Victoria Worsfold’s of the Victoria and Albert Museum extended report on the LMLAG 2009 conference.
The London Museum Librarians and Archivists Group (LMLAG) held an exciting and successful one-day conference ‘Not Museum Pieces: the Developing Role of Archivists and Librarians in Museums’ at the National Gallery on the 10th September 2009. LMLAG is an informal group of archivists and librarians in museums and galleries in London. Established in 2002 (?), it aims to promote best practice, meet the needs and aspirations of museums and their developing audiences, promote opportunities to learn from the group members and from others, and raise awareness of the present and potential abilities among museums and the archive and library professions. As part of this drive, LMLAG has now organised three bi-annual conferences, all concentrating on how to adapt and survive in a rapidly changing environment.
‘Not Museum Pieces’ was opened by Andrew McDonald, Director of Libraries and Learning Services at the University of East London. His keynote speech addressed what he saw as the current challenges: the semantic web, large scale digitisation, born digital material, personalisation of services, customisation, mobile technology and social networking. He argued that within this lay great opportunities for greater participation by users, more interpretation and comment by them, new links being made and increased access for users. Andrew pointed out that new places were opening: Seven Stories in Newcastle, the Sammy Ofer wing at the Maritime Museum, among other new archive and library buildings across the country which were all making collections more accessible and attractive, bringing in new audiences, help people to engage with objects and often bringing about local regeneration and one stop approaches. He reflected that the situation needed vision and big ideas, partnerships with other organisations, work with professional bodies, development of the workforce, greater emphasis on digitisation, new spaces, and a concentration on sustainability.
Gunter Waibel, Program Officer, RLG Programs at OCLC delivered the second session, using the outcomes from an number of recent OCLC reports to illustrate his argument that collaboration is the key to survival. Referencing Ken Soehner from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Gunter suggested that Museum libraries and archives are analogous to a ‘three ring circus’: supportive of the centre stage (the museum or gallery) but not the main draw, and that as such are vulnerable to funding cuts. He argued that we need to be truly transformative with our services, collaborating and ultimately converging with others who have shared audiences. OCLC had approached this in two ways, both within organisations and without (“in the wild”). Cooperation across departments within a single organisation had been workshopped in early 2008 in museums in the UK and USA. They had examined current collaborations, then obstacles to further collaboration, then developed a vision with actionable projects. One example was the Smithsonian Institute, who set up a The Commons on Flickr project and an external single point of access to all collections. For collaboration ‘in the wild’ he used the example of the New York Art Consortium, where four art libraries compared their collections and found that each had a high degree of uniqueness both between themselves and in the wider world. This had gained the attention of the academic libraries and seven libraries ended up collaborating and concentrated on privileged access and collection development. The resulting report ‘NYC-7’ will be available in October 2009.
The third session concentrated on how Web Technologies are helping us to adapt to our users needs. Ruth Crumey ,Your Archives Development Officer, The National Archives (NA) told the Conference about her experience of developing a wiki based around the collection of the National Archives, entirely created by people researching the Archives. ‘Your Archives’ was launched over two years ago and now has over 10,500 articles adding further information on items held in or relating to the Archive. The NA embarked on this project because their users and staff represent a huge knowledge base about the collections and it made sense to harness this. They went with a wiki as it was cheap, recognisable and had all the functionality they needed. The site is genuinely user driven as editorial policy is to moderate after contributions are made, only editing to make sure posts follow their terms and conditions and are relevant and appropriate. Your Archives has had very positive feedback from the public and about fifty people are very regular contributors.
From the National Maritime Museum (NMM), Eleanor Gawne, Head of the Archive and Library and Fiona Romeo, Digital Project Manager both discussed their work helping to develop the Sammy Ofer Wing, a £35 million project to improve access to and storage of paper based collections at the NMM. The Wing will have a new exhibitions centre, a new research and reading room and two new stores, and its development has effected how they work both cross museum and with external stakeholders. It has also raised their digitisation ambitions, but the challenge was how to achieve these ambitions without additional resources. The NMM have decided on a broad general approach but taking some items in detail. Fiona suggested that anyone embarking on a digitisation project have a schematic for prioritisation e.g. social inclusion, public programmes, preservation etc. NMM have undertaken three projects: The Commons on Flickr, data mining and visualisation and syndication on Europeana. The projects were centred on a strategy of inviting the public to contribute their knowledge to the collection, using automated textual analysis, embracing different levels of interpretation from ‘stubs’ to full entries and developing an open license for all content and syndicating widely.
The fourth session was on innovative ways to promote and provide access to Special Collections. Sarah Lawrance, Collections Director at Seven Stories in Tyneside and Jo Elsworth, Director, Theatre Collection, Department of Drama, at the University of Bristol both discussed the challenges of achieving Accredited Museum Status and of opening up a wide range of materials to new and divers audiences. The University of Bristol had developed a virtual Cabinet of Curiosities to showcase 100 objects from across the University’s wonderful and diverse museum and archive collections, aiming to provide inspiration to the students across traditional subject domains and object types. Seven Stories had great success with engaging local communities through special events and author tie-ins, and their unique subject specialism had led to some very high profile and significant donations and bequests. They had also given children the chance to promote the Centre for themselves through the production of a video.
The final session questioned whether professional training is meeting the needs that had been so clearly outlined in the previous sessions. Marion Huckle, Head of Qualifications and Professional Development at the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP) argued that if we don’t embrace new ways of working we will be by-passed by the ‘google’ generation. A recent trawl of the CILIP Gazette had showed how much electronic and digital skills are required and that this affects the type of training needed. We all came to our jobs with some sort of skill deficit so we shouldn’t despair. However, she asserted that while the training is available, it’s the recognition of that need and its application in the workplace that’s actually needed.
Nicola Franklin, Head of Information Recruitment at Sue Hill Recruitment took a different tack, arguing that in a quickly changing environment, it’s not so much the technical skills that are now needed but training in how to change, and how to keep learning and adapting. The main skills needed for today’s practitioners are networking, negotiating, influencing, planning and organisation and marketing and promotion. She felt these skills were being neglected by many current training providers, and that we need to let our professional bodies, those running MA courses etc know that what we want isn’t available and they should be visiting us to see what skills are needed at grass roots level.
Andrew Flinn, Programme Director, Archives and Records Management, at the University College London Department of Information Studies came to the defence of professional courses, arguing that they have come under criticism but are entry level qualifications which aim to prepare students for their first job so take a generalist approach. They are increasingly only the beginning of professional education and training and continuing professional development has become more important than ever. He felt that possible future directions on MA courses may include more regular ‘industry’ review, less generalised and more specialised courses, meaning that students would be choosing a career path earlier on. He also felt there could be greater diversity and non postgraduate entry into the profession.
The overall message of the day was that museum libraries and archives must be fleet of foot and quickly changing to ensure their ongoing survival. We must demonstrate our worth to the wider world and get digital content into the areas where people already go to rather than wait for them to come to us. The speakers all argued that you don’t have to wait until things are perfect but that its far better to just get content ‘out there’ and refine later and that this all increases, rather than reduces, footfall to your home site. This can be done cheaply but still effectively using off the shelf solutions, user driven content and collaboration with other organisations. The key is to keep looking outward, updating your skills with CPD and maintaining both your own and your organisations relevancy.