RLUK Workshop Report: Assessing the Significance of Special Collections

The beginning of June saw the third workshop organised in the context of the RLUK Special Collections Programme. The ‘Significance’ workshop took place at the University of Glasgow on 2nd June 2017 and it built on the outcomes of preceding events on the themes of ‘Leadership’ and ‘Audiences’.

University of Glasgow

University of Glasgow

Although previous meetings addressed issues, principally, from the library community’s viewpoint, the goal of this workshop was to take a more holistic approach to the topic of collection significance; this was achieved by taking into account the different perspectives of professionals who work closely with institutional collections. Thus, researchers as well as library, archive and museum professionals came together to collectively consider issues around the value and assessment of collections.

In the morning, we had the chance to hear by three Glasgow-based academics who represented different communities of practice. Their talks demonstrated the central role that historic collections play for research, teaching and public engagement across different disciplines. Firstly, Dr Johanna Green, Lecturer in Book History and Digital Humanities, shared her experiences of using special collection material in teaching, through object handling sessions. She also highlighted the potential of social media to ‘communicate’ this material to various audience groups; by inviting them to join in the exploration of historic material, social media can facilitate resource discovery and promote institutional collections while, as an educational tool, can enhance digital literacy skills.

Next, Senior Lecturer and novelist, Ms Zoe Strachan focused on the importance of special collections in inspiring artistic practice. By drawing on her knowledge as a writer, she reflected on the role of the in-residence model in enabling creative professionals to engage with collections in interesting ways. Serendipitous encounters with ‘neglected’ items in institutional collections can trigger creativity and, thus, are particularly valuable for artists. Ms Strachan also argued on the significance of communicating effectively material of controversial or sensitive nature (e.g. around social and political issues) that some of our collections currently hold; the ‘21 Revolutions’ project, by the Glasgow’s Women Library, was presented as a successful related example. Last, Dr Anita Quye, Senior Lecturer in Conservation Science, talked about her work in assisting with the material understanding of textiles in institutional collections as well as the ‘hidden’ items that often exist there and their potential value for research and teaching. In her presentation, she underlined the existing need for closer collaboration between researchers and library, archive and museum professionals for ‘uncovering’ cultural material that remains overlooked in many of our collections.

During the afternoon session, and aided by the speakers’ inspirational presentations, delegates worked in groups and examined how special collection departments currently assess, describe and attribute significance as well as the possible benefits of developing a standardised format for assessing and describing significance for a range of audience groups. Ways to assess and communicate the contribution made by special collections departments and staff, both directly and indirectly, to the wider impact and value measures that now form an integral part of our institutional priorities were also explored. The lively discussion that closed the day looked at how professionals dealing with collections can best work together and learn from each other while RLUK’s instrumental role in facilitating such conversations and deepening the channels of communication was emphasised.

The outcomes of the workshop will add to the development of a significance assessment framework to help RLUK assess the content, condition and significance of some of the hidden collections in our care.

Christina Kamposiori, Programme Officer, RLUK

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