Last week, I attended the CILIP (Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals) RBSCG (Rare Books and Special Collections Group) Annual Study Conference hosted by the University of Sussex. The theme of this year’s conference was “Collections at Risk,” with each day of the conference focusing on Preservation and Conservation, Theft and Vandalism, or Sale and Disposal. I enjoy conferences in general since they give me the opportunity to meet and exchange ideas with colleagues from across the country, but this year’s conference was especially practical. There was so much useful information, in fact, that I’ve had to divide my conference notes between three blog posts. For this post, I’m going to focus on day 1: Preservation and Conservation.
The first speaker was Elizabeth Oxborrow-Cowan, Consultant Archivist on the UNESCO Memory of the World programme. Her presentation, entitled Using the UNESCO brand to protect collections, gave a brief overview of UNESCO’s Memory of the World programme, which seeks to facilitate preservation, access, and awareness of documentary heritage. This programme centres around the belief that documentary heritage is key to our national (or international) identity; that documentary heritage belongs to all, and should therefore be accessible to all. A key element of the programme is the Register for items or collections of outstanding national or international significance.
She spoke briefly about the application procedure and criteria for selection, and in more detail about the benefits of having collection items recognised on the UNESCO Register. Acceptance onto the register does not carry any monetary reward, but it does offer an external validation of the significance of an institution’s collections. Thanks to UNESCO’s name recognition with the general public (including managers, accountants, donors, and other non-librarians), it can lend support to funding applications and bring added footfall to exhibitions and events.
Even for those institutions whose collections might not meet the criteria for “outstanding significance,” the Memory of the World project also issues recommendations and guidelines for preserving documentary heritage. Building these guidelines into project plans can also strengthen funding applications.
The second and fourth speakers, Stacey Anderson, Media Archivist at Plymouth City Council, and Will Prentice, Head of Technical Services for Sound & Vision at the British Library, both discussed ongoing projects to preserve and digitise audiovisual media in their collections, and to encourage other institutions and private individuals to do the same. Stacey Anderson described the unique challenges of preserving audiovisual media: not only do the materials themselves deteriorate rapidly, the technology (analogue or digital) to play them rapidly becomes obsolete and therefore difficult to find and maintain. Each different format has slightly different storage requirements in terms of optimal temperature and relative humidity, so it is important for curators to understand and identify each of the formats in their collections.
Will Prentice described the British Library’s Save Our Sounds project, which originated from a survey of cultural heritage professionals which revealed that while roughly 50% of us have audiovisual media in our collections, more than 70% of us responded that we had no formal training on audiovisual materials, and did not feel confident in our capacity to care for audio collections. To remedy this situation, the Save Our Sounds project aims to set up ten regional hubs which will offer training to cultural heritage professionals and the general public on digitisation and preservation. Each of these hubs will contribute digital copies of 5,000 sound recordings for posting on the British Library’s website. By making these recordings freely available to the public, the project hopes to demonstrate both the value and the fragility of sound archives.
The third speaker of the day was Emma Dodson, the Divisional Manager at Harwell Document Restoration Services. Rather than listen passively to her presentatioin, conference delegates were asked to imagine that a water leak (the most common type of disaster in UK libraries) had been found in their department, and to discuss the order in which they would perform a set of tasks including isolating the electrical supply, consulting the library’s disaster plan, evacuating reading room areas, setting up a salvage area for drying books, and removing or otherwise protecting books in areas adjacent to the leak. We were given tools for calculating the volume of damage materials we could salvage on our own, and for deciding when to call in professional help. We all hoped that we would never need to make use of this knowledge, but exercises like this one are designed to reduce the amount of time that it takes us to go from panicked flailing to useful, directed action.
The final speaker was Sarah Bashir, Preservation Manager at Lambeth Palace Library. Sarah’s presentation, aptly titled Preventive Conservation: what to do when you have no money, gave an excellent overview of the chief causes of damage to library collections (temperature, relative humidity, light, pests, dust and pollutants, and poor handling), with suggestions for easy, low-cost ways of monitoring conditions and mitigating threats.
By the end of the day, I was filled with new ideas for extending the useful lifespan of our collections. After a pleasant dinner catching up with colleagues whom I hadn’t seen since last year’s conference, I was ready to get some sleep and do it all again tomorrow.