I thought it might be worthwhile writing a report of this conference that I attended recently at the University of Antwerp. It’s probably mostly of interest to those who are or want to be special collections librarians…
The two-day conference, subtitled ‘Competences for heritage librarians’, was organised by Pierre Delsaerdt who teaches in the Library and Information Science dept at Antwerp. The first day explored the knowledge, skills and expertise required by 21st-century heritage librarians (or special collections librarians as they are more usually called in the UK) and the second day presented examples of innovative training programmes for librarians either while undertaking qualifications or in the course of continuing professional development (CPD). The rest of this post will briefly summarise the presentations from the first day and a subsequent post will cover the second day.
Deirdre Stam set out the guidelines on core competencies as laid down by the Rare Books and Manuscripts Section of the ALA and discussed the process of competence assessment. She noted that it can be a useful tool in the training and hiring of new professionals and in CPD but there is a danger of it becoming a bureaucratic box-ticking exercise. Librarians need to use competence assessment for themselves in taking charge of their own careers. Deirdre emphasised that competency is about both possessing knowledge and understanding how to apply it.
Jan Bos challenged our understanding of ‘special collections’. Where he works, at the National Library of the Netherlands, there is no special collections department. As a National Library, all books in the Netherlands Collection (produced in or about the Netherlands) have a special status. And that includes ‘born-digital’ material, whether that’s articles, research data, emails, tweets or presentations. Such materials present librarians with new challenges in selection and preservation. Jan argued that such ‘digital incunabula’ should be preserved with their original metadata. ‘We should be ambassadors of the PDF 1.0 as well as ambassadors of the book’. Websites, ‘the illustrated incunabula of the digital age’, also need to be selected and preserved. Special collections librarians need to be both specialists and generalists, continually developing their ‘metaknowledge’.
- Acquisition and deselection
- Storage and preservation
- Metadata and digitisation
- Information and services
- Exhibitions and presentation
- Communication and representation
Staff specialise in one or two of these and collaborate with other specialists, including conservators, researchers, programmers and the university’s press and public relations staff.
Per Cullhed of Uppsala University focused on the problem of transience. In old-style librarianship, knowledge was preserved in annotated copies of catalogues, in handwritten notes on cards and in the heads of librarians who functioned as ‘living catalogues’. As librarians retired and processes changed, much of this knowledge was lost, or became inaccessible. In new-style librarianship, the threat comes from technological obsolescence and libraries need to create robust policies for digital preservation. Per introduced a number of Swedish collaborative digital projects including Bildsök/PictureSearch, ArkA-D and Probok.
Claudia Engelhardt also addressed the issue of digital preservation, presenting the results of a worldwide survey concerning training needs. The survey is part of the DigCurV project which aims to develop a curriculum framework for the training of digital curators.
Nicholas Pickwoad made a plea for an important and unused resource – bookbindings. He pointed out that most research in this area focuses on rare and precious bindings, leaving 90% of bindings unstudied. They are a key element of the uniqueness of any individual book and can provide a huge amount of information about its production and provenance and yet they are almost invisible in library catalogues. Nicholas described ongoing efforts to agree on terminology and minimum standards for description. He also urged librarians to be aware of the importance of photographing bindings when undertaking digitisation projects – and to make available, where possible, conservation reports for individual volumes.
The final speaker of the day was Mark Purcell, Libraries Curator at the National Trust, who explained the unique nature of the Trust and its libraries, and the skills required of the peripatetic cataloguers involved in its ongoing cataloguing project. Records for the books in many of the Trust’s historic houses are now available on COPAC.