The fourth DCDC (Discovering Collections, Discovering Communities) conference held in Salford 10-12 October 2016 brought together more than 400 delegates from the library and archive community under the theme of Collections, connections, collaborations: from potential to impact. Jointly organized by RLUK and The National Archives, the conference is uniquely positioned to explore and showcase special collections and cultural heritage initiatives across the UK.

A highlight of the conference was the launch of consultations on The National Archive’s new strategic Vision for Archives which Jeff James, Chief Executive and Keeper of The National Archives noted will, “put the needs of the user – both current and future – at its core”. The conference honoured the second cohort of Transforming Archives trainees, a Heritage Lottery Funded programme designed to diversify the archives sector by identifying specialist gaps and entrants from a range of professions and backgrounds. RLUK hosted a workshop on an audience-led strategy for special collections, which will contribute to the delivery of key strands in the current strategic plan. RLUK board member Jessica Gardner noted that whatever size of collection institutions have, they all face the same challenges in unlocking their collections. RLUK will therefore work towards a more coherent strategy around audience-led approaches, and collaborate across sectors that work on these issues. The work will investigate the needs of different audiences and purposes, such as researchers and funders, teaching, and the public. The two organisations jointly hosted a workshop on ‘Collecting Drivers for Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) with Archives and Unique and Distinctive Collections (UDCs)’, a hands-on session to discuss the results of a survey conducted by RLUK and The National Archives.

Partnerships and collaboration

Partnerships with organisations across sectors are increasingly important to reach audiences and access new resources. Following the closure of the Durham Light Infantry Museum, Sarah Price (Durham University) noted the importance of consulting with all stakeholders which has led to a new home for the museum’s collection in partnership with Durham County Council, Durham University, and Palace Green Library. Alice Purkiss outlined how the University of Oxford and National Trust have developed a knowledge transfer partnership that includes crowdsourcing of articles about places across the UK from trusted experts – academics. The purpose of the project is to enrich knowledge about historic places and properties and to give visitors new insights. Knowledge transfer partnerships can have a positive economic impact, returning up to £7.50 for every £1 of public funding.

Two further examples of collaboration demonstrated ways in which archives and collections can be used to ignite collaboration and achieve impact goals. ‘From archive & academia to classroom & community’ explored how archives can bring together teachers, students and communities. On the other hand, during the ‘Academics curating/curating academics’ session, collaborative curation enabled the partners to enhance their public engagement profile; the example used was the exhibition project Magna Carta and the Changing Face of Revolt which was held at Durham in 2015. As the speakers in both sessions argued, archives and collections can be used creatively and in a collaborative way in academia to increase impact and achieve REF goals.

Community and public engagement

Community and public engagement was also one of the main issues that emerged during the keynotes and panel presentations. Nicola Wright, Director of Library Services at the LSE Library, highlighted the importance of developing outreach programmes using the Women’s Library at LSE as a case study, which will enhance accessibility to collections and attract new audiences. Carenza Lewis, Professor for the Public Understanding of Research at the University of Lincoln, used outreach programmes in archaeology and cultural heritage activities. She argued that “research is more meaningful when people are involved” while “engaging with the past can inspire and benefit everyone”.

Engaging the public and new audiences through online platforms has helped the public to take ownership of national collections, according to Peigi MacKillop (Historic Environment Scotland). Scotland’s Urban Past has trained more than 1500 people as “urban detectives” who have contributed images, drawings and stories to the project. The ‘Putting Communities on the map’ session looked at how geo-spatial and mapping technologies can be used to widen participation and increase the impact of collections. These types of projects help to challenge ideas about for whom heritage is – by engaging everyone in creating heritage, heritage is for everyone.

Copyright, licenses and metadata

Wikimedia likewise is using its large online presence to collect more linked data about monuments as linked data that can be shared with other initiatives. Dubbed the world’s largest photographic competition, Wiki Loves Monuments benefits from exceptions and limitations to copyright law in the UK that have hindered the project in other European countries due to a lack of exceptions for freedom of panorama (i.e. permission to take photos of buildings and art works in public places). Wikimedia has advocated for legal changes in those countries. A panel on copyright explored the complexities of licenses and copyright status for works in museums and galleries, including digital surrogates.

Digital surrogates are photographs of works that may be in the public domain, but which themselves may be in copyright or licensed – an example of this is a photograph of Mona Lisa. Display at Your Own Risk, a creative pop-up exhibition and website explores the issues associated with these digital surrogates including the lack of standardized policies for recording the metadata of such works, and a range of license conditions. Further issues around metadata were raised in sessions ranging from best practices for cataloguing smells and intangible heritage, and how metadata records with a CC-license (e.g. in the case of JISC’s National Bibliographic Knowledgebase) can offer good opportunities for outreach. Questions remain, however, about whether metadata standards are suitable for handling born digital data (e.g. in the case of The National Archives’ collections).

Using emerging fields to their advantage can create opportunities for research libraries. The University of Cambridge did not have a centre for Digital Humanities (DH), so the Library seized on this gap and created a centre within the library. Recognizing that cataloguing is unlikely to attract funding, the centre has focused on DH and text and data mining projects where there is opportunity to seek out new partnerships, such as from the Mellon Foundation which is supporting text and data mining of the Taylor-Schechter Cairo Genizah Collection, the world’s most important single collection of medieval Jewish manuscripts. Noting that text and data mining (TDM) is more of an art than a science, researchers have mined more than 400 of the manuscripts to highlight documents that paint a picture of Cairo at the time – the weather, social conditions and places, to provide easier entry points and wider access to the collection.

Keeping memory alive

Digital technology is serving to bring the stories of holocaust survivors to generations to come through the Forever Project, discussed in a powerful keynote from Phil Lyons, National Holocaust Centre and Museum. As survivors of the holocaust age pass away, the Centre needed to find a way to ensure that their testimonies could be kept and continue to be shared in the future. For children, being able to ask questions of survivors is an important part of their learning and understanding. Combining these two elements – stories and answers to questions – will form the basis of an innovative digital project that includes filming survivors and their answers from a databank of 1000 questions that have been asked by children and visitors. The results will be combined in an interactive exhibit that will ensure future generations can continue to meet and ask questions of survivors virtually, long into the future.

The conference showcased the strength and diversity of archives and special collections in research libraries across the UK and further beyond, with speakers also sharing case studies from Sweden, Denmark and Australia. It was a highly engaging conference, and one we look forward to participating in again. Many thanks to the organisers and delegates alike for a fantastic event.

Fiona Bradley, Deputy Executive Director RLUK
Christina Kamposiori, Programme Officer RLUK