Celebrating our research collections

December 15, 2017 0 Comments

1937 Library

The text of a talk given in Taliesin, Swansea University on 11 December 2017 to mark the 80th birthday of the 1937 Library.  The talk was supported by Swansea University, the Learned Society of Wales and the Royal Institution of South Wales.

Diolch yn fawr am y gwahoddiad i siarad – y tro cyntaf imi siarad yn gyhoeddus yma ers  gadael y staff a’r Brifysgol yn 1998.  Rhaid imi ddweud, mae atgofion melys ‘da fi o fy amser yma yn yr nawdegau – amser o newid a datblygu mewn sawl ystyr.  Mae gan Abertawe enw am fod yn brifysgol neilltuol o gyfeillgar ac agos-atoch-chi.  Yn bendant roedd hynny’n wir bryd hynny, ac mae’n dal i fod yn wir heddiw, mae’n siŵr.

First, many thanks for the invitation to speak, on the eightieth birthday of the 1937 building of Swansea University Library.  This must be the first time I’ve spoken in public in Swansea University since I left in 1998, and it’s going to be hard to resist recalling those distant times.

Olive Busby (with thanks to the Richard Burton Archive, Swansea University)

I’ve been given firm instructions not to talk about the history of the 1937 building – it will be remembered by the centenary history of the University – but I can’t help mentioning my predecessor Olive Busby, the Librarian for almost forty years, from the University’s foundation in 1920 until 1959.  She was one of only three appointments of women to fill senior positions in the early years, and she deserves some attention in the centenary celebrations.  ‘Fearsomely formidable’ is the epithet David Dykes uses for her in his official history published in 1992.  You can sense some of that quality in a photograph taken of her over ten years after she retired (I’m grateful to the staff of the Richard Burton Archives for the copy).  I remember Dewi Z. Phillips, professor of philosophy and no shrinking violet, recalling Miss Busby with a quaver in his voice.  She only had to appear, he would say, on the balcony of the ‘37 building for terror to enter the souls of the students in the reading room below.  Any chattering would cease immediately.  Others who remembered Miss Busby had very similar impressions of her.  I suspect none of her successors inherited her ability to rule with a rod of iron.  And of course these days chattering in the reading rooms isn’t just tolerated, it’s official policy, encouraged as one of many contemporary student learning styles.

It’s not primarily the students, though, I want to concentrate on in what I have to say today (though I will have important things to say about them later).  My subject is the role of collections in the work of researchers – collections in the widest sense, internal and external, analogue and digital, and researchers also in the widest sense, not just academic researchers belonging to a home institution but anyone seriously interested in seeking knowledge.  And I’ll have some suggestions about how Swansea University might make good use of its collections in future.

Collections, of course, can mean many things.  We’re now very used to collections being digital, rather than being a gathering of cognate objects or documents (unlike some analogue collections, digital ones can by their very nature be in more than one place at a time).  I’ll be referring to both. 

Another distinction.  Collections of primary material can be the main centre of attention of the researcher, as in much humanities research.  Or they can be relevant not as collections in themselves but simply as the convenient source of a specific unit of information, like a set of scientific data or a journal article.  I’m not interested today in the latter.  It seems to me that, in the case of these, what I’ve called elsewhere ‘common collections’, the modern librarian operates as a combination of broker and accountant, with a duty to provide the researcher with easy and immediate access, usually electronic, to what’s needed, at the lowest price.

Much more interesting, it seems to me, are collections in which the researcher has, or might have, a direct and central interest, as the quarry or reservoir for original investigation.  Often these are unique, or, if not, are in some other way distinctive or special – and therefore capable of being sought out for the value they bring to a researcher.

Special collections have always been important in universities.  Not only, either, in the traditional research universities.  Libraries and other departments in many of the newer universities quickly realised the value of developing collections that would be distinctive – and would lend themselves distinction.  Swansea University is a good example.  Its archives were first developed in the 1970s and have grown in scope and depth since, especially in the last fifteen years.  A big step forward was the opening in 1973 of the South Wales Miners’ Library, with which the name of Prof. Hywel Francis will always be associated.

Special collections in analogue formats like paper or three dimensional objects are still crucially important, for at least two reasons.  First, we tend to imagine that most recorded knowledge is nowadays either born digital or converted into digital form.  But in many fields, especially in the humanities, that is far from true.  The truth of this was brought home to me recently while doing research in writing a book called Wales in 100 objects.  Information on the internet, I found, could take me so far.  In almost all cases visits to libraries and archives to consult printed and manuscript sources were unavoidable.  And often the most interesting and vivid material I found came from obscure unique or rare material that may never see the light of digital day through Google Search.

Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford

Second, analogue collections in the digital age, I would argue, have gained a renewed attraction and visibility – precisely because they are not digital.  Researchers value access to material that is not available equally to the whole world.  Non-digital collections allow much better opportunities for serendipity and chance discovery.  And many people eventually tire of exclusively screen-based experiences.  They appreciate the chance to explore real, original material, with eyes unfiltered by pixels.  Think of the contemporary renaissance of museums that seem to turn the clock back, and almost reject the digital world, like the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford.  Here visitors are thrilled by the fact that nothing – exhibits, cases and captions – appears to have changed since the nineteenth century, let alone the twentieth. Or a museum I visited recently, Beaumaris Gaol, which gives you an unsettling and highly convincing impression of being a nineteenth century prisoner, entirely without the use of CGI technology.

Some students here at Swansea are introduced to the Richard Burton Archives as part of the courses.  Their reactions to first-hand contact with original documents make interesting reading.  One of them reported, ‘It’s quite mind-blowing to engage materially with an author’s diaries’.  Another said, ‘seeing the real original documents was really fascinating and interesting … I’ve never been around something this old, or this important’.

New analogue collections are still being formed, of course.  One of the most significant collection developments in recent years in the National Library of Wales has been the growth in the National Screen and Sound Archive of a massive collection of Welsh broadcasting – through the donation by ITV in 2012 of its archive back to the beginning of independent TV broadcasting in Wales, and earlier this year through the accession of the BBC Cymru Wales archive.  Together these collections will give future researchers a massively rich resource for the study of our country in the second half of the twentieth century.

But of course digital research collections are becoming more and more important.  Most of these are digitised copies of analogue originals.  When I arrived in the National Library in 1998 it was one of our most important ambitions to begin creating electronic equivalents of many of the treasures held in the Library.  What helped enormously at that early stage was the unusually attractive and wide range of material in the Library’s collections: not only printed and archive items, but paintings and prints, maps, photographs and sound and moving image material.  So we began with ‘highlights’ – single items, small collections and digital versions of exhibitions that we thought would be of interest.  Soon, though, ambition increased.  We realised that we could do ‘mass digitisation’ as well as ‘hand-picked’, and, often with the help of external funds, we set our sights on larger collections – the entire collection of oil paintings, for example, or the complete text of the Dictionary of Welsh biography.  And later still we became even more ambitious again and devised a comprehensive programme called ‘The Theatre of Memory’.  Its aim was nothing less than the digitisation of the entire output of Welsh publishing.  Two parts of the programme, Welsh journals online and Welsh newspapers online, were completed – or as complete as they could be, given our resources – before I left the Library in 2013.

These projects were not without their difficulties.  As one of the leading major digitisers among the world’s libraries we were finding our way technically, for example with the complexities of optical character recognition.  Copyright restrictions were a constant frustration.  Finding money was always a challenge, and we needed plenty of ingenuity.  Individual projects were funded by the Welsh Government, the European Union, JISC, the Heritage Lottery Fund and private sources, but it was always hard to arrange a regular flow of external finance.  Some of the projects benefitted from being cooperative.  Gathering the jewels, which later became The people’s collection, was a partnership between the National Library, the National Museum and the Royal Commission for Ancient and Historical Monuments in Wales.  It created a virtual museum of objects of all kinds from those and many other institutions in Wales, including Swansea University.  The places of Wales, a stitched-together series of tithe maps of Wales, completed this year, was the result of cooperation between the National Library and the local archives of Wales, and relied on large numbers of volunteer transcribers.

What has been the result of all this effort over many years?  We were clear from the beginning that everything we digitised would be made freely available to everyone.  By ‘freely’ we meant without the need for payment or registration.  In this respect we parted company with others, like the British Library, who were happy to impose charges for access.  The result was that our material was open to all our million or more users who came to the National Library online (the Library has about 80,000 physical visitors each year).

But the digitised material wasn’t just a convenient copy of the original material.  Very often it enabled readers to explore the information in new ways, impossible or almost impossible to do before.  The most obvious way was being able to search efficiently for small particles of information in a large universe of data: for example, to find a personal name hidden in thousands of issues of a newspaper.  In researching for my book I was constantly surprised and delighted to discover nuggets of information lurking, unexpectedly, in nineteenth and early twentieth century newspapers that I could use to enliven my text.  It would have taken months or years of combing through the originals to come across the same information manually.

Large-scale digitisation also opens the door to ways of manipulating big data that could yield new insights into aspects of history and many other subjects.  This is the realm of what’s traditionally called digital humanities, though it’s not yet had the impact it might have, possibly because many humanities researchers are still uncomfortable with quantitative and computer methods.  But there are Welsh examples.  Julia Thomas of Cardiff University has used the British Library’s digitised collection of book illustrations to transform people’s ability to investigate their content. In Aberystwyth Lloyd Roderick used data on the Kyffin Williams collection in the National Library to investigate geospacial aspects of Williams’s art.  European travellers to Wales, a partnership project based on Bangor, but with Swansea input, has created a digital reservoir of the manuscript and printed accounts of continental travellers in Wales between 1750 and 2000, allowing researchers to fish for individual themes within it.

Finally, there’s another group of digital material that’s certain to gain in importance in future – born-digital material.  Libraries, archives and museums have been quite slow off the mark, it seems to me, in seeking out and systematically collecting the electronic records and artefacts of organisations and individuals that will be of interest to researchers in the years to come.  Think how leading literary authors, artists or politicians typically no longer send letters to one another, but use electronic mail or messaging services, or more public social networking like Twitter, FaceBook or Instagram.  This sort of material needs to be collected.  There are many challenges, technical and organisational, and only a few memory organisations are well geared to getting to grips with them.  (An exception is the system of the legal deposit libraries that collect contemporary electronic publications.  This collection is now available in Cardiff University, though not yet, I think, here in Swansea.)

Special and unique collections, then, analogue and digital, are as important as they have ever been for humanities research.  They’re more numerous than ever.  And they’re now much more varied in format.  But what are they for?  Who are their users, and what do users make of them?  What is their meaning to the university?

I’d like to suggest three propositions:

First, collections are assets, to be cared for, treasured and developed.  They matter.  They matter to researchers in the parent institution, who have the advantage of a valuable resource right on their doorstep.  They matter to external researchers, who seek them out from afar – and might even make decisions on whether to move to a university on the basis of their existence. 

And they matter, or should matter, to the institution itself and those who direct it.  They are a visible sign of its standing and seriousness as an organisation that respects research and aims at excellence in it.  They are a tool in attracting new research students and research-active staff to come from outside to work in the institution.

If I’m right about the research centrality of collections, then it follows that the collections deserve care: good quality accommodation, expert staffing and energetic promotion.

Second, collections are important for people outside the parent institution.  Interest in them extends well beyond formal academic researchers.  In the greater Swansea area, for example, there is an astonishing number of local and specialist history societies, each full of people absorbed in often highly local and specialised research and publication.  Visit the West Glamorgan Archives reading room on any day and you’ll see them at work there.  Here in Swansea University the South Wales Coalfield Archive and the South Wales Miners Library attract hundreds of enquirers and researchers each year, from around the world.  These collections are an important part of the public face of the University.

Special collections, then, are part – an important part – of how a university constructs its relationships with outside communities: local communities but also subject-based communities much further afield.

National Library of Wales

Third, with few exceptions, special collections benefit from size and variety.  The larger they are and the more subjects they span, the more they’re likely to be used.  They also benefit from economies of scale.  Few of them enjoy large numbers of staff or ample accommodation, and it usually makes sense to make the most of scarce resources, by amalgamating or co-locating or sharing resources.  I always thought of the National Library of Wales as a good example.  NLW is a big collection of special collections, of many types and formats.  In most countries it would be split into several different institutions, like a national library, a national archive, a national portrait gallery, and so on – but it’s serviced by a common staff sharing expertise and the burden of work.

Now I’d like to try and apply my three principles to collections here in the University – and collections in other institutions in the Swansea region.  But first I need to enter a large caveat.  I couldn’t possibly claim expert or up-to-date knowledge about plans and discussions on the future of these collections.  And it could be that the little I know is based on misapprehension.  So those of you who are in the know will have to forgive me if I go astray.

The first and most crucial point I want to insist on is that the University has a duty to acknowledge that the collections it has inherited – the printed, archival, art and museum collections – are an important asset, not just to those who make use of them, but to the interests of the University itself.   These collections are not insubstantial.  They’re not of purely local or Welsh significance.  The Egypt Centre is one of the leading collections of Egyptian material anywhere in Britain.  The archives contain papers, like those of Richard Burton and Raymond Williams, of international significance.  The South Wales Miners Library is unique, but also a magnet for researchers in many countries.  Some of the museum collections are also special, though not well known and well hidden.

Of course many people are well aware of these facts.  But there’s a world of difference between individuals cherishing and making use of individual collections and the University as a whole treating them, in the round, as a key resource for the whole institution. 

John Ruskin Library, Lancaster University

When you enter the campus of Lancaster University, the first thing you see is a striking curved building opened in 1998.  It’s the Ruskin Library, the home of the collections of John Ruskin – a striking statement by the University as a whole about the central part of valuable historic collections in the life and self-image of its institution.

Once you start to recognise that you own a valuable asset, it seems to me, you’re led naturally to think about to how it’s used or might be used in future.  Encouraging internal use of collections, exploiting their power to benefit the University in the wider world, developing future collections – these need something beyond official acknowledgement.  They call for a much more thought-out approach to how collections are housed, staffed, promoted and grown.

This sort of strategic approach would open the way to considering how the different collections might work in a more coordinated way, taking advantage of economies of scale and sharing scarce resources, especially people. 

In 1946 George Orwell wrote a short essay in the Evening Standard called ‘The Moon under Water’.  In it he described in detail all the features of the pub of that name which made it, for him, the most perfect pub in the world.  At the end of the essay he admits that the pub doesn’t actually exist (though today there are now at least fifteen pubs in the UK bearing the name ‘The Moon under Water’).  But it’s an illuminating exercise for Orwell, and I’m going to follow his example.  I’ll give you a picture of a building that, for the sake of argument, I’ll call The White Rock. 

I’ll begin, like Orwell, with space.  At the moment collections are physically dispersed all over the University. At Hendrefoilan is the South Wales Miners Library.  The Richard Burton Archives are in the basement of the Singleton Library and the rare books elsewhere in the building.  Then there’s the Egypt Centre in Taliesin.  The art collection is scattered and lacks a home. 

What if they were all brought together?  Bringing them together, or as many of them as possible, would have several advantages.  In a new shared home all the collections would enjoy the environmental and security conditions they deserve.  As well as providing adequate storage a building could include an exhibition gallery, and space for groups as well as individual researchers and students.  It would bring specialist staff together, with better opportunities to share their skills.  It could contain centres of excellence in areas such as conservation and digital exploitation.  Above all, it would express, confidently and publicly, what is special about the humanities in this university.  Especially if it occupied a prominent, visible position on the campus, or, even better, was architect-designed in a striking way.

The building of my imaginary White Rock would be even more impressive if it were to contain not only the University’s collections but also those of other local institutions.  I’m thinking in particular of West Glamorgan Archives, destined to be evicted from their current premises in the Civic Centre.  But there are other collections, like the library of Swansea Museum, which started life as the Library of the Royal Institution of South Wales, and even the local collections of Swansea Public Library.  Co-locating these collections would create a large and powerful mass of material, in all media, that would mark Swansea out as a pioneer in developing a new kind of memory institution.

Hull History Centre

I say ‘pioneer’, because only a very few other places have experimented with this cross-sectoral, thoroughly integrated approach.  In Hull the university and the public archives and local history collections were brought together in a shared building by the University of Hull and Hull City Council in the Hull History Centre, opened in 2010.  According to the architects

it includes storage, conservation, binding, digitisation, IT, teaching and learning facilities as well as office space and room(s) for visitors to consult material.  The design includes a repository on the upper floor, designed to provide a high degree of environmental control to comply with BS5454, with all the public spaces at ground level.  These are flanked by a linear arcade running along the south face of the building and a new park to the south.  As a key requirement of the brief, above all, the centre is a highly visible and accessible focus for the local community, instilling pride in the history of Hull for generations to come.  

The Keep, Brighton

In Brighton The Keep, opened in 2013, combines the collections of the East Sussex Record Office, the Royal Pavilion & Museums Local History Collections and University of Sussex Special Collections, which includes the world-famous Mass Observation Archive.  The new building

is open to anyone who wants to use the public search rooms and facilities.  Learning and participation across all ages and every part of the community are encouraged, including schools, colleges, universities, volunteers, community groups and organisations.

There is no reason in principle, it seems to me, why Swansea should not emulate or surpass what has been achieved in Hull and Brighton.  Its collections are at least as rich as theirs.  They attract even more avid groups of potential users.  I know that some discussions have taken place, and I don’t underestimate the negotiating difficulties, but a cooperatively run facility, as Hull and Brighton have proved, is not impossible, and brings large gains.  Not the least of them would be to add to Swansea’s attractiveness as a centre for tourism.

What would be inside the White Rock?  Specialist storage facilities, of course, where the collections would be kept and conserved safely.  (At the moment, of all the collections, only the Richard Burton Archives are kept in storage which meets current environmental standards.)    The store would have enough room for future growth, because one of the White Rock’s functions would be to add to the historic collections by seeking out new ones – often in collaboration with staff and students exploring new areas of research.  There would also be enough space for readers, individually and in small groups, to study the collections and be taught with their aid.

There would be ample space for exhibitions.  This would allow some of the most striking and interesting items to be seen by all – obvious, visually attractive, candidates would be the outstanding collection of trade union banners, the recently acquired photographs of Bernard Mitchell and items from the art and museum collections – and could house other art and historical exhibitions from outside.

Drwm, National Library of Wales

Ideally there would be a space for larger groups to enjoy talks, demonstrations and films related (or not) to the collections.  I suggest, on the basis of experience with the Drwm auditorium in the National Library, that a small auditorium would soon become a cherished facility, well-used by people inside and outside the institution.

There would also be space for staff – as I suggested, pooling the scattered staff of collections would have multiple benefits – and for technical operations.  The White Rock could develop into a specialist centre for the conservation of paper and other materials, complementing the new art conservation facilities in the Glynn Vivian Art Gallery. 

Percy Gleaves, ‘The foundation stone ceremony, 19 July 1920’

It could also develop as a regional centre for digitization.  The White Rock, in my dream, would launch a programme to digitise key parts of the collections, so that they were available to the world and to help build an awareness of the collections externally.  Maybe the first step would be to arrange for the oil paintings to appear on the Art UK website: at the moment they’re conspicuous by their absence, having been omitted from the Public Catalogue Foundation’s trawl through south-west Wales.

Both these developments, conservation and digitisation, would give new substance and depth to the new MA in public history and heritage. Students already use the University’s special collections, and some Schools, like History, embed first-hand experience of archival resources in some courses.  But there must be room for more engagement with original, primary materials to give life to undergraduate and postgraduate courses.

Students and University researchers would not be the only target audience of the White Rock.  Archives are traditionally closed-in institutions.  In my imaginary building the main focus for everyone will be on the readers, visitors and other users of the collections.  Archivists in the past have put a premium on security and have tended to treat readers and other users with suspicion, placing all kinds of bureaucratic barriers in their way.  This is beginning to change, and the White Rock would be as public an institution as it could be.  It would welcome anyone – academic researchers, from within and outside the university, students, informal researchers of all kinds, including local and family historians, and casual visitors with more curiosity than pre-existing knowledge. 

The White Rock, in my imagination, would be at the very centre of the Singleton campus.  Its presumption of openness to the outside world could provoke some interesting questions about the wider openness of the campus: both its physical openness – should the barriers like the fences and tollbooth at the entrance be abolished? – and the prevailing policies and cultural assumptions about the relationship between the University and its local community.

By now you may be thinking, am I living in Cloudcuckooland?  I don’t think so, for three reasons. 

Cardiff University Library, Special Collections

The first is that that there are already universities prepared to meet the challenge of making the most of their collections.  Take Cardiff University as an example.  During the last year, under the energetic leadership of Alan Vaughan Hughes, the Special Collections in the Arts and Social Sciences Library – where I first began work as a professional librarian over 45 years ago – have taken on a new and highly dynamic life.  They are used by large numbers of people, including 1,300 students a year.  Researchers are encouraged to make use of the collections.  Visits by local community groups and individuals are vigorously encouraged.  Exhibitions are mounted.  Talks, workshops, conferences and other events are common.  These, and the collections themselves, are promoted enthusiastically, through social media and blogs, through books and radio programmes.  Alan has succeeding in attracting external funding and collaboration for special projects, to add to all the activity.  And he’s looking to acquire new collections, especially those supporting research priorities in academic departments.

My second reason for optimism is that I believe the White Rock is an entirely practicable, realisable aim.  It’s true that a new building will need funding.  But the University has plenty of recent experience of funding new buildings.  Recurrent costs need not be high.  Bringing staff together and sharing their skills and time should maximize their potential, and there’s more scope to use volunteers, based on the extensive existing experience of using them, especially in the Egypt Centre.

The third reason is that the advantages of a White Rock are so obvious.  It would make visible – outside as well as inside the University – valuable, useful collections that are currently hidden, scattered and unintegrated.  It would help embed their use in research and teaching, and set up a mutually reinforcing influence between them and academic departments.  Above all, it would help to restore and strengthen the connections between the University and its local community – connections which have always been strong ever since the University was founded, specifically to serve the local economy and community of Swansea.  I can’t imagine a better idea for a Centenary celebration project – or one that would engage the interest and commitment of local people more effectively.  I can’t imagine a better contribution the University could make to celebrating and strengthening the cultural life of where we all live.

Diolch i chi i gyd am wrando

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