Reflecting on Rare but not Old (and some Old stuff)

Some musing on the recent CILIP Rare Books and Special Collections Group conference.  This was held at Lancaster University, 8-10 September.  (Disclaimer – I was co-organiser!).

Mary Nixon, the group’s Chair, delivered the key note speech, summing up the ethical, legal, and practical issues facing curators of modern special collections.  Alison Cullingford (me!) then gave a paper about PaxCat Project, which is a great case study for Mary’s points.

Unfortunately Sue Breakell was unable to attend, but Sheila Hingley of Durham University bravely stepped in and did a great job of reading Sue’s paper and showing her slides.  Sue’s thought-provoking talk covered issues around artists’ archives, and how artists use archives.

We finished the afternoon with Sarah Lawrance and the wonderful work of Seven Stories.  Sarah showed us a moving film about the wartime experiences of author Judith Kerr, creator of Mog, The Tiger who came to Tea, and Pink Rabbit.

The session on preservation of modern materials offered two complementary speakers, Cordelia Rogerson of the British Library on plastics and Simon Rooks of the BBC Archives on audio-visual material.  It is difficult for a rare books conference to offer a genuinely new take on preservation but I felt that by sharing the management decisions of their own institutions both speakers gave me new things to think about.

Modern special collections deal with the experiences of living or recently deceased people.  This means that legal and ethical issues form a major part of the work of managing such collections.  Three great speakers shared how these issues affect their work and how they cope.  I have to be rather brief in writing these up – Chatham House rules!  Rachel Foss of the British Library on dealing with modern literary estates and Fiona Courage (my co-organiser) on the problems of Mass ObservationNia Daniel of the National Library of Wales told us about the Memory Project, which pro-actively asked living Welsh authors about their use of IT, crucial for later archiving of their papers.

The speakers on Friday morning were all about outreach.  Alun Edwards showed how the First World War Poetry Digitisation Project has expanded and reached out by effective use of social media/web 2.0 such as Second Life and flickr.  I have been rather cynical about Second Life, but the simple ways in which the project used it were compelling (e.g. a gas cloud of words coming over the green-tinged trenches).

Julie Johnstone of the Scottish Poetry Library shared the experiences of a Heritage Lottery project based on the archive of Scotland’s national poet, Edwin Morgan.  This project made a little funding go a long way in engaging the public, with poems in public places and in the toilet.  I found the chosen visuals very striking, based on Morgan’s typewriter and desk.

Sue Mayo of the LIFT Living Archive showed how to bring an archive of material from a theatre festival to life.  The project worked with schools and communities groups in particular and Sue suggested ways to work effectively with such groups.  For example, avoid “box envy” (make sure no-one gets a seemingly dull, texty box when others have pictures and fun stuff).  The Union Jack knitted thong has remained in my mind for some reason.

Our Thursday afternoon visits took in Wordsworth’s home, Dove Cottage, and two fascinating collections on the Lancaster campus, the Ruskin Library and the Jack Hylton Archive.  Those who didn’t get to the Ruskin for the behind the scenes visit would have had a chance to look around and take in the amazing architecture at the reception on the Wednesday evening.

I enjoyed the Hylton visit very much: the collection of theatre programmes, press cuttings, music etc linked up with our Priestley Archive, and was also a real nostalgia fest for anyone who remembers 60s and 70s television.

The conference ended with a useful discussion of current concerns.  At a time when cuts loom for higher education, we are aware of the need to make the case for the value of our collections now and in future, and to make best use of new technology to deliver services and engage with the wider world.  The Group will of course be doing all it can to help members engage with these matters, by training and advocacy.

I found the conference particularly valuable because it highlighted the problems common to modern materials, whether literary, political, visual arts, or whatever.  Speakers were not simply bewailing the problems but finding practical and realistic solutions, or at least, ways to cope.

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