metrics (Lisa mentioned that RBMS has a new task force on metrics and assessment). She made the point that it is important to connect to the library and campus strategic plans. (I’m pleased that in their discussions about collections assessment, Tim and Lisa both referred to our report, Taking Stock and Making Hay: Archival Collections Assessment).)

Fran Blouin from the University of Michigan talked about how special collections can better serve the campus mission, starting with university archives. As the information structure of the university is changing, there is a frightening absence of retention policies; this lack of organization, the pressure to shred instead of save, and personal storage of official material have all lead to chaos, and created challenges around creation, retention, storage, retrieval, and use of born digital collections. Clearly, university archives need to be integrated in the information flow but the library, let alone university archives are seldom involved in decisions about records creation systems. The university archive should be the center for institutional memory and should be elevated out of libraries and special collections so that they can integrate into the institutional information flow. (Blouin has made this argument for a few years now and I previously blogged about it here). There is an opportunity to develop programs based on collections, rather than building collections to support programs; in this model, the library shifts from a service unit to a partner.

We closed this session with our reactor panel Matt Reynolds (East Carolina University), Rachel Hart (University of St Andrews),
and Steven Mandeville-Gamble (George Washington University). Matt started out by saying that there is a need to get across that Special Collections are not only for the “elite researcher” — it’s important to assert special collections into undergrad curricula early. East Carolina works hard to connect collections with experience – for example, digitizing campus newspapers has been a project that appeals to students. Rachel spoke about using university archives and the record of 500th anniversary to provide an outline for current 600th anniversary celebration (this generated murmurs from those in the audience at institutions that had not yet celebrated 100 years). Steven talked about deassessioning materials no longer relevant to academic programs. At GWU the practice of tying collections to programs has resulting in the creation of new (and endowed) programs on campus. Success with fundraising for special collections has in itself raised the Library’s profile on campus.

The discussion session raised some interesting topics: the challenge of documenting communities that don’t use traditional documentation methods. There was also a debate about collecting tied to larger institutional priorities versus collecting broadly for the long term, with viewpoints aired on both sides. One note on the usefulness of special collections: if they are not being used, it is our job to make them useful and find connections. Sarah Pritchard noted that we need to make the case for long-term commitment to cultural heritage and get buy-in, while Fran Blouin countered that this can be a difficult sale without the materials having a connection to mission. Steven Mandeville-Gamble said that one of our problems with metrics is that, we don’t (often) ask ourselves what success looks like.

The slides from Libraries Rebound have been posted in their appropriate spots on the meeting agenda; we will let you know when the video from the sessions is also up. We’ll continue soon with a posting on the space session.

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