October Journal Club : “Unhiding” Special Collections

Geneva Bible, 1583 (University of Edinburgh, New College Library)

Our second meeting of the Journal Club in 2019/20 met on Wednesday 2 October to talk about improving access to Special Collections. Our discussion article was:

Marcella Tam (2017) Improving Access and “Unhiding” the Special Collections, The Serials Librarian, 73:2, 179-185, DOI: 10.1080/0361526X.2017.1329178

We began our discussion by talking about the image and perception of special collections, identified by the author as having a traditional image of being niche and aloof.  We talked about the user experience of ‘library anxiety’ and how this might be heightened in the Special Collections context  “if you don’t feel that you’re an insider and know the rules”. A user may question if their research interest is legitimate enough to be using Special Collections, and be very apologetic if, for example, they take a pen into the Special Collections reading room without thinking. But we also agreed about the value of Special Collections, both as a research experience and as ‘theatre’ – using Special Collections can be inspiring and memorable on a personal level as well as an academic one. A student experience of Special Collections can be the starting point of a lifetime’s academic journey into research. So how do we make Special Collections less scary?

Tam suggests four routes to improving access, including making dynamic links between metadata for printed books, manuscripts and archives and digitised images. We all agree that yes, this should be done, but – it’s tricky. And technical. We are working on it. Tam’s second route, to enable access to MARC records for Special Collections by major search engines like Google, is also tricky when this data is presented in a large proprietory discovery tool like DiscoverEd. A tool that can pull data from backend systems to make it Google-able is being worked on. But why is Special Collections metadata not CC licensed, we wondered?

Providing access to backlogs of uncatalogued material is the third route – even if just by allowing access to uncatalogued material from backlogs. Which sounds good, if security can be managed. Some models of enabling access by creating basic or acquisitions level records were explored. It reminded us of the ‘Lighting the Past‘ project at St Andrews University which took this approach to large-scale retrospective cataloguing.

The final proposed route for ‘unhiding’ collections was digitisation and making images and metadata available online. We discussed what should come first  – metadata or digitisation? We were aware of two approaches to digitisation at Edinburgh University Library : an evidence based approach digitising material based on user requests, and a more strategic approach using funding for cataloguing projects to be able to understand better and prioritise collections for digitisation. We disagreed with Hirtle, who was quoted as arguing that digitisation of special collections will diminish the value of the original physical items. Using the digital will potentially lengthen the life of the physical artefact without diminishing the excitement of handling the original, when available.

Missing from this article was any discussion of the advertising, promotion and communications aspect of ‘unhiding’ Special Collections, making it a simplistic overview. Some practical challenges and limitations of the four approaches were not discussed, such as ownership issues for some Special Collections that form a barrier to digitisation. The article was written within the US context, and we were interested to find out more from CRC colleagues about the UK landscape for this topic.