“If it is controversial, we have to talk about it.”

Susan Hamson (Columbia) came out with this zinger. We were talking about public services and delivery for archives, special collections and rare books. I think the topic that day was ILL of special collections, a real hot potato.

How can we get more people’s fingers on the pages and in the boxes? Not just in reading rooms, but on the web? Over the past three months, the RLG Steering Committee for Special Collections Delivery tackled questions at the public services end of the lifecycle of unique material. Dennis and I listened in as Cristina Favretto (Miami), Mattie Taormina (Stanford) and Susan sifted through creative ambitions to “do it better.” The committee asked, “What is the collective mind? What to stop doing? Who has the most innovative practices?”

Mattie, Cristina and Susan each asked their administration what changes management could support. They settled on four projects for starters: sharing (really sharing) special collections, balancing copyright management and risk, tapping the expertise of users, and best practices for scan-on-demand and photography. If you want to participate in one of these projects, put your hand up.

I felt a bit as if I was watching Wall-E sorting through the detritus of past cultures, considering each piece thoughtfully and then picking up projects that could change the world, system-wide, for real. In every case, at least one or two of the trio had good reasons not to tackle the topic at their own institution, but agreed the project would have an impact. In a Friday afternoon email volley, Susan wrote:

“Are we representing the interests of our institutions or do we move forward representing the interests of the profession and the patron?  ILL is tricky, permission fees are too–but what are we doing if not pushing the boundaries to engage a debate and discussion?  We’re not establishing policy for our institutions, but we are professionals engaged in the work of exploration and, maybe, change.  If not where we sit but some place else.  We’re not proposing that our institutions throw caution to the wind and abandon all that it good and holy–we’re just pausing to think about something new.  Putting it out there doesn’t make it so (well…).

“Now I’m not comfy with the ILL thing, but I still want to put it out there.  We’re archivists, dammit!   We have super powers (my bone folder is the source of all my super powers).”

Some practices are (for the moment) too locally specific to address in projects that transcend any one institution: paper call slips and other 1950s workflows, system-wide metrics for use of collections (my pet peeve), Flickr and non-profit alternatives, “a bi-coastal OAC” (thank you, Bill Stingone, NYPL), permissions fees (just permissions, not rights, are out of bounds for now), and a paradigm shift in roles and job requirements for librarians and archivists in special collections.

We’ll pick up those tough topics soon, eh?

Thanks to the folks I interviewed who helped me create the charge to the steering committee: Jennie Levine (University of Maryland), Jackie Dooley (just out of UC Irvine at the time), Anne van Camp (Smithsonian), Karen Weiss (Archives of American Art), Bill Stingone (NYPL), and Jodi Allison-Bunnell (NWDA). Special thanks to Beth Yakel (Michigan) for your support, and your commitment to metrics.

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