Retrofitting Special Collections and Archives: RBMS 2014

Film transparency of Fremont Street looking East down from the train depot (Las Vegas), circa 1959, University of Nevada, Las Vegas Libraries
Film transparency of Fremont Street looking East down from the train depot (Las Vegas), circa 1959, University of Nevada, Las Vegas Libraries

The annual preconference of ACRL’s Rare Books and Manuscripts Section, this year titled “Retrofit,” was held last week in steamy Las Vegas, and it was loaded with high points. Among these were a high temperature of 112° Fahrenheit, and perhaps some among us achieved high scores at the poker tables, but the ones I have in mind occurred at the podium. Many of them successfully addressed the “Retrofit” theme by demonstrating the depth and breadth of change that has challenged us as special collections and archives professionals over the past decades, and which will continue to accelerate. Here are a few of my favorites:

Michelle Light, Director of Special Collections at our host institution, the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, brought down the house with her plenary paper, Controlling Goods or Promoting the Public Good: Choices for Special Collections in the Marketplace, calling for an end to inappropriate (and sometimes illegal) control of intellectual property rights and the charging of permission fees for use of archival materials. Michelle pulled no punches: just say no to these antiquated practices! Along the way she cited important work done by Peter Hirtle and others, as well as our own “Well-intentioned practices for putting digitized collections of unpublished materials online” (or WIP, as we fondly refer to it). Michelle also called out our report, “Capture and Release”: Digital Cameras in the Reading Room, which points out that requiring permissions for copyrighted materials can (ironically) increase a repositories’ risk of liability. Further, by putting barriers in the way of use of your materials puts staff in an uncomfortable position of charging fees and being the police. “Do you want to be the good guys?”

We learned from Jim Reilly, the long-time director of the Image Permanence Institute in Rochester, New York, that his latest research is upending some of our longstanding beliefs about environmental conditions for rare and archival materials. The two biggest news flashes for me: constancy of temperature and humidity isn’t critical, and turning off the HVAC system overnight can save 1/3 of energy costs. The research project, titled Energy Saving Opportunities in Libraries, was a team effort funded by IMLS. (Later in the week, Jim was the worthy recipient of the ALCTS Paul Banks and Carolyn Harris Preservation Award for his lengthy years of seminal research in preservation. Kudos to Jim!)

In separate sessions, Steve Ennis, director of the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin, and Tom Hyry, director of Library Special Collections at UCLA, delivered thought-provoking papers on issues relating to acquisition of private manuscript collections. Among many other insights, Steve revealed his misgivings about the Ransom Center’s decades-long role in the marketplace for high-priced literary collections. Tom told the fascinating story of UCLA’s acquisition of Susan Sontag’s born-digital manuscripts, including her email. He juggled a tricky dynamic that will quickly become relevant to more and more institutions: wanting not to pay a large sum to add digital materials to a high-profile analog archive (Sontag’s physical papers came with a initial price tag of $1,000,000) while working to convince the seller (alas, not the donor) of the e-materials of their immense research value.

Eric Miller of Zepheira and Aislinn Sotelo of Mandeville Special Collections at the University of California at San Diego presented an invigorating seminar focused on the future of special collections cataloging in light of the movement toward linked data and implementation of BIBFRAME. The long queue that immediately formed for the Q&A demonstrated that even the most techy of topics can keep an RBMS audience wide awake when it addresses profound change, and some of the most fundamental questions were in the realm of “how do I find linked data stores?” and “if, as an antiquarian bookseller, I want to be a producer of linked data, how do I go about it, and how will this make my business stronger?”

A seminar on the future of the special collections professional also engendered so many questions that I had to pose mine in the aisle post-session. I asked Brian Schottlaender (UC San Diego) and Mark Greenberg (Western Washington University) how the integration of archives into special collections departments over the past couple of decades has changed what they look for in leaders and managers. Their nugget of wisdom: we now have to find people who understand and appreciate not only the broad scope of all types of rare, manuscript, and archival materials, but also how they fit into the university library’s overall priorities and goals. No more fiefdoms, no more isolation. Take heed, my colleagues.

Finally, it was exciting to see that a veritable hiring bonanza seems to be underway at special collections libraries nationwide. The jobs are at all levels of responsibility and experience and cover a wide array of specialities. If you’re in the market, go trolling for job ads and be happily surprised (for a change).

I and many others are already looking forward to RBMS ’15 in Oakland, California!

[edited on July 14th to include a link to Michelle Light’s plenary talk, now posted online]

4 Comments on “Retrofitting Special Collections and Archives: RBMS 2014”

  1. Thanks for the report, Jackie. I really like your question about how the integration of archives into Special Collections affects what we need in managers, and I’m sorry you didn’t get a chance to ask it during the Q&A. These days we are looking for leaders who understand rare books, archives, physical and digital formats, instruction and outreach, preservation – it’s a lot of waterfront to cover.

  2. Thanks, Jordon. I’ve heard lots of interest in a joint meeting over the years, principally from the RBMS side, but not exclusively. The logistics of a joint meeting would be very complex (time of year, finances, ALA’s overhead, much else), but if you’re deeply interested in this, I suggest that you pull together a merry band and make a proposal to the SAA Council.

  3. Nice report, Jackie, thanks for posting this link to the A&A listserv. Here’s to the hope that one year SAA and RMBS will join forces to put on a joint meeting on rare/primary source material to rule them all.

Comments are closed.