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Knitted planes, J. B. Priestley’s shirt and Iris Murdoch’s beer mat collection – experiencing the “Discovering collections, discovering communites”conference (part 2)

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Secret Garden, Library of Birmingham

In my last post I talked about the Social Media panel I attended at the Discovering Collections, Discovering Communities conference held in Birmingham (29-30th Oct).  After a networking lunch where I mostly stood on the edge and talked to my friend (I had very blocked ears at this event and trying to hear people in a noisy room was really difficult), I went to the “Demonstrating the impact of collections” panel (5).

We all want impact, and we are all looking for ways to demonstrate our impact, especially to those higher up the food chain, so this seemed like a good panel to attend.

First up was Katie Giles talking about “Widening the Arc of friendship: exploring letters from Iris Murdoch and Phillipa Foot with the local community”.  Kingston University’s Centre for Iris Murdoch Studies  and Archives and Special Collections acquired over 200 letters from Murdoch to her friend and fellow philosopher Philippa Foot that covered a period of 40 years. The centre already had a large collection of letters and other items associated with Murdoch (such as her beer mat collection!), but decided to use this new acquisition in a community project, opening up the letters to non-academics and people who would never normally use their collections.

The letters arrived in a red canvas bag, in which they had been housed all along, and this red bag became a symbol for the project. The letters ranged from decorative airmail letters to postcards, and included a sketch ‘the dog of happiness’. They approached a variety of different groups within the local community, such as local schools, Age Concern Kingston, Carers, and Adults with Learning Difficulties in Kingston, and ended up with an age range of participants from 10 to 83 years old!  They devised certain activities tailored to the participants, but ensured that all groups were given a visit to the archives.  A particular challenge they overcame was working with adults with very low levels of literacy, but still successfully engaging them in a project centred round letters from a novelist.

Top tips learnt from the project:

1) Always talk to experts – different groups of people have different needs, so talk to the ‘experts’, the carers etc who normally work with these groups, and find out how best to engage with people.  Don’t assume you know best!

2) Be adaptable and think on your feet.

3) Feel the fear and do it anyway!

Next up Kirsty Patrick (Mass Observation Archive, University of Sussex) talked about “Mass observation behind bars: building collections with the prisoner community”.

The Mass observation archive captures what every day life in Britain is like. The first round of investigations took place between 1937-1950s and involved volunteers sitting in pubs and cafes watching and taking notes about people, as well as a panel of volunteer writers who completed surveys.  Newer material has been collected since 1981, although they no longer ask volunteers to ‘spy’ on people in public places!  There is also the ‘12th May’ project – in 1937 Mass Observation called on people to keep a diary of everything they did that day (which was George VI’s Coronation day), this project has been repeated since 2010, and anyone can get involved.

At the archive they are trying to widen participation in this project and want to reach sections of society who would not normally get involved.  Due to this they have reached out to community groups, disability charities and prisoners.  In 2013 the Mass Observation project went behind bars at Lewes Prison, and took part in creative writing activities with prisoners.  Those who contributed felt that they had been given a voice.  Prison diaries were found to be very structured with strict timings due to the nature of life behind bars, but provided interesting insights to an aspect of everyday life in Britain not normally covered.

Both these two papers showed imaginative projects working with diverse sections of local communities and demonstrated that archives are not just for academics and specialists.

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Ceiling of Shakespeare Memorial Room, Library of Birmingham

The final paper in this panel was “Valuing the archives: from non-market valuation to input-output analysis” presented by Lertchai Wasananikornkulchai (University of Glasgow) and based on research he is currently undertaking. I admit some of this did go over my head a bit as he discussed various economic models for demonstrating the value of archives.  But a useful exercise in attempting to show that input-output analysis is a better model for smaller institutions and archives to use.



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Knitted planes, J. B. Priestley’s shirt and Iris Murdoch’s beer mat collection – experiencing the “Discovering collections, discovering communites”conference (part 1)

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Library of Birmingham

Over two days at the end of October (29-30th Oct, 2014) I was attending and speaking at the RLUK ‘Discovering collections discovering communities’ conference in Birmingham.  A gathering of archivists, museum staff,  librarians and academics it was a fascinating experience.  Building on a previous conference that had looked at ‘Enhancing impact, inspiring excellence; collaborative approaches between archives and universities‘ that had taken place the year before, this event focussed on cross-sector collaboration and the impact this could have.

There were a variety of panels to choose from on the first day, and the ones I attended all proved to be fascinating, albeit mostly not directly relevant to my job.  Although I was speaking about a special collection, and collaboration with academics and clinicians, I am a cataloguer and this isn’t the main part of my role.  Most of the speakers I heard appeared to be archivists rather than librarians, and I think the focus of the conference tended to be on archives.  This didn’t matter though, as all the papers were really interesting, and lessons learned about archive collections can also be applied to special collections in libraries.

The first panel (3) I attended was on “Social media: virtual collecting and the new frontier of discovery?”, and this was probably the panel I felt I could relate to most directly as I blog, tweet, and use Pinterest (all for work purposes as well as personal). First up was Simon Demissie from the National Archives discussing popular Twitter feeds such as the @Theretronaut and @HistoryinPics who have large followings and utilise historical images without really paying attention to referencing and copyright.  As librarians, archivists and historians we will probably feel distinctly uncomfortable about this.  Demissie however, whilst acknowledging this problem, also believed that as professionals we had a lot to learn from these kind of feeds and sites, especially if we wanted to engage with audiences in a similar way. He focused on the @ukwarcabinet feed which utilises cabinet papers from the National Archives to provide a narrative of the Second World War.  This has been very successful, especially around the 70th anniversary of D Day, but ultimately may prove to be unsustainable due to the level of work entailed to provide accurate referencing and metadata.  Demissie provided a lot of food for thought on this topic.

Next up was Alison Cullingford, University of Bradford, and author of The Special Collections Handbook.  I have heard a lot about Cullingford and her projects in the past, but this was my first chance to hear her speak and meet her in the flesh (not just on Twitter), and I was not disappointed.  This was the paper where we met J. B. Priestley’s shirt, wrapped in a bag and ‘fresh’ from The Mayfair Laundry, and appearing on the 100 Objects Bradford blog.

Cullingford looked at how for early adopters social media has  matured into an ideal way of promoting special collections, although there are many of people out there who are still very wary of using it.  Using the 100 Object Bradford blog project as a case study she explored how they had used it, what the benefits were, and what lessons they had learned.  For example, it is a good place to address popular enquiries, using the information that people were already asking for.

As an aside Cullingford mentioned St Andrews special collections blog Echoes from the vault which has been running a project using ‘How to’ books as a starting point for blog posts. Great idea!

The final speaker in this session was Peter Findlay (JISC) talking about using and contributing to Wikipedia as a way of promoting collections and project work. At JISC they have a Wikipedian ambassador who is embedded in the community and helping to challenge the notion that Wikipedia is inaccurate and not a source to use.

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Library of Birmingham

He pointed out that every time a project is funded a new web resource is often created that usually ends up being just another fragmented silo of information; and that we should be thinking about working more closely with big platforms like Wikipedia to share knowledge and images.

I really enjoyed this first panel and it set me in good stead for the rest of the conference.

(Further posts to follow)


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