Weeding and Working Together


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The National Archives have produced two really useful bits of guidance recently:

Deaccessioning and disposal: guidance for archive services will help safeguard vulnerable collections by outlining legal issues and professional principles and practices.

Guide to collaboration between the archive and higher education sectors has been produced jointly by TNA and Research Libraries UK.  It offers inspiration and realistic advice to archivists and academics on working together.

Bye Bye Basement!


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Fingers crossed and all that, my service, Special Collections at the University of Bradford, should get our long-awaited new premises in 2016.  Hooray!  Our project is part of a wider programme which will transform the lower floors of our 1970s Library to meet the needs of modern students.

Before: rambling, dark mazes full of odd stairs, awkward corners and pipes where you really don’t want them.  Not to mention our horrible mustard-coloured scary carpet.

Journal stacks, floor 02

This area is the home of the Library’s remaining collection of print journals – part of the long and winding journey from the Library entrance to our home in the basement.  The space has been much improved in recent years but is still very dingy and unappealing.

Corridor, floor 02

Random corridor to nowhere. If readers walk past the reading room, this is what they see …

After: lighter, brighter, tech-friendly spaces which make the most of every square metre of our small building.  We will have PD 5454 quality storage to keep the collections safe plus public spaces which allow for teaching, outreach, exhibitions and the use of all kinds of collections.  Not to mention people-friendly spaces for staff and volunteers, with room to catalogue archives.

We’re now at the stage of “plans with walls” and costing the project.  Since the autumn I’ve been to many meetings with colleagues to try to get all the things we need into the footprint to be refurbished.  It’s tight, but we’ve done it.  It’s been exciting working with the team from Farrell and Clark, our architects, and the other experts, seeing how they bring their expertise to solve problems that have puzzled us for years.  They have tried really hard to understand how we work and what we need – couldn’t ask for more.

I’m learning so much: will try to blog as much as possible to help others on the same journey.  Even if the project doesn’t go ahead, the work we have done will give us a headstart next time.

It’s been easier for us than it would otherwise have been because we have been preparing for this for so long.  I have learned that no matter how far off improvements may seem, there is an awful lot services can do now that will really help when the time comes.  For instance …

Archives Accreditation.  We decided to apply for Archives Accreditation in the knowledge that our premises are poor BUT we do the best we can, understand and manage the risks involved, and otherwise run an excellent service.  We hoped we could use the outcomes of the application to help us make the case for improvements.  It worked.  We received the award (provisional of course!) and it has indeed raised our profile in the University and given us independent external support for our need for better space.  Do consider applying if you’re in this situation – it is really worthwhile.

Save our Sounds!


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Sound recordings offer us extraordinary insights into the past.

To take just one example from my own experience.  I had read the text many times, but I never fully understood the popularity or impact of J.B. Priestley’s Second World War radio broadcasts until I heard him speak.  His homely, warm Yorkshire tones contrasted with the cutglass BBC English of the announcer and created a welcoming world of shared experience: intimate, comfortable, encouraging – a popular voice.


However sound recordings are extremely tricky to manage.  Like film, they present a mass of complications.  Sound recordings exist in many many formats, often short-lived and made of vulnerable materials.  These formats require equipment to access them.  This quickly becomes obsolete and hard to obtain.  Said equipment also must be stored and made available to listeners.  It is also more difficult to get a quick sense of the content of a sound recording compared to a photograph or a book.


From moonshake’s flickr stream under licence CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

All of which means that sound recordings in archives are less likely to be catalogued and made available than paper or photographic media.  Hidden from the public, many are deteriorating fast.  The British Library estimates that we only have only a few years before the task of preserving the national sound record becomes impossible …

Lots of excellent work is already being done by larger organisations, but there is much more to do.  The British Library is surveying the UK’s sound collections to find out more about what we have and whether it is at risk.   Please do complete the survey if you have any such collections – it’s a step towards preserving them.


Open reel audio tape from Idedeyan’s flickr stream under licence CC BY-NC-SA 2.0. Part of the Dorrance Stalvey Papers (Collection Number 1896). UCLA Library Special Collections.

Updates from you?

Originally posted on Directory of Rare Book and Special Collections in the UK and Republic of Ireland:

Thank you very much to everyone who sent an entry, new or revised, for the forthcoming edition of the Directory of Rare Book and Special Collections in the UK and Republic of Ireland. As I write this, final edits are going ahead and I am firing off numerous emails to request clarification about particular collections. Thanks to everyone who is responding to queries quickly and with good humour.

If anything has happened with your collections since you submitted your entry – for example, if you have acquired any new printed special collections of any vintage (including 20th-21st century), disposed of collections, if you reported collections as uncatalogued that are now catalogued, etc, or indeed if you have moved location, changed telephone number or email address etc, please could you let me know by emailing RareBooksDirectory@outlook.com by 31 January 2015?

(Dr) Karen Attar
Editor, Directory of Rare…

View original 11 more words

Meeting Medieval Manuscripts


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Mystified by medieval books?  I’m very impressed by a new series of online tutorials offering a fun and free introduction to these wonderful objects: how they were made and how they were used. Books and the dissemination of knowledge in medieval Europe was created by medieval book expert Erik Kwakkel.

Any excuse to share an image of one of my favourite medieval books … bit early for Valentine’s Day, but heart-shaped books are a delight any day of the year.  This one is a 15th century Book of Hours belonging to the Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF, Manuscrits occidentaux, latin 10536).  You can find out more about it on its own webpage http://classes.bnf.fr/dossisup/grands/ec060a.htm and see it with some other heart-shapes on Dr Kwakkel’s Tumblr.

How can unique and distinctive collections support University mission?


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Delighted to share news of a report which should help anyone trying to make the case for investment in special collections.  Or indeed considering whether they should invest in them …

Unique and distinctive collections: opportunities for research libraries is freely available online from the Research Libraries UK website.  It’s based on fieldwork I carried out during my time with RLUK, edited and updated by Caroline Peach and Mike Mertens.


The report pulls together the case for special collections, using fascinating case studies to show how such collections help universities to stand out and convey values in a competitive and turbulent environment.  Many libraries are now tackling the legacy problems of unsuitable spaces and vast uncatalogued hidden collections: taking away constraints that allow collections to support teaching, research, community engagement, creative activities and fundraising, reaping financial and other benefits as a result.

I hope this report will inspire those working in such services and those who fund them to find ways to bring their wonderful collections to light.


The Pukka Pad and the Big Cake: #DCDC14 Conference Part 1


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Discovering Collections, Discovering Communities, a joint effort by RLUK and The National Archives, is fast becoming a must-attend conference for archives and special collections folk.  The idea?  We face tough times and huge challenges: let’s collaborate and find new ways to survive and thrive.  The second in the series was held last week in the awesome setting of Birmingham’s new Library, fittingly rendered in cake form in this picture.

270 delegates, two packed days, a veritable whirl of discussion, one of the most inspiring conferences I’ve ever attended.

Videos of the talks, articles and much more will appear online soon, so I won’t attempt to cover everything I saw and heard and said.  Not least because I have half a Pukka Pad of notes still to re-read and ponder.  Here are the highlights i.e. what I can remember without checking!

& here's the real thing.  Library of Birmingham, from Jo Alcock's flickr stream licence: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

& here’s the real thing. Library of Birmingham, from Jo Alcock’s flickr stream. Licence: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.


Speakers: me, Simon Demissie of the National Archive and Peter Findlay of JISC.

I reflected on our social media journey at Bradford – where we are and where we are going … (more on this later – am writing article for Rare Books Newsletter).  Some great discussions followed (on twitter too!).

For many services, outreach via social media is no longer an innovation – it’s mature, core, business-as-usual.  But others have not even started!  How do we get out of the social media in archives echo chamber and encourage those who don’t use it for audience engagement to give it a go?  The access requirements of archive accreditation will help …

How do we measure and evaluate our social media use?  I argue for an “action research” approach to management and objectives: learning by doing or “suck it and see”.  Quantitative measures should look beyond hits/followers and consider engagement – check out Klout as a quick measure (available as part of Hootsuite too).  Think about qualitative and subjective measures too: what conversations were started?  What collaborations emerged?  What are people saying about your activities?

Simon’s talk considered the phenomenally popular Twitter accounts which share historic images, such as @theretronaut and @historyinpics. Archive services can learn from their success while not necessarily imitating their cavalier approach to citation, copyright etc.

Above all, pictures increase engagement.  Even if picture isn’t particularly exciting, people tend to retweet and fave it far more than texty tweets.  Keeping tweets short, simple and not giving whole story away works better than just reproducing a catalogue entry for an image.

Peter encouraged libraries with lots of under-used digital resources, especially images, to consider working with Wikimedia Commons to bring wider audiences.   Worth thinking about!

more to follow …



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Thrilled to announce that Special Collections at the University of Bradford has achieved Archive Accreditation!  We are the first English university to reach this new standard.  I’ll blog about the experience for professional colleagues soon: why we applied, what we made of the process, and how we think it will help improve our service.

And if you’re applying, feel free to make use of our published policies as models for your own.  I’ve made them available under a Creative Commons licence so you can use them with confidence.

An Alien Territory? Local Studies versus Special Collections


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Here’s an interesting blog post by Tony Pilmer, a Local Studies librarian sharing what he learned from a year working in a library based in a think-tank/learned society.  I agree: local studies and special collections work have masses in common.  This is especially true of university special collections.

Advertisement for Novello, Bradford, back cover of the Historical Pageant of Bradford, a book in Bradford University's Special Collections that would also be found in Local Studies

Advertisement for Novello, Bradford, back cover of the Historical Pageant of Bradford, a book in Bradford University’s Special Collections that would also be found in a Local Studies setting and is stuffed with wonderful adverts such as this one.

I think I’m right in saying that most university special collections have significant collections of archives and/or books that are “local”, relating to the city or region.  Why?  In most cases, universities grew out of the local industries and colleges and thus their collecting reflected local needs and interests.  Individuals, companies or organisations looking for homes for their papers would naturally contact the local university, certainly in the days before county record offices were established.  Academics in universities would look for local themes to research to build their own careers and then donate their findings to their organisation.  And so on …  Want real examples?  Take a look at the distinctive and rich local collections held by, say, Aberdeen, Nottingham or Exeter universities.  Students and staff benefit from the opportunity to work on collections which are distinctive and which overlap with other material nearby.

There are differences of course, between our missions, the types of material we collect, the users we attract and how we work with them.  However we have enough in common to make university/local authority joint services possible – witness for instance the Hive, the Keep, and the Hull History Centre.

But we don’t need to merge and share a building in order to learn from other services!  Check out this great collection of case studies which the Local Studies Group have archived – lots of good ideas which could be adapted for outreach by other heritage organisations.  In tough times, it makes sense for services to work together e.g. to discuss collecting policies, to reach out to each other’s user groups and to co-operate on collections care or emergency planning.

PS I’m aware I’ve conflated record offices and local studies services in the above to some extent … though these are often merged nowadays anyway …

PPS I’m also aware that not all special collections are quite as “local” in their focus as ours at Bradford.  However most collections of rare books have distinctive qualities that reflect their locality even if the subject matter is not particularly “local” – their provenance, custodial history, bindings, patterns of use … and the insights of Local Studies colleagues may help us in understanding and promoting them. Witness the Portico Library, whose collections of 19th century books give “a tangible insight into the culture of Boomtown Manchester, reflecting the literary, intellectual and cultural mindset” of the Industrial Revolution.  As the texts of rare books become readily available via online sources, increasingly use and interest of rare books collections centres around these distinctive qualities.


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