How do I make a career in Special Collections?

Guest post by Alison Cullingford, author of The Special Collections Handbook.

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Why work in Special Collections?

Special Collections work is fantastically rewarding: one never knows what will happen when the phone rings or a new email comes in.  It is a joy to bring hidden collections to life, to see how they inform and inspire users.

Special Collections is a sector which is booming and full of confidence and innovation.  Many universities and other organisations are realising that in tough times their collections are unique and distinctive assets, and investing in premises, and, crucially, staff.

A note of caution

As with most heritage and arts careers, Special Collections work is popular and therefore competition for jobs can be significant.  The widest range of opportunities is probably in London or ‘Oxbridge’, though do not despair: there are jobs in national libraries, research libraries and universities, cathedrals etc all over the UK.  Permanent roles are scarce so project work is often the way to get into the sector.

Here are some tips to help you build a career in Special Collections despite the challenges.

Focus on skills

Special Collections staff need many skills, including:

  1. ‘Traditional skills’. These are distinctive to Special Collections, or shared with specialist academics and colleagues.  Traditional skills include:
  • Historical bibliography: how items in collections were made.
  • Preservation: how to look after collections.
  • Cataloguing: how to describe collections so people can discover them.
  • Languages: Latin is particularly useful, though not always essential.
  • Palaeography: how to read handwriting.
  • Subject and collection knowledge.
  1. Soft skills. You will need to be able to communicate effectively orally and in writing, to work well in a team but to manage your own time, including conflicting priorities, and to be able to help users of all kinds and levels of experience.
  2. Future skills. The Special Collections librarian of the future will need to be equipped for a tough and fast-changing world. Consider:
  • Digital literacy – encompasses a huge range of skills and will continue to develop.
  • Advocacy and evidence-based practice. Understanding statistics is essential!
  • Knowledge of legal and contractual issues.

But please don’t be too put off by these huge lists.  Skills are built up gradually and not all jobs require everything all at once.  There are many ways to improve your skills, even if you are unable to attend conferences or training events.  Consider apps (very useful for languages), online learning resources, webinars, reading printed books, not to mention the resources which appear below under ‘Connections’.

Seek and seize opportunities

For example:

  1. Your job title may not involve Special Collections, but maybe you can find a way to work with collections in the organisation. If you are working in a library, there are probably distinctive collections somewhere on the premises.  Consider talking to colleagues and managers about your interests so they can help you find opportunities.  Some element of voluntary work could be helpful and would show evidence of commitment to the sector as well as boosting your skills.
  2. Conference bursaries. Most significant library conferences offer these, in exchange for helping out and/or writing a report about your experience.

Build connections

Join and engage with relevant groups, such as CILIP Rare Books and Special Collections Group and the Historic Libraries Forum.

It is easier than ever to connect with Special Collections communities:

  1. Social media platforms: full of librarians, archivists, scholars and enthusiasts sharing collections objects and discussing the joys and challenges of their work. Watch out for ‘chats’ and other themed events. I recommend #uklibchat, #archivehour, and, coming up later in November, #explorearchives.  You can also join in with conferences via their hashtags, such as the recent #rbscg17 and forthcoming #dcdc17.
  2. Mailing lists reach all professionals including those who aren’t active on social media. Lis-rarebooks is a low-traffic list populated by helpful rare book people.
  3. In recent years more and more librarians and heritage professionals have set up their own events and groups. Watch out for such activities as teachmeets, show and tell, and unconferences.  These often take place out of working hours so folk in less relevant jobs can still attend.  See for example Heritage Show and Tell.

Think like an employer

Most Special Collections jobs are in public sector organisations, which recruit and select via automated and standardised processes which aim to be fair to all applicants.  You need to engage with these systems but make sure you stand out.

Above all, if you are asked for an example during the application process or an interview, give a strong, real one that illustrates your skills.  Employers are looking for specific examples not vague generalisations.  Do draw on whatever work experience you have, for example dealing with difficult customers or teamwork can be demonstrated well by experiences from shop or bar work.

Persist, but be flexible

It took me eight years from qualifying as a librarian to becoming a full-time Special Collections person, so I do understand that it is not easy.  It is worth reflecting on what attracts you about Special Collections work, and being open to other opportunities that may give you similar job satisfaction.   Many roles in heritage, education and the arts offer similar rewards.

Best of luck!

About the author9781783301263

Alison Cullingford is the author of the Special Collections Handbook, now in its second edition.  She is Special Collections Librarian at the University of Bradford and loves writing, blogging and tweeting about the challenges and rewards of working with heritage.  Her website is https://specialcollectionshandbook.com/ and she tweets as @speccollbrad.

About this blog post

This post was inspired by talks and discussions at CILIP Rare Books Group New Professionals Days, held in 2015 and 2017.  Thanks to all who were involved, and follow the story of the days via the #RBNewProfs hashtag.

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Empower people to take control of their personal digital information

Facet Publishing have announced the release of The Complete Guide to Personal Digital Archiving, edited by Brianna H Marshall

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Academics and the general public alike need help managing the digital information they create and save every day. But how can librarians and archivists translate their professional knowledge into practical skills that novices can apply to their own projects? The Complete Guide to Personal Digital Archiving helps information professionals break down archival concepts and best practices into teachable solutions. Whether it’s an academic needing help preserving their scholarly records, a student developing their data literacy skills or someone backing up family photos and videos to protect against hard-drive failure, this book will show information professionals how to offer assistance.

Featuring contributions from experts working in a variety of contexts this practical resource will help librarians, digital curators and archivists empower people from all walks of life to take charge of their personal digital materials. Key coverage includes explanations of common terms in plain language, quick, non-technical solutions to the most frequent user requests and guidance on how to archive social media posts, digital photographs and web content.

Marshall said, “From the outset, my intention has been for this book to be used as a primer for information professionals who haven’t been quite sure how to approach personal digital archiving (PDA) yet. My hope is that they become not just informed but also excited to pass along critical skills that will help equip members of their communities to have a less painful and more fruitful PDA journey. I am convinced that sharing even simple principles for how to store, share, and preserve digital objects will benefit our users in both their personal and professional lives. The chapters are intentionally practitioner-focused so that after finishing this book, readers will feel ready to start conversations and make amazing things happen within their communities.”

Brianna H Marshall is director of research services at the University of California, Riverside. Previously, she was digital curation coordinator at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She holds master of library science and master of information science degrees from the Indiana University School of Informatics and Computing.

International Digital Preservation Day Roundup

Last Thursday was the first ever International Digital Preservation Day. People from all around the world came together to celebrate the collections preserved, the access maintained and the understanding fostered by preserving digital materials.

Preservation

CC image credit: ‘Preservation Park’ by Flickr user torbakhopper

Throughout the day we shared some free chapters from some of our digital preservation books which we have gathered below in one handy reference post.

  1. An extract from Adrian Brown’s DPC Preservation Award-Winning book Practical Digital Preservation
  2. Digital preservation strategies for visualizations and simulations – a free chapter from Preserving Complex Digital Objects by Janet Anderson, Hugh Denard and William Kilbride
  3. Digitization in the context of collection management – a free chapter from Anna E Bulow and Jess Ahmon’s Preparing Collections for Digitization.

Finally, it didn’t quite make it in time for IDPD17, but Brianna Marshall’s The Complete Guide to Personal Digital Archiving is out today.

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Digitization in the context of collection management

Here is another free chapter from one of our books for International Digital Preservation Day.  This one is about digitization in the context of collection management and is taken from Anna E Bulow and Jess Ahmon’s book, Preparing Collection for Digitization.

bulow

Read the free chapter, Digitization in the context of collection management, here

Find out more about the book, Preparing Collections for Digitization, here

Digital preservation strategies for visualizations and simulations

To mark International Digital Preservation Day we have made a new chapter from Preserving Complex Digital Objects freely available to download and view.

The chapter, ‘Digital preservation strategies for visualizations and simulations‘ is by Janet Anderson (formerly Delve), Professor of Digital Humanities, University of Brighton, Hugh Denard, Lecturer in Digital Humanities, King’s College London and William Kilbride, Executive Director, The Digital Preservation Coalition.

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The main theme that emerges from the chapter is an acknowledgement that emulation has now come of age as a suitable digital preservation strategy to take preserving complex digital objects.

Read the chapter here

Find out more about the book Preserving Complex Digital Objects here

 

Extract from Practical Digital Preservation

This is an extract from Adrian Brown DPC Preservation Award-Winning book Practical Digital Preservation. A link to a PDF of the full chapter can be found at the end of this post.

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Image source: Flickr cc pic by Walraven

Picture a scene: in a county record office somewhere in England, a young archivist is looking through the morning post. Among the usual enquiry letters and payments for copies of documents is a mysterious padded envelope. Opening it reveals five floppy disks of various sizes, accompanied by a brief covering letter from the office manager of a long-established local business, explaining that the contents had been discovered during a recent office refurbishment; since the record office has previously acquired the historic paper records of the company, perhaps these would also be of interest? The disks themselves bear only terse labels, such as ‘Minutes, 1988-90’ or ‘customers.dbf’. Some, the archivist recognizes as being 3.5” disks, while the larger ones seem vaguely familiar from a digital preservation seminar she attended during her training. On one point she is certain: the office PCs are not capable of reading any of them. How can she discover what is actually on the disks, and whether they contain important business records or junk? And even if they do prove of archival interest, what should the record office actually do with them?

Meanwhile, a university librarian in the mid-west USA attends a faculty meeting to discuss the burgeoning institutional repository. Introduced a few years ago to store PDF copies of academic preprints and postprints, there is increasing demand from staff to store other kinds of content in a much wider range of formats, from original research data, to student dissertations and theses, teaching materials and course notes, and to make that content available for reuse by others in novel ways. How, the librarian ponders, does the repository need to be adapted to meet these new requirements, and what must the library do to ensure the long-term preservation of such a diverse digital collection?

Finally, in East Africa, a national archivist has just finished reading a report from a consultant commissioned to advise on requirements for preserving electronic records. The latest in a series of projects to develop records management within government, he knows that this work is crucial to promoting transparency, empowering citizens by providing them with access to reliable information, reducing corruption and improving governance through the use of new technologies. The national archives has achieved much in recent years, putting in place strong records management processes and guidance. But how to develop the digital preservation systems necessary to achieve the report’s ambitious recommendations, with limited budgets and staff skills, and an unreliable IT infrastructure?

Practical Digital Preservation is intended to help these people, and the countless other information managers and curators around the world who are wrestling with the challenges of preserving digital data, to answer these questions. If the book had been written only a few years ago, it would first have to explain the need for digital preservation at length, illustrated no doubt with celebrated examples of data loss such as the BBC Domesday disks, or NASA’s Viking probe.

Today, most information management professionals are all too aware of the fact that, without active intervention, digital information is subject to rapid and catastrophic loss – the warnings of an impending ‘Digital Dark Ages’ have served their purpose. Hopefully, they are equally alive to the enormous benefits of digital preservation, in unlocking the current and long-term value of that information. Instead, their principal concern now is how to respond in a practical way to these challenges. There is a sense that awareness of the solutions has not kept pace with appreciation of the potential and the problems.

Such solutions as are widely known are generally seen as being the preserve of major institutions – the national libraries and archives – with multi-million pound budgets and large numbers of staff at their disposal. Even if reality often doesn’t match this perception – many national memory institutions are tackling digital preservation on a comparative shoestring – there is no doubt that such organizations have been at the vanguard of developments in the field.

The challenges can sometimes appear overpowering. The extraordinary growth in the creation of digital information is often described using rather frightening or negative analogies, such as the ‘digital deluge’ or ‘data tsunami’. These certainly reflect the common anxieties that information curators and consumers have about their abilities to manage these gargantuan volumes of data, and to find and understand the information they need within. These concerns are compounded by a similarly overwhelming wave of information generated by the digital preservation community: no one with any exposure to the field can have escaped a certain sense of despair at ever keeping up to date with the constant stream of reports, conferences, blogs, wikis, projects and tweets.

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Practical Digital Preservation demonstrates that, in reality, it is not only possible but eminently realistic for organizations of all sizes to put digital preservation into practice, even with very limited resources and existing knowledge. The book demonstrates this through a combination of practical guidance, and case studies which reinforce that guidance, illustrating how it has already been successfully applied in the real world.

Find out more

This is an extract from the first chapter of Practical Digital Preservation.  You can read the full chapter here, for free.

Find out more information, browse the table of contents and purchase the book here.

About the author

Adrian Brown is the Director of the Parliamentary Archives and has lectured and published widely on all aspects of digital preservation. He was previously Head of Digital Preservation at the National Archives where his team won the International Digital Preservation Award in 2007.

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