Conference round-up: ‘A rich tapestry: diverse collections and audiences’ (CILIP Rare Books and Special Collections Group, 7-9 September 2016, Liverpool)
How can the special collections sector champion diversity? This question lay at the heart of this year’s CILIP Rare Books and Special Collections Group (RBSCG) Conference: ‘A rich tapestry: diverse collections and audiences’. Held in Liverpool, the three-day conference attracted 70 delegates, and I was lucky enough to be awarded one of the new professionals’ bursaries to attend. With speakers from across the UK, the conference programme brought together a broad spectrum of libraries, archives, museums and professional networks to challenge thinking, inspire action and showcase successful examples of special collections putting diversity and equality at the centre of their work.
Each day of the conference focused on one of three areas: diverse audiences, diverse collections, and diversity in the profession. Kicking off with diverse audiences, Day One’s talks had three stand-out messages:
- Everyone has the right to tell their story, and people are engaged by seeing stories that speak to them in your collections.
- Know your collections: advocate their importance and admit their gaps.
- Address gaps and engage new audiences through a sustainable, participatory approach: go out, build relationships and empower individuals to donate or create content.
The day started with keynote speaker Kay Jones, Curator of Urban Community History at the Museum of Liverpool, introducing acclaimed outreach projects, including Three Decades of HIV in Merseyside and Pride and Prejudice, which demonstrated the importance of building trust and inviting contributions from under-represented groups. Next, Trevor Dunmore from the Royal Automobile Club addressed ‘The inequality of member organisations’, considering the Catch-22 for library-services that non-access can be a prime directive of exclusive Gentlemen’s Clubs. Describing collaborative initiatives undertaken by the Mass Observation Archives, Suzanne Rose from the University of Sussex highlighted potential barriers that people can face when accessing public services. Projects such as Mass Education and Beyond Boxes are developing a range of diverse audiences, from prisoners to blind veterans, allowing individuals to explore their identities through archive material, and inspiring creative responses that can in turn become part of the collection. In their talk, ‘Exploring arson and PTSD: unlocking collections with the British Army’, Sarah Griffin (York University/York Minster) and Maria Nagle (Durham Cathedral) introduced narrative inquiry and the role of emotional response in meaning-making, offering new audiences a sense of ownership. Drawing the first day to a close, Catherine O’Donnell from the People’s History Museum spoke about her pursuit to make the museum a hub for one of its previously hidden histories, through the Never Going Underground: the fight for LGBT+ rights project. It was argued that a future challenge would be to repeat the diversification process to represent different marginalized groups, to ensure that targeted projects don’t lead to overbalance.
Day Two moved on to diverse collections, and the power of showing individuals that their stories are worth collecting and celebrating. Helena Smart from Liverpool Record Office discussed three partnerships that promoted unexpected diverse collections within the local authority archives: Three Decades of HIV in Merseyside, the Sandi Hughes Archive project, and the Writing on the Wall Project of the George Garrick Archive. Valerie Stevenson, Head of Academic Services at Liverpool John Moores University, introduced ‘England’s Erotic Dream: Exhibiting punk in a Liverpool shopping centre’, demonstrating the value of engaging new student audiences through active participation, achieving high impact through pop-up gallery spaces in town centres, and working sensitively when collaborators’ perceptions differ from your own. Finally, Wendy Kirk from Glasgow Women’s Library shared exciting projects such as Celebrating Commonwealth Women Writing and Mixing the Colours (a project on Sectarianism) that celebrate the lives and achievements of a broad spectrum of women, working with them to create content and gather ephemera.
The final day brought the unveiling of dramatic inequalities within the LIS profession itself. Yvonne Morris gave a first look at CILIP’s new Diversity and Equality Strategy for an open, inclusive profession for the future, driven by the results of their Workforce Survey. This revealed that 78% of the UK information workforce is female, 97% identify as white, and 55% are aged 45-55. Tracy-Ann Smith from the Diversity in Heritage Group then gave a call to arms, warning against tokenism and short-lived projects, and calling for participatory organizations in which all staff are self-reflective champions and change-makers. Rounding off a great conference, John Vincent from The Network of Libraries, Archives and Museums working towards social justice, brought challenging home truths that libraries are often used most by those who need them the least. His motivational ‘recipe’ for tackling social exclusion included deploying a targeted approach, mainstreaming the work, sustainability, partnership, and ongoing training.
If thought-provoking talks and networking weren’t enough, the conference also offered a chance to explore the wealth of special collections to be found in Liverpool. I enjoyed visits to the University of Liverpool Special Collections and Archives and the Anglican Cathedral Archives. At the first we were able to see treasures from medieval to modern, including a significant science fiction collection. A fascinating book display explored the shifting bounds between margins and mainstream in literature, with highlights including Ede und Unku, the story of friendship between a Berlin boy and German Sinti girl which featured on one of Hitler’s banned books lists, but later became part of the German school curriculum.
Secondly, we entered the magnificent surrounds of the Anglican Cathedral, where an array of unique drawings, letters, and artefacts documenting the history of the Cathedral also reveal the different voices associated with, and represented by, the collection, including Pals’ Battalions and Cathedral builders. Overseen by a brilliantly dedicated team of volunteers, the archives are cherished and shared despite limited financial resources.
The RBSCG conference was at once challenging and inspirational, demonstrating both the work needing to be done and the results that can be achieved in developing audiences, collections and a profession that genuinely and sustainably represent and champion the diversity inherent but often hidden within our communities and culture.
For more discussion of the conference talks and activities, view the Twitter hashtag used for the conference, #rbscg16.
Sarah Etheridge, Lambeth Palace Library