Can You Handle It? Using Special Collections in Research

This guest blog comes from Jill Dye and Erin Farley, who co-organised a SGSAH-funded workshop on using Special Collections material for research.

Held in Dundee in May, this SGSAH-funded event was organised out of a discussion with fellow PhD researchers about “library anxiety”. Usually a term used in undergraduate, FE and public library provisions, it describes the fear of entering a library space. While PhD students are by now well acquainted with their own libraries, the PhD process takes many of us into various rare book and archival depositories, sometimes for the first time. This event intended to equip attendees with the skills and knowledge to defeat any such “library anxiety” by confronting the alien world of the reading room as well as talking, literally, about how to handle those documents. Not only would this lead to happier researchers, approaching material in a variety of repositories confidently and efficiently, but also ensure that their handling of such materials won’t prevent their use by future generations.

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For the first part of the afternoon, participants gathered into groups to set the agenda for the panel discussion to follow, setting out their questions about special collections and the process of approaching them (occasionally artistically). It successfully brought together people from different disciplines who might not otherwise hear about each other’s research, while emphasising that, despite the range of subjects in the room (from medieval manuscripts to modern film archives), our worries were often in common.

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The panel discussion which followed, consisting of a rare books librarian, archivist, conservator and three PhD students, was guided by these collective worries. Some of the topics we discussed:

  • The balance between preserving & publicising the material.
  • When will a replica not do?
  • What does a curator/archivist want from a researcher?
  • What/how to plan in advance?
  • What about copyright?
  • What can you achieve when you’re not physically *in* the archive?
  • Is it always *worth* going to the source?
  • Where to start (and when to stop!)

Key take-home points from the discussion centred around planning and not being afraid to ask for help. Try to find out as much as you can before making a trip, and never assume that the rules in any two places will be the same. For example, copyright can often be different across different collections within a repository, or even across different items. Keepers of this material want you to use it, and want you to do so without risk, therefore are usually keen to help and used to such questions. It was particularly valuable to have library, archive and conservation professionals represented in the session, each giving up their own time to contribute to the session, showing just how approachable and helpful such experts are.

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The final part of the deal dealt with the literal handling of paper items, and was led by Caroline Brown, University Archivist and Joint Assistant Director, Culture & Information, University of Dundee. She gave a wonderfully creative session using a wide variety of items from the University’s collections. It felt somewhat like Christmas, with each group given a goodie bag of things-they-might-find-in-a-reading-room, and asked to explore what they might be and when they ought to be used. She even included white gloves as a red herring (paper-based objects are better off without them!). Beth Dumas, Rare Books Cataloguer at the University of St Andrews and Simone Cenci, Paper Conservator at the National Library of Scotland, also lent their expertise to the session, with a discussion of how best to set-up book items, and what causes different types of deterioration we might see in items.

We rounded off the day with a wine reception, which was attended by representatives from Dundee heritages institutions, including the McManus, Unicorn Frigate and Dundee Central Library. The afternoon’s discussions provided excellent networking fodder, which in some ways was the most successful part of the event. It was a fantastic opportunity to bring together people we wouldn’t normally meet because of their variety of subjects. It was also great to mingle with archivists, librarians, conservators and curators to remind us all they’re human too! Thanks to all who participated, and to SGSAH who made it possible.

Erin Farley is an AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Award student at the University of Strathclyde, working with the Local History centre at Dundee Central Library.

Jill Dye is a SGSAH-funded Applied Research Collaborative student with the Universities of Stirling and Dundee, and the Library of Innerpeffray.

Thanks also to Daniel Cook and the Centre for Scottish Culture at the University of Dundee.


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