Report from the CILIP Rare Books and Special Collections Group annual conference, 2017
The Rare Books and Special Collections Group Conference 2017, hosted at the picturesque University of Sussex, had ‘Collections at Risk’ as its theme. Over the course of the three-day conference we heard talks from people working in a variety of roles who approach rare books and special collections from very different angles but who all had one thing in common: a desire to ensure the long-term survival of heritage items.
It was interesting to hear the perspectives of librarians whose interest in preserving collections is clear, but also from people working in the book-trade who have a genuine desire to see collections survive and who put considerable resources into supporting that end. We heard from Anke Timmerman of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association who outlined the various measures that booksellers use to prevent book thieves selling ill-gotten items. Margaret Lane Ford from Christie’s auction house provided insight into the process of selling a collection, explained how they take years to prepare for a sale and work with the library to make all of the necessary preparations and try to find suitable buyers that can care for the materials appropriately.
Something that was particularly interesting was that certain ideas kept coming up in different talks – one example is the value of accurate, detailed and item-specific cataloguing. When items are lost to fire, flood or physical deterioration, or if they are sold to private collectors who don’t make them publicly available, the catalogue record may become the only remnant of the item’s existence. Item-specific cataloguing can reunite libraries with stolen books when they are intercepted by booksellers, while tampering with the catalogue record successfully obscured the theft of 1400 titles from Lambeth Palace Library for 40 years.
Another key message from the conference talks was that an essential component of caring for collections is collaboration – whether that involves training colleagues in different departments or drawing on the resources of outside organisations – we all have a role to play in helping collections survive.
The RBSCG conference also offered the exciting opportunity to visit a special collections repository close to the University of Sussex. One such visit was to The Keep, which opened in 2013. The Keep houses and provides access to the University of Sussex’s Special Collections, East Sussex Record Office and the Royal Pavilion & Museums Local History Collections, all under one purpose-built roof! This was a fantastic chance to see how multiple institutions collaborate and work together in harmony.
Fiona Courage, Head of Special Collections and Curator of Mass Observation, led a brilliant tour of the space, and narrative of the collections, and it was fantastic to hear from colleagues and volunteers working in digitisation and conservation. It was also a treat to explore a cross-section of the collections specifically displayed for our visit. Of particular delight, were items from the Mass Observation collection and letters from Virginia to Leonard Woolf, from the Monks House Papers.
One striking feature of the building is the designation of specific areas to documentary storage (the Repository Block) and people, both staff and visitors for work and study (the People Block). This careful design and planning has allowed the space to be used most efficiently and attention has been given to the needs of the collections and its users. Often archives and special collections are housed in buildings that retrospectively converted to house collections so it was great to see how planning and collaboration between affiliated institutions works in practice.
Moreover, the inclusion of a Reference Room, with computers, reference books and microfilm readers, alongside a group research area, oral history room, Reading Room and multifunction rooms, mean all types of researchers are catered for. Most importantly, the space allows the Keep to reach out to the local community, hosting events and making the collections relevant and accessible to those living, working, and studying in close proximity to the building.
Overall, the visits offered by the RBSCG conference enabled delegates to see first-hand how some of the issues discussed within the conference papers are implemented and discuss how this compares to their own experiences.
We wish to extend our thanks to the bursary sponsors, Bruynzeel Storage and Zeutschel UK, for enabling us to attend the conference and associated visits, which were so enlightening. Furthermore, our thanks go to all those on the RBSCG committee who organised and made the conference as enjoyable and informative as it was.
-Genevieve Adeline, Chartered Insurance Institute, and Eleanor Wale, Eton College