Thursday, 20 June 2013

Illicit collections: some thoughts

One evening in February I rocked up at the Wellcome Trust for the start of the Library & Information History Group's walking tour of Bloomsbury and surrounds, 'Lonely hearts, wedding bells and illicit pleasures'.  Led by Alice Ford-Smith, the tour was absolutely super: I learnt new things, found new bits of London and had fun.  It started with an introduction to some of the Wellcome Library's superlatively diverse collections, given by the Wellcome Library's own Ross McFarlane, including a book on Psychopathia sexualis, the ephemera of King's Cross phone booths over 20 years, international AIDS-awareness posters and public health films and adverts.  After that we set off into the night, taking in John Bejteman's rather creepy advances towards Joan Hunter Dunn, the first lonely hearts ads (published in the eighteenth century), books banned at Bow Street Magistrate's Court (including Fanny Hill and The Well of Loneliness), the information management of an eighteenth-century pimp, and 84 Charing Cross Road.

Bow Street Magistrates by remittancegirl, on Flickr
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Bow Street Magistrates
by  remittancegirl 
The stop that most caught my imagination was at the British Museum, where we heard about hidden collections at the museum and its library (now the British Library). The BM Secretum was a designated area intended to keep closed away items considered to be obscene, including ancient erotica donated by George Witt (1804–1869).  (I guess this post isn't going to get this blog well and truly blocked by all 'good' web filters. So be it.)  The secret or private area or class is by no means limited to the historical British Museum.  The British Library Private Case (with the unimaginative shelfmark 'pc') was a similar collection of donated material deemed far too corrupting for most people to access.  In Cambridge University Library the rare books class Arc (short, I believe, for 'Arcana'), holds material deemed at one point, either through morals or law, not to be fetched for readers.  Some particular historic items in the collection may still not be fetched, as they are still, technically, illegal. Some modern material is still placed in this class, as also happens with the Phi (a pun on "Fie!") class at the Bodleian in Oxford.

Another similar sort of collection acquired and amassed by different means is preserved by the Radzinowicz Library in the Institute of Criminology in at the University of Cambridge: it now houses a collection of printed books once held by the Home Office as examples of banned books.  Some of these books were, indeed, legally outlawed, but others are examples of books sent in by the public demanding that they be banned.  Obscenity trials and banned books featured in more than one of the National Archives' LGBT History Month podcasts, which I happened to be listening to shortly after the walking tour. I'd recommend 'Fictional obscenities: lesbianism and censorship in the early 20th century', and 'Genius on trial: key sources relating to Oscar Wilde at The National Archives'

These sorts of collections are fascinating to me, because they seem to bring to the surface a great number of questions which apply to most collecting.  Many of these books (or objects) were brought together and kept by individuals or institutions out of a particular interest or for a particular purpose.  Others drifted in through chance and accident, not deliberate action. But the controversial nature of the material throws into relief the chancy nature of preservation, especially of non-mainstream material.  The controversial nature of the material ensured it was kept together, and that's hugely useful to us now, as the grouping reveals a lot about historic attitudes. On the other hand, it's luck and chance that these books and objects were preserved at all: they may not have been accepted for inclusion in the collections at all.  What items do we all reject today (for whatever reasons) that we should be hanging on to instead?  Is controversial material, perhaps, more likely to be kept, but the mundane to be disregarded and lost?

How can we tread the line between keeping every last scrap and creating collections that can actually be managed? I've no idea.  But this tour and the thoughts it provoked have inspired me to consider the marginal more and the obvious a little less when considering collection development.

Edited to add Ross McFarlane's name.

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

CILIP CDG visit to RCP - acronym soup, difficult questions and #speccolls resources

Yesterday afternoon it was my great pleasure to host a group visit by the CILIP Career Development Group London and South East Divisions.  It's a super, and very active group, but I do wonder if it couldn't do with a better name? CILIPCDGLSED is a bit too much for even the most seasoned acronym mangler to manage.

Royal College of Physicians by tonyhall, on Flickr
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Royal College of Physicians by  tonyhall 
Anyway, they came to see the Royal College of Physicians, and to hear a little from me about what working in special collections is all about, and how to get ahead in the field.  I feel much less like a fraud given a talk like that this year when I have what feels much more like a proper rare books job, than I did last year when I was hopping from temporary post to temporary post.

I based what I said on various previous talks and presentations I've given, primarily those linked in my previous post.  The lovely guests also asked some really pertinent and difficult questions, and I promised I'd write up my thoughts about them here and add some useful links.

What are the first steps you should take in exposing, and trying to get support for working with, a hidden collection?
I've written about hidden collections before. Everyone has something that's hidden, and in some places the entirety of the special collections can be classed as 'hidden'.  There's some practical advice over on this write-up from earlier in the year. It's an issue that's being discussed more and more - there's an African Studies conference on the subject in a couple of weeks, for example.  I really think that the most important thing to do if you have a hidden collection is to start by getting a handle of just what it is.  You can't start by cataloguing in detail, but simply being able to say something like 'we have twenty shelves, mostly of printed books, with some pamphlets in 4 boxes.  It mostly looks 19th century and relates to cookery and gardening' starts to make the problem manageable, rather than being a great and mysterious unknown.

Edited to add: Emma Greenwood has just written a really super blog post about her work with the special collections at the Jerwood Library at Trinity Laban, which I would recommend you read for a case study of how to begin dealing with hidden collections.

How can you make special collections materials that have been long ignored seem relevant and worth supporting to an institution and library with a very different and tightly focussed audience and purpose (such as a hospital library)?

This can be a very difficult question.  I think that answering it successfully depends on being able to get a grip on just what it is that makes the people in the organisation with the power tick. Very often it's the simple finances that matter: maybe the special collections can help to garner funding, by impressing donors or demonstrating history and prestige.  But maybe adherence to a strategic plan is most important? Then you can try to find a way in which uncovering hidden collections could contribute explicitly to a strategic aim.  In other places, personal connections matter, so finding one supporter whose opinion is valued can turn things around. I fear these are none of them very satisfactory solutions.  Some of my thoughts after last year's Rare Books and Special Collections Group conference, which focussed on funding, may be of use.

If you would like to come and see the RCP building or gardens, we have free general tours once a month (first Friday for the building, first Wednesday for the medicinal gardens). And exhibitions and other events.

Lastly, here are a couple of links to ways to get more involved with the profession in general, and special collections in particular:
  • The Historic Libraries Forum is free to join. It sends its members a twice-yearly bulletin, as well as updates about events and courses. It runs courses and an annual conference, which is consistently one of the friendliest and most useful I've been to. It also campaigns on behalf of historic libraries under threat, and gives advice to people in charge of historic libraries.
  • The CILIP London branch maintains a London Library Events Calendar, listing not only what they do, but also all sorts of other events. (If you have something to add, I think you email cilipinlondon at gmail dot com.)
And last of all, Alison Cullingford's Special Collections Handbook is a very good place to start for all things #speccolls.

If you were at the visit and think I've forgotten to mention something I promised I'd link to, please say in the comments and I'll make amends.

And it would be great to hear other people's thoughts on the difficult questions. Any success stories of bringing hidden collections in small or uninterested institutions into the light?

Edited to add links to RCP tours and events.

Sunday, 16 June 2013

Special Collections Careers

Tomorrow afternoon, the CILIP Career Development Group London and South East Divisions are coming to visit the Royal College of Physicians, and I'm giving a short talk on special collections careers.  In honour of this, I've updated by special collections careers slideshow. Ta-da:

For more information about the special collections world, my map of the field--written last May--is still worth a look: