Wednesday, July 9, 2008

RBMS Plenary Session 1: The Big Picture

I had the good fortune to attend the RBMS (Rare Books and Manuscripts) pre-conference in Los Angeles, followed by the ALA (American Library Association) conference in Anaheim, California. I was able to take notes for some sessions, which I'll publish here in a series of blog posts, along with my impressions. Please note: These are my notes, and I take full responsibility for misconstruing of any statements made by the various speakers. I suspect some of these talks will eventually be published, either in RBM or other journals.

RBMS Plenary Session 1 (Wednesday morning, June 25, 2008): The Big Picture

Opening remarks by Christian Dupont, Aeon Program Director at Atlas Systems, Inc.

Special Collections sections of libraries have entered the digital age. New issues are facing rare books and special collections. We are learning to work and adapt together to a new and rapidly changing environment.

Let's consider how things have changed in last 50 years (since RBMS is now 50 years old). Let's celebrate the vitality of the organization. Let's witness its impact and how the section (of ACRL) has grown. We are currently seeking ways to accommodate the growth and interest in special collections. One way to achieve this is through our scholarship program. We know that scholarship recipients may remain members and become active on committees. Today, there are 22 scholarship attendees. These new attendees feed the interests of the organization.

Next year there will be even more scholarships. In honor of the section's 50th meeting, the location will be Charlottesville, VA - the location of first conference.

There is fundraising at RBMS and it is a part of what goes on. There is ABAA; the Booksellers' showcase (which looks more like a book fair). This year there are 24 booksellers in LA, the most we've had in recent years, and perhaps we'll have as many or more in Charlottesville, VA next year. Let these sponsors know they have your support and appreciation.

Remarks by Kris Kieseling, Director of Archives Special Collections at the University of Minnesota.
This year, the RBMS pre-conference took only 4 weeks to sell out, a good sign of the demand/vitality of the field. There are many angles with which to approach digitization in special collections. Alice Prohaska will outline big picture in her talk.

This years there will be no paper forms, but totally online evaluations for the preconference -- expect it in your email after the pre-conference.

Commercial plug: The sponsor of the morning plenary is the Bibliographic Society of America. It is a society which encourages study and research. Their members are librarians, dealers, collectors, students, etc. Please visit their homepage.

Alice Prochaska, University Library at Yale University.
(Her remarks are based in part on her observation of Yale's digitization of special collections.)

I'm concerned about generalities: How can one present the big picture of digitization? So I'll talk as one library director with just one perspective. This is a good time to be talking about special collections in the digital environment.

Special Collections librarians have a problem: there is a morass of unknowns. Some libraries have been digitizing, others have been evangelizing. Alice thought she used to have a clear picture of the world of special collections. So she asked some pertinent questions on her slide show:
  • What are special collections?
  • What will we mean by special collections in the future?
  • In considering the environment in which digitization operates, the current range and scope of digitization in research libraries: where do special collections fit?
  • The future: are we going to predict it, or invent it?
The future is about collaboration and discussing what we want and what is our future. But there's always been complications due to bureaucracy of many parties. Ownership in the digitial environment is no easier than in non-digital environment.

What ARE Special collections?

The words we use in addressing access to our collections are: discover, expose, disclose, unlock (etc.) -- as if each word holds the key to explaining what we do.
Preliminary record, collection level record, item level record, catalog, etc.
unit, group, class, piece, box, bundle

("It's easy to misunderstand words" and quotes Obama, and mentions Miss Malaprop.)

There is an ARL Working Group on Special Collections set up in 2007, pursuing the "hidden collections" agenda (of finding ways of bringing these collections to greater attention). Their report is due in October 2008.

Their Priorities:
1. encourage concerted action for collecting and exposing 19th and 20th century materials
2. identify criteria and strategies for collecting digital and other new media that currently lack a recognized and responsible structure for stewardship.

"These issues are closely linked. An enormous amount of valuable material in all formats remains uncollected and risks being permanently lost."

The focus of the ARL group is not meant to demean earlier items. It's just a pragmatic attempt to give the group a manageable task. There are already international efforts to digitize newspapers and books. A strong attempt has been made to encourage these items. Techniques include collections analysis, identification of gaps, make accessible otherwise hidden collections.

Discovery of material can occur in response to new scholarship. For example, the attention to e.g. printed ephemera is a relatively new exploration. Libraries used to eschew collecting this material. Just hobbyists would collect it and insist on its importance. There is still a hierarchy of materials: Materials relating to books and book arts will be more highly regarded, whereas playbills, posters, etc. will not be. But even philatelic collections pose research value. No two people will define ephemera in same way - we all have our own collections that require greater attention. The task of selection and preservation doesn't disappear in digital world, it just changes. Think of the issues with borne-digital items: digitized slides, or email correspondence -- what about legal implications of email? We need a concerted effort to find out about this material.

In speaking of digitization, we're mostly talking about taking analog materials and digitizing them. The activity of digitization frequently linked to the preservation of items.

The environment of digitization:
  • collect carefully
  • advocate against restrictions on access
  • transparency over provenance and source of aquisition
  • good practices in records management
  • ensure discoverability and access
  • address the hidden collections problem
  • meet the digital challenge
For the digital environment, RBMS and the Society of American Archivists (SAA) are unique organizations for advice in these issues. As librarians, we can be effective only with the support of the community comprised of these and similar organizations.

Preservation issues form part of context; staff skills matter. Large institutions can handle big projects, but small institutions can't, so that means greater collaboration is necessary.

There are areas of growth in the need for Special Collections:
  • The growth in teaching with primary sources and undergraduate research;
  • local and family historical research. (don't underestimate needs of local communities)
But there are obstacles:
  • political pressures to ends access to unique assets
  • increased visibility and scrutiny
  • nightmare digital challenge:
  • intellectual property,
  • increased visibility brings greater scrutiny,
  • contested interpretations,
  • packaging material to make it comprehensible out of context
Don't underestimate cultural patrimony issues which receives higher notice in the digital world. Greater exposure requires greater sensitivity to cultural issues.

Current range and scope of digital projects.
Local initiatives exists to support teaching, and collaboratie digitization programs in museums, galleries, and archives. For example:

See: Documents of the American South -- it's a good example of how digitization in a deliberate manner can be unusually beneficial.
There is mass digitization (e.g. the Google project) - whose impact is enormous. Formerly Google had contracts with just 6 libraries; now they use 40 libraries.
(See current issue of the Journal of Library Administration.)

Finally Google and mass digitization is beginning to move into the area of Special Collections. Quality of output is a concern: Google books is not always well presented and the metadata is inconsistent.

Even with copyrighted materials presenting only small snippet of a work is a concern about the presentation of books. To what extent does Google books skew our notion of a book? Their contracts prevent the library community from discussing the Google project among participants. But Google's influence is large.

Other examples of mass digitization: The Open Content Alliance - it's not as rich as Google, but still provides good products, since it has metadata which is better than Google. THe now-defunct Microsoft Live Book Search leaves a legacy of expectations. Yale had valued closer cooperation with Microsoft. Maybe soon we (not just Yale) can move into the regular scanning of Special Collections items in a mechanized fashion, with robotic machines (that won't harm the materials).

Scholars have increased appetites for digitized material and desire greater ability to search across collections. This impacts libraries' directions. Pay more attention to collection development issues. People will be more interested in unique holdings.

Issues for the future:
  • translating a traditional mission into a digital environment
  • there is no digitization without metadata - (this is part of the "hidden collections" agenda)
  • access begets access (more staff should be devoted to digital work)
  • more collection analysis
  • more sharing among institutions
What is the future for born-digital items and collections?
  • need for digital curation
  • there are new relationships to users - how to connect to them
  • new ways of working with users
  • mirroring traditional fucntions in online(?) models
  • coping with increasing volume
  • identify digitization partners
  • librarians should be prepared to wait for new technologies to help achieve more
Conclusion: Bringing Special Collections to the public will never cease to be a work in progress

That was the end of Alice Prochaska's speech, followed by questions, among them:

Q. Special Collections have been strong advocates for preservation of materials. What about preservation of born-digital items?
A. There is an ACRL working group concerning with this issue. Watch for upcoming report.

Q. What should we do with born-digital materials that are constantly changing (such as wikis or blogs)?
A. The recommendations of the working group (mentioned in the first question above) will be generic. They will point to need of development of expertise. Regarding the constantly changing nature of born-digital materials, yes, this is an area that is hugely challenging.

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