This paper offers a reflection on a service development at the University of Edinburgh (UoE) with some interesting implications for archives. It is a case study in cooperation and convergence which generally tells a positive story, although as will be made clear, the developments largely happened organically rather than through top-down planning, and there are some challenging questions about future developments. The writer is not an archivist but has overseen the development of the Centre for Research Collections (CRC) since 2008, first as Rare Books Librarian (with responsibility for CRC user services) and since 2014 as Head of Special Collections and the Centre for Research Collections. The reflections in this paper are therefore personal and anecdotal rather than a presentation of any official policy of the University of Edinburgh.
Within Edinburgh, there has been a long tradition of exchange and integration between the city’s various heritage collections. As befits a national capital, the city houses organisations such as the National Records of Scotland, the National Library of Scotland, the National Galleries of Scotland and the National Museum of Scotland. The University, which was founded in 1583, also has extensive heritage collections across 45 different collections sites, with a total of some 60 kilometres of objects. The local Edinburgh landscape presents a very rich, even dense cultural environment, and as well as a degree of healthy competition, cooperation between collections has long been essential. For instance, the founding collections of what is now the National Museum of Scotland derived in large part from the University’s object collections, which were given to the nation in the 1850s (since which time the University has built up new collections of museum specimens). In the archives area, many of the early records of the University – including the Library – are still housed in Edinburgh City Archives, as the University was largely controlled by the municipal authorities until the 19th century. There are numerous collections of personal papers and books which are shared between the University and the National Library of Scotland, some of which now form the basis of joint funded cataloguing and research projects.
Within the University itself, there has been a strong tradition of converging different collections around the University Library. The University has been collecting items relevant to its research and teaching for four hundred years, so the collections are very diverse, varied and international, to reflect the University’s strengths and changing interests over the years. They cover a wide range of formats from anatomical specimens to medieval manuscripts. However, the centre of activity for all heritage and research collections has long been the Library. The current Main Library in George Square was built in 1967, and is still one of the largest single University libraries in Western Europe; it is also one of the busiest buildings on the University campus, with over 2 million visits every year. The University sees the Library as an important part of its identity, with a book at the centre of the coat of arms. In fact the Library was founded before the University itself actually came into being – the foundation bequest of Clement Litill was made in 1580, before the University had received its royal charter. The Library is therefore an appropriate place to focus collections activity, given its high profile, central location and symbolic place at the heart of the University. Until relatively recently, all the archives and manuscripts were just managed as part of Library stock – the first professional archivist was not appointed until 1994, and management of the archives has remained within the Library as part of the University’s Information Services management grouping. Since the early 2000s the museum collections have also been governed through the same library-based model. So in Edinburgh there has been a long tradition of converged working, which in many organisations has now disappeared with the development of distinct professional disciplines. This could also have happened at the UoE, if it had not been for some planning decisions taken in the early 2000s.
From about 2000 it was recognised that the Main Library building needed to be modernised, to meet the growth and change in demand from a larger, digitally-focused student body. As part of this redevelopment, both staff and user accommodation was reviewed, and it was proposed to co-locate all the staff who looked after the different heritage collections, for the first time. This was the origin of the Centre for Research Collections. Before the redevelopment there were four staff units, which shared a public service in the Special Collections reading room, but which otherwise operated largely independently. These units were collection-based and were as follows:
• Special Collections (including some 400,000 rare books, manuscripts and personal, literary and business papers).
• University Archives (corporate records of the University, staff and students).
• Lothian Health Services Archive (the record of the National Health Service in south-east Scotland and the local hospitals going back to the early 18th century)
• Museums Support (including curatorial support for the University’s collections of art and historic musical instruments).
All these collections had very different contents, different approaches to collection management and different user services. Even the 6km of material in the various archive collections was governed by different people and to different standards. So what would it look like to bring all the staff and public services together?
The result was the architects’ design of the Centre for Research Collections, which is on the 5th and 6th floors of the Main Library, and which opened in 2008. So in the first instance the cooperation was based around the physical space – we put all the collections staff together in the same open-plan offices and created a single reading room set up where users could consult any of these collections. There was little further planning for convergence other than a practical convenience to make the best use of limited space. I joined the Library at that time as Rare Books Librarian and was given the responsibility of setting up the public services for the CRC, after the space had already been designed and built. Some of the initial success came from the quality of the space rather than from the service planning – the reading room included lots of natural light with good views over the Scottish countryside, and it quickly became more popular than the old Special Collections facility had ever been. However, we were also greatly supported by our enthusiastic small team of staff. The ethos we have upheld since 2008 is that all staff should work with the users – whether you are a cataloguer, or a conservator, you should still take your turn on the desk rota. So we ensured that all the different collections staff took their turn working with the users. That in itself started to break down the barriers between collections, as the archivists got used to handling rare books and the librarians got used to counting out folios of manuscript. We found that users really liked the approach and the fact that they could order a manuscript, a book, a photograph or a museum object for study without having to change their seat. Most users do not care who curates a collection and they are not interested in its format – they just want access to the content of items. We found that we were, almost accidentally, meeting a significant access need.
The figures for usage have been very good and have grown from around 8,000 consultations per annum in 2008 to over 20,000 consultations p.a. now. About 50% of those are consultations of archives and manuscripts. We have continued to review the service on a formal and informal basis and we get regular feedback that users like the fact that we take a consistent approach to user services regardless of collection format. We now have an overall CRC operational manual and a team of service assistants who work with all the collections and their curators. So at the simplest level, we had started to bring the collections together with the users in mind.
The next area of convergence I would like to discuss is exhibitions. When the Main Library redevelopment started in 2006, there was no planned Exhibition Space. However, our culture has changed significantly in these few years – we are now much more visually-orientated, and people expect to see things when they walk into a collection building. A private donor offered us money to build an exhibition gallery and the Friends of the University Library matched his gift. So in 2009 we opened our first ever exhibition in the Library – and we now have a 3-year programme of displays, which attract thousands of visitors and are listed as a venue in the Edinburgh Festival. Library exhibitions are traditionally quite difficult, as books are designed to be read not displayed – and archives and manuscripts are even more problematic. Many important documents are unattractive and impossible for most exhibition visitors to read. So this was an area where our archive and library staff learned a great deal from working with the museums team. We learned to think about design, about interpretation, about audience development and about how we can use the collections to engage people. In particular, we learned that having different collection types in the same exhibition can be very successful. So for example in the 2016 summer exhibition this year, which was on the archives of former professor of education Godfrey Thomson, as well as showcasing important letters, scientific notebooks and publications, we also included objects such as the equipment he used when conducting his research. This is an area where archives benefits very strongly from working with people from the museums sector. Through the exhibitions programme we have been able to raise the profile of the archives by contributing to major exhibitions about University History, such as the anniversaries of the English and Chemistry departments or the story of the cloning of Dolly the Sheep. The experience of the museums team has also been instrumental in allowing us to expand the programme of national and international loans from the archives and manuscripts collections, with all the associated impacts and benefits to the University’s reputation.
The convergence with the museums team was strengthened further by some external factors. In 2011 the University of Edinburgh merged with Edinburgh College of Art. Although the University had a historic art collection, the merger brought a much larger collection with great contemporary strengths. We also took on the ECA archives and rare books, important and previously inaccessible collections dating back to the 15th century. This merger had a transformative impact on the CRC, as the UoE was able to negotiate the additional resource needed to manage and catalogue these new collections. We also appointed an art curator and for the first time we started to see paintings and sculptures appearing in the reading room. Then in 2013 the UoE’s research collection of historic musical instruments was transferred to the CRC – so we now have clarinets and bagpipes being studied along with rare books and manuscripts. All these collections are now being exhibited as well as the archives and other existing collections. So we started to see some really different possibilities for convergence.
Traditionally, special collections and archives were not used very much by students, and generally not at all by undergraduates. This is one of the things we have challenged as we believe that students can get great benefits out of working with original primary source material. We have also found that many students are interested in getting work experience in this area because they want to go on to be archivists, librarians or museum curators. So in 2012 I created a Student Engagement Officer post to give a member of staff responsibility for working with students. We agreed from the start that this person would be based in the Museums team, but would work across all the collections teams – and that we would try to give students an understanding of all the different collections disciplines. This has been hugely successful and we now have over 50 volunteers and interns at any one time. Students are offered a range of programmes to help them get transferable skills or to get experience before applying to take a professional qualification. We also, increasingly, offer paid student positions through project funding. For example, when we apply for a grant to do conservation work on a collection, as well as asking for a conservator’s salary we ask for a 10-week student internship so the student can do basic preservation work and also get paid. We have been delighted to see many of our students going on to get professional jobs as archivists etc – sometimes returning to the UoE as full colleagues. The student engagement programmes are now part of a wider community engagement programme which is supported by social media outreach, again with the work shared between the curatorial teams.
So these are all areas where one might say that collaboration was relatively easy, an organic development because of the space and people we had. Collection management is perhaps rather different. The different collection types we manage are all very different, boxes of letters, paintings, books bound in vellum, historical musical instruments – how could we bring our collection management practices together? As usual, it was practical demands of space which helped us to start doing this. We have limited storage space which has to be used very efficiently, and this means that we have several collections strongrooms which are shared spaces with items from all main collection types. There are limitations to this approach – for example, we keep the sensitive medical records from the Lothian Health Services Archive together in a separate store, to ensure we comply with the relevant legislation. However, sharing space has given us an opportunity to develop some cross-collections policies. The first is our comprehensive Disaster Response and Recovery plan. In 2016 we finalised this after several years of development and testing – including some real-life situations. We now have a plan which covers all the heritage collections including those not physically based in the library. There is a call-out list from which any curator could be called to attend any site in an emergency. For instance, in summer 2016 I had to go out to a store with art works where there was a small water leak. The plan also has detailed information about each site, including easily identifiable salvage priorities. We do regular training on collections salvage and walk-around visits to the different sites so everyone is familiar with the different collections. This has given staff much more confidence that they can act in an emergency and be supported by colleagues, even from a different professional area.
In 2015 we decided we would for the first time seek formal Archives Accreditation for the Centre for Research Collections, through the UK scheme administrated by the National Archives. We had already achieved Museums Accreditation and had developed extensive documentation to show that we were managing the collections in accordance with best practice. We managed to adapt the museum-based Collections Management Policy to include the archives and rare books collections as well – so we now have an official policy governing collection management across the heritage collections. There were some interesting discussions as we prepared this document – for example, there are genuine differences between the professional disciplines, particularly in areas such as appraisal and accessioning. In the museums sector, appraisal normally takes place before an item comes into the collection, and disposals are very unusual and ethically contoversial. In the archives sector, it is normal to appraise and weed material after it has come into the repository. The library sector is less professionalised in this area but generally takes a hybrid approach. We have recorded these differences in our collection management policy – but we have also started to reflect more on our practice to see if there are ways we can all do things better. In any case, we were very pleased to be successful in our application for Archives Accreditation. The award report also noted the archives team workplan – which is part of a CRC-wide workplan, supported by a shared CRC staff development budget – which clearly links to University strategy thereby making the archives visible and recognised. Recently we have also received accreditation from CILIP, the UK professional library association, for our MSc in Book History which is partly delivered through the CRC. We also have professionally accredited conservators so we have the formal stamp of approval from four different collections professions.
The third area where we we have very close collection management convergence is our off-site storage. Like many collections, we are expanding very rapidly through purchase, gift and transfer, particularly in the area of archives and special collections. Our converged approach also means we can take complex hybrid collections which require input from multiple specialisms. At the same time, pressure on the study space in the library is growing as the University expands to 30,000 students. We have an offsite storage unit and have recently successfully made the business case to fit out another unit to potentially give us another 11,000 linear metres of storage. We have agreed that we will try to meet the expansion needs of all the collections, so curators from all the main collections groups have been working together to specify the kind of environmental conditions, the type of shelving and the access arrangements they would need in such a store. One of the things we realise is that the different professions attract people with different skills and different ways of viewing the world – and when those people work together on a concrete practical project it can be very creative.
Most people expect to be able to find the collections online. We have had a converged approach to digitisation for several years and a Digital Imaging Unit with two professional photographers who capture images from all the different collections. We have built two digital interfaces which try to represent the collections in the same converged way as we do in the reading room and exhibitions. We promote our Collections website as the main way into the collections. It includes collection-level descriptions for the main collections and links to the full image database and to the various specialist catalogues as appropriate. We have recently published a book – our Directory of Collections – which contains the overall collections information on the Collections website. We also have our Images website, underpinned by the Luna system (recently IIIF compliant) which showcases our digitised content from across all the collections. We are currently setting up a formal Digitisation Strategy as the University wishes to invest in this area and put more of the collections online. We have also recently agreed to start releasing all the digital images we can for people to download at high-resolution and re-use without charge under a Creative Commons Licence. One of our frustrations, however, is the complexity of copyright legislation, particularly for orphaned archives, manuscripts and photographs, which limits what we are able to do. Another of the big challenges we face is in the creation of metadata for the different collection images – to be discussed shortly.
Conservation is another area which has thrived and grown through the converged environment. When the CRC was built in 2008, we included a conservation studio, which was an optimistic gesture as we had no dedicated conservators. That has now changed and we now have a team including a preventative conservator who looks at best practice for all the collections such as integrated pest management, a paper conservator who does interventive work on archives and art collections, a musical instruments conservator and other project-specific conservation staff. We also have an arrangement with a private book conservator who uses our conservation studio in return for giving us a certain proprortion of her time. The conservation staff have picked up on the convergence ethos and have started to share skills between their specific disciplines. For example, the paper conservator has been taught how to carry out basic book repairs, which is appropriate given that over 70% of the CRC collections consist of bound volumes. The team has also been encouraged to experiment with new techniques and materials, challenging old ideas. For example, we ran a project with support from the Wellcome Trust on on of our modern medical archives which included many plastic items, which needed specialist housing and sometimes significant research to treat. The conservation staff also support the digitisation and exhibition programmes, training for reading room staff and support for teaching classes which may be using collections very intensively. Again, this was recognised in our Archives Accreditation award as a strength that the CRC model offers to the archive collections.
Although we call ourselves the Centre for Research Collections, teaching is increasingly recognised by the University as a priority area. We provide teaching space for academic staff from any discipline wanting to work with any of the collections. So we have lecturers from the history of art, divinity, history of medicine etc. who work with our curators to deliver courses. However, increasingly the collections staff do teaching as well. For instance, the MSc in Book History includes a module called Working with Collections, which is taught exclusively by CRC staff in the library. The students are given an introduction to professional practice by conservators, archivists, librarians, curators and photographers, to get them to think about things like collection development, digitisation and metadata. We also bring the students into our discussions about professional convergence – so in one seminar on collection management, they get presentations from the archives manager, art curator and rare books librarian on a collection in multiple formats and the different approaches they might take. One of the things we find is that teaching like this encourages us to become more aware of the benefits and limitations of our specific professional disciplines and their traditional approaches.
The CRC offers many good examples of professional convergence – but there are still many challenges. For example, our Archives Accreditation report picked up on the fact that 30% of our archives are completely unlisted. We have recently implemented Archives Space open-source software for archives management and have used this to release catalogue data created in previous years in Excel and other products. However, we still have a huge backlog of uncatalogued material. We also know that many users do not find our archives and manuscripts catalogue. One of the disadvantages of the converged setup is that the archives are just one component of the CRC, within a large and complex university – and this is reflected in our website. So we have been looking at ways to make the archives data more visible and to surface it through other library discovery systems. We recently ran a Wellcome Trust-funded project with the National Library of Scotland to catalogue a collection where we had the library and they had the archives of an individual doctor – we took the resulting MARC and EAD records and built a website to allow them to be cross-searched together. However, if we want to scale this up to let users search our EAD as part of the whole library collection, we run into many challenges. Most obviously, there is the problem of authority control – it is not straightforward to map authorities between Library of Congress and archival records, and we would not want to flood the library discovery system with thousands of new authorities without equivalents elsewhere. We are working on this but do not have a full solution yet. There are similar issues with the metadata for our digital images – we can exchange data between Archives Space and our image management system, but there is still an issue of inconsistency between images from different collection types – and also just a lack of basic metadata content. So lots of work remains to be done.
My personal view is that the model we have developed is successful and creative. It maintains professional good practice while responding flexibly to new user needs, new technology and new approaches to collections management. However, we are still faced with some big challenges. There are still issues about the visibility of the archives and people sometimes just refer to all the collections as “the archive”. In a large and devolved university, despite the presence of a good central Records Management unit, there is a lack of consistency in terms of record keeping and preserving the outputs of the University and its staff. There are still major technical issues we need to tackle to fully develop and share our metadata, and to take forward our digital preservation strategy. However, many of these big issues are shared with the other collection professions. We all need to face the fact that users expect to get immediate access to all collections content online, and increasingly that they expect this will be rich content, with transcriptions, translations and interpretation rather than simple digital surrogates. Researchers want detailed item-level information – but at the same time they want information about large numbers of records or data sources so they can apply the new analytical tools being developed by digital scholarship. These are great challenges and opportunities for all the professions, but particularly for archives given the density and complexity of our unique documentary heritage. This is where there are particular benefits to an archive being located within a University and within a Library / Information Services governance model, with the infrastructure and technical expertise that implies.
What makes me most optimistic is that our people are committed to this converged vision. We have a diverse, if small, group of staff even within the archives team, from a range of different national backgrounds and on different career trajectories. We are pleased that there are many good new people coming up from the archive schools and we want to encourage them to develop a professional but flexible attitude to their work. There is much that the different professions can learn from each other without conceding the essential reasons for making them distinctive. For example, it is my view that archivists can learn from the ways in which rare books librarian and museum curators are expert in drawing out the qualities of an individual item, without allowing it to be submerged in a web of contexts. Equally, archivists can teach the other professions about the ways in which provenances and relationships can shape the appearance and signifiance of individual objects. We now understand more fully the superficially contradictory impulses in the library and archive professions – the librarians tending to select and privilege individual items for access, the archivists tending to preserve documents as a network of equally valuable items. These different drivers can actually come together to the good of the collections and their users, as I believe we are doing in the Centre for Research Collections. If we are seen to developing our professional thinking with the collections and their users in mind, this will be seen and recognised. There is a lot of goodwill in the public community towards archives and the heritage professions, and if we can keep working together then the future is bright.
Joseph Marshall, Associate Director of Collections Management, National Library of Scotland (Formerly Head of Special Collections and the Centre for Research Collections, University of Edinburgh)