RLUK Special Collections Programme (SCP)

As RLUK’s Special Collections Programme (SCP) is poised to embark on a third phase of activity following two years of intensive work through phases 1 and 2, we take a moment to look at the main outcomes and achievements so far, and to highlight the aims of the next phase for members.

The SCP was established in 2016 as a two-year initiative led by Sue Crossley to develop an audience focused approach around special collections across RLUK’s network of institutions, with a view to making new opportunities for reward and recognition. The programme was developed around seven key challenges for special collections which were identified by RLUK members and Board at the outset as:

  • Audience

  • Leadership

  • Collective Involvement

  • Discoverability

  • Significance

  • Recognition

  • Funding

The SCP provides a flexible core of networks, tools and opportunities to help members align aims and activity with audiences for our collections. We set up three key networks at the outset as a permanent feature of the programme to help us ensure good progress within a defined timescale and combine the expertise of RLUK members and leaders with that of external experts from a range of relevant fields:

Special Collections Leadership Network (SCLN): nominated special collections leaders who self-manage and work collectively to identify and tackle big leadership issues by combining expertise. Outputs are regular meetings, a communications forum and outward reaching workshops at DCDC.

Special Collections Advisory Network (SCAN): a flexible pool of external experts from whom RLUK can seek advice, guidance and skills as and when needed. The group interacts with the other SCP networks, contributes to the strategic development of the programme and to funding bids.

Funders Network (FN): currently a group of eight national funding bodies are represented on the network. This meets regularly under an informal ‘working lunch’ title designed to help members air and share developments, challenges and opportunities with RLUK. SCLN and SCAN members sit on the group as well. Outputs are presentations and surgeries at the DCDC Funders Marketplace and contributions to regional workshops with a focus on SCP challenges.

Tools and Resources

RLUK is developing a new website, with a designated space for the activities and events associated with the SCP. Providing a platform for sharing news, updates, case studies of best practice and an access point for SCLN members, the section will also contain reports and other materials for those interested in special collections.

Events and Opportunities

During phases 1 and 2, the SCP delivered ten regional workshops, six DCDC conference papers and panels and established a firm presence with the Funders marketplace and funding surgery sessions. As part of these first two years of development, a second stage £200k funding bid to the Wellcome Trust was submitted which aimed to address the problem of the ‘hidden’ collections in our institutions and lead to greater impact, issues that are at the core of the SCP.

The challenge of uncovering ‘hidden’ collections

In an era of rapidly advancing technology where researchers of all kinds want remote digital access to collections at the touch of a button, libraries are tasked with choosing what to digitise. At present the criteria for making that choice is often based on a combination of what is easily accessible and can be processed cost effectively. In this case accessible usually means material which is already catalogued. So, for the vast quantity of uncatalogued material in our stores digitisation remains a distant dream, raising the question of whether this really offers audiences the choice they need.  How can we change this balance?

We cannot hope to catalogue everything in the ‘hidden’ category using traditional cataloguing. At the same time, if the selection continues to only consider catalogued material, the audience focus will be compromised.

To address this, faster points of entry are needed as an alternative to traditional cataloguing and RLUK attempted to meet the challenge in a proactive and collaborative way by working to develop a single assessment tool to look at content, condition and significance (for a range of audiences) in a single survey, involving researchers in the survey process and developing collaborative hubs along the way.

At the heart of the funding application to Wellcome was a plan to develop a viable methodology for assessing the content, condition and significance of uncatalogued special collections material in a single survey. Although the bid was not successful, the rationale for developing such a tool should remain an important topic for all those caring for special collections, particularly in the context of RLUK’s current interest in seeking funding for large scale, potentially collaborative digitisation projects.

The next phase of the programme, apart from the focus on maintaining the consortial commitment to special collections and SCP activities, may entail opportunities for discussion of this shared problem and raise the possibility of revisiting the project proposal; the support and involvement of members during relevant discussions will be crucial.

Sue Crossley
Special Collections Consultant