The OCLC Research Library Partnership: moving forward with unique and distinctive collections

Arrows, Dean Hochman from Overland Park, Kansas, U.S. (arrows) CC BY 2.0

On November 1st, North American members of the OCLC Research Library Partnership came together in Baltimore to engage in day-long discussions on several topics. Rebecca has already posted about the discussion of evolving scholarly services and workflows. We also addressed issues pertaining to unique and distinctive collections, as well as conversations inspired by our recenturvey on equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) in the OCLC Research Library Partnership. Here I’m reporting on the unique and distinctive collections thread; Karen will report soon on the EDI survey.

I was joined by our practitioner-in-residence, Chela Scott Weber, who helped lead this group. The conversation was rooted in her recently published position paper,  A Research and Learning Agenda for Archives, Special, and Distinctive Collections in Research Libraries. As a warm-up exercise we asked participants to share one word that characterizes their workplace culture. Terms used by those who work in archives and special collections revealed some of the disconnect that may characterize the relationship between special collections and the rest of the library: “siloed,” and “misunderstood” being two examples. Others characterized their workplace culture as being “complex” or “entrepreneurial.”  At all institutions, communications and “keeping everyone in the loop” can be a challenge.

We also asked participants to reflect on what is useful about OCLC Research outputs, specifically the work of the Research Library Partnership. OCLC Research staff were identified as an asset: “You are plugged in to what is going on in our field,” “You are able focus on what is a barrier to progress,“ and “You are positioned to do legwork and synthesis on our behalf.” Participants value that staff take the time to collect and record the information that partners cannot. “You catch things that are not necessarily on our radar.”  OCLC Research reports were also identified as bringing value. Reports such as Taking Our Pulse: The OCLC Research Survey of Archives and Special Collections provide institutions with benchmarking and record “the state of our profession.” Reports such as those in the “collective collection” series “give us the vocabulary we need to talk about important issues.” Reports have been timely and have touched on areas that participants need help with. “It means something when OCLC brings people together around an issue.” Our work on digital cameras in special collections reading rooms served to validate and codify emerging practice. Such reports have “provided some cover to talk about difficult issues” and “give us a structure or vocabulary for challenging conversations.” The brevity of some OCLC Research reports was also called out as being a virtue: “I can read them at my lunch break,” proclaimed one participant.  OCLC provides “neutral reporting that we can take and adapt.” Participants selectively use reports to advocate up their administrative reporting chains. It is clear, however, that much of this valuable information is not getting to deans and directors, and participants encouraged OCLC Research to find ways to “feed more strategic stuff up the food chain.”

Discussion session participants took time to identify some projects from the Research and Learning Agenda that seem ripe for OCLC to pursue actively, and three model projects were discussed in some detail. 

  1. The current state of resource allocation
  2. Frameworks for distributed responsibility
  3. Mapping the systems ecosystem

Please note that while these areas received the most attention at this meeting, any projects undertaken by OCLC Research need considerable internal review as well as more community consultation before going forward. 

The current state of resource allocation
Special collections professionals are sometimes challenged to compare themselves to comparable institutions in terms of variables such as collection size, staff size, allocations of funding for staffing, and other operational costs (both “hard” and “soft” money). The group that participated in this discussion recommended that OCLC Research collect data to allow for such comparisons. Collection of data could utilize aspects of the forthcoming SAA/RBMS guidelines on holdings metrics. Such a project could perhaps be similar to the ILL Cost Calculator, in which institutions will contribute data that will enable production of reports.

Significant questions raised included these: How do you measure distinction? If distinctiveness is what gives these collections/units value, do things that are currently measured (or that are measurable) shine a light on this?

Frameworks for distributed responsibility
Opportunities exist to address the challenges of born-digital collections, both those curated in special collections and other materials acquired and managed across the library, such as research data and other research assets. The issues strongly relate to themes surfaced in the 2015 report The Archival Advantage. A proposed mode of working would be to survey RLP institutions, asking questions such as these: Are special collections and data curation teams working together? How much are libraries investing in supporting “born-digital special collections,” research data management, and related activities? A survey could reveal institutions’ preservation strategies for born digital and probe the need for particular skill sets. Outcomes could include survey results and case studies that could illuminate where digital collections are held across the library and who is responsible for them in processes across the continuum from selection and appraisal to delivery for research.

Mapping the systems ecosystem
Discovery and access for materials in special collections and archives are hindered by the fact that these materials are described in systems that don’t mesh with those used to manage “mainstream” library collections. This is a pressing problem, given that considerable effort is put into collecting and stewarding materials that are more like special collections and less like books and journals (see, for example, the reports The Evolving Scholarly Record and Stewardship of the Evolving Scholarly Record). Systems that could be better integrated include institutional repositories, ArchivesSpace, Aeon, CollectionsSpace, integrated library systems and other discovery and management systems. Stakeholders include archives and special collections professionals, metadata and access librarians, and those responsible for preservation. A project in this area should include people who work at both strategic and operational levels. A desired outcome would be greater ease of discovery for archives and special collections and other materials outside the “mainstream,” as well as improved backend processing. Research results would inform systems development and institutional strategy.

Thanks are due to our discussion participants for engaging so energetically and for the good thinking they brought to our conversations. We will be continuing this particular thread within the Research Library Partnership over the coming weeks and months, so stay tuned!

The OCLC Research Library Partnership provides a unique transnational collaborative network of peers to address common issues as well as the opportunity to engage directly with OCLC Research.