Past Forward: New ways forward

This is the second in a series on the OCLC Research Library Partnership meeting, Past Forward. Stay tuned for more!

In my last blog post, I underscored the “one library” theme — how special collections are integrating into the broader library and beyond. In this post, I’m going to take a look at new ways forward, which mostly (but not entirely) have to do with collections.

The first panel of the conference, “Managing Twenty-First Century Special Collections: Born Analog, Born Digital, and Born Difficult” focused on digital collections in a variety of contexts. Dave Thompson (Wellcome Library) talked about digital collections, both born digital and digitized, and invited the audience to view things from the point of view of the materials, as well as from the perspective of users. Do the format, metadata, rights statements support use and reuse? His presentation reminded us that librarians are custodians, not owners or even the main users of our works. Erin O’Meara (Gates Archive) works in a context where print and digital are integrated. Working with digital materials has caused her to rethink traditional archival practice, and step back in an attempt to understand collections that can’t be taken in visually (at least right now, in an time when we lack adequate tools for processing digital collections). For example, she employs ethnographic strategies, interviewing donors in order to understand the activities that led to creation of records.

The presentations also highlighted how difficult going forward can be, in a “one step forward, two steps back” fashion. Michelle Light (University of Nevada, Las Vegas) talked about early born digital efforts at UC Irvine, highlighting particular challenges and solutions in a “let’s make it up as we go along” fashion. For example, UCI opted to grant online access to the Richard Rorty papers by mimicking patterns in the real world (users who requested access first needed to acknowledge use policy before they could be ushered into a virtual reading room). Rights issues and tangled mess of creators, and in order to give online access, staff undertook item-level processing, which is distinctly non ideal and definitely not scalable, particularly in light of the daunting quantity of digital materials. In Greene-Meissner terms, we need tools and techniques that will take us from the tweezers to the shovel.

Details for the UCI Richard Rorty Papers, from Michelle Light's presentation
Details for the UCI Richard Rorty Papers, from Michelle Light’s presentation

Other presentations that illustrated how special collections are moving forward on the collections front were in the panel on “stakeholders.” Katherine Reagan’s presentation on the Cornell Hip Hop Collection is the prime example of striking out in new ways. What surprised me about this collection is that it was developed not to support academic programs at Cornell, but to document an important social movement. This noble goal was not without challenges — the library faced significant skepticism from the community, but also was challenged in coming up with appropriate staffing for the collection. The project took a novel approach of developing an community advisory board to help with necessary outreach and to establish important lines of communication. And the Cornell academic community stepped up, making use of the new collection.

The Cornell Hip Hop Collection is also a good example of how the nature of collections are changing: the collection website says that the collection “features: hundreds of party and event flyers ca. 1977-1985; thousands of early vinyl recordings, cassettes and CDs; film and video; record label press packets and publicity; black books, photographs, magazines, books, clothing, and more.” It’s a good reminder that as collections are less and less about books and journals, and more and more about material culture, our tried and true tools and techniques will need to change and adapt. Our systems are great for books, but what about (as Michael Stoller from NYU quipped during a follow up reactor panel) pizza boxes from the Occupy Wall Street Movement demonstrations.

You can view the videos for the Thompson, O’Meara, and Light presentations, as well as the video of the reactor panel and audience Q & A from the “born difficult” panel from the event webpage.

What do you think? Are there other was in which special collections, or other library units, are moving forward in new ways? Ways they should be? Hit us with a comment below! I’ll be following up later this week with another posting, on another theme that emerged from the meeting, collaboration.