The SCLN is now in its second year of existence and is established as a venue for special collections leaders and managers to come together and work on common challenges. After four meetings the group now has established relationships, there is activity on the mailing list and the beginnings of some serious joined-up working on areas such as collection management, collection development and digitisation. We have presented on the group’s activities to the RLUK directors and to wider audiences at the DCDC conference, and engagement with groups such as the Funders’ Network is also helping to strengthen the group’s profile and presence.
At the first meeting in 2017 the group identified a list of twelve key topics to discuss. These included challenges such as positioning and strategic alignment and culture change – all issues which broadly speaking make us ask questions around why special collections matters and where it is going. This naturally aligns with the rest of the RLUK Special Collections programme and the work to shift towards a focus on audience to set priorities and direction.
The SCLN group during their meeting on Advocacy and Lobbying
The SCLN group has now worked through the top priority issues, with the last meeting, at Leicester on 31 January, devoted to the subject of advocacy and lobbying. All of us feel that there is more we need to do to get the voice of special collections heard, within our libraries, our organisations and the wider sector. We all know instinctively that our collections have great potential value, but how do we unlock and demonstrate this? All of us have specific needs: more space, more money, more digital infrastructure, more skilled people – again, how do we influence and negotiate to achieve these?
Our discussion showed that already the group spend a significant amount of time on advocacy and lobbying, typically around 15%.It was noted that this is now something that everyone working in special collections has to buy into and it isn’t reserved for senior directors – for example, conservators can be fantastic advocates by demonstrating the benefits of their professional work on collections. It was widely recognised that business cases for change increasingly require robust evidence, such as metrics for usage and audience impact – making the work on the audience-led strategy even more relevant.
The meeting included a number of case studies for successful and less-successful advocacy and lobbying. It was noted that sometimes we can get what we want – but at a price, with potential to damage relationships if audiences are not fully on board. Overall it was clear that the key to successful advocacy is getting relationships right, and that trust is currency. Often campaigns are more successful if other people advocate on our behalf – the view may be held that “the special collections librarians would say that”, but the same message coming from teaching or research staff would be accepted as credible. We left the meeting feeling that the more aware we are of our behaviour, language and approach when doing advocacy and lobbying, the more likely we are to get it right. We should be thinking honestly in each case about the following questions: “Does what we propose really help? Is it credible? Can we do it?” There are also many areas where we will be more effective working collaboratively – for example, around digital preservation, where we probably cannot all individually solve a major technical and intellectual problem.
The next meeting, to be held in York on 1 May, will look at digitisation and digital working, and presents an opportunity for the group to start looking at how we might practically work together, given that digitisation transcends our individual collection / institutional boundaries. There are various UK-wide initiatives being led by JISC, TNA, RLUK, SCONUL and others where SCLN has a real change to engage and make a difference.
Head of Special Collections and the Centre for Research Collections at The University of Edinburgh
Co-convenor of the RLUK Special Collections Leadership Network