Guest post by Alison Cullingford, author of The Special Collections Handbook.
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:
- ‘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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- Conference bursaries. Most significant library conferences offer these, in exchange for helping out and/or writing a report about your experience.
It is easier than ever to connect with Special Collections communities:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!
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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Facet Publishing have announced the release of Freda Matassa’s new book Valuing Your Collection: A practical guide for museums, libraries and archives
Assigning a financial value to a cultural object is always difficult, as there is no right answer. It is one of the many tasks of the curator, whether they work in a gallery, museum, archive or library, yet it is a role for which few have had any training and that many approach with a lack of confidence. Even if there is a profound knowledge of the subject matter, there may be insufficient experience in the market for cultural objects. However, although it may not be easy, it has to be done.
In Valuing Your Collection, collections management expert Freda Matassa examines the issues around valuing objects in cultural collections, describing current practice in museums, libraries and archives, and giving practical advice on how to assign values. Matassa looks at the difference between value and worth and at how cultural value can be translated into monetary terms. She outlines the arguments over whether financial values should be assigned at all and provides guidance on how to approach a valuation by making comparisons and using a step-by-step process for which templates for a wide range of collections are provided.
Valuation is fraught with difficulties for cultural collections. Finance is not their core business. Curators have little or no training and are reluctant to mention money as it may detract from significance. My book is designed to give the non-specialist confidence in their decision making.
Freda Matassa FRSA MA (Hons) DipAL DipEd is a well-known UK expert on collections management who advises, teaches and lectures internationally. Currently Director of Matassa Toffolo, a museum-standard art consultancy, former Head of Collections Management at Tate Galleries and co-founder of the European Registrars Conference, she is expert adviser on several European projects for museum standards and to the Minister of Culture on Immunity from Seizure. She was named one of the Top 50 Women to Watch in the arts and is the author of Museum Collections Management (Facet, 2011) and Organizing Exhibitions (Facet, 2014).
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An open access chapter from the new edition of Alison Cullingford’s Special Collections Handbook is now available to view and download from the Facet Publishing website.
The chapter discusses threats that can destroy collections or items within them very quickly: the timescale for effective action is much shorter, so prevention, planning and rapid response are essential. The chapter covers:
- Causes and impact of emergencies in Special Collections, with particular emphasis on fire and water damage.
- How to prevent and prepare for emergencies via the emergency plan.
- Issues in responding to and recovering from emergencies.
- Planning for service continuity.
- Security issues and how to manage them
- Insurance issues.
Fully updated since the first edition, the Handbook covers all aspects of special collections work: preservation, developing collections, understanding objects, emergency planning, security, legal and ethical concerns, cataloguing, digitization, marketing, outreach, teaching, impact, advocacy and fundraising.
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Facet Publishing have announced the release of the second edition of The Special Collections Handbook
This new edition from Alison Cullingford, Special Collections Librarian at the University of Bradford, is a practical day-to-day companion covering all aspects of special collections work.
Working with special collections can vary dramatically from preserving a single rare book to managing and digitizing vast mixed-media archives, yet the role of the information professional is always critical in tapping into the potential of these collections, protecting their legacy and bringing them to the attention of the wider public. This book offers up-to-date guidance which pulls together insights from best practice across the heritage sector to build innovative, co-operative and questioning mind-sets that will help them to cope in turbulent times.
Alison said “despite the challenges, the five years since the first edition have seen new reports, new collaborations , new publications and new standards; great progress has been made on digital curation, on tackling hidden collections, on doing what we do – better.”
Highlights of the new edition include coverage of new standards and concepts including unique and distinctive collections (UDCs); discussion of the major changes to laws affecting special collections; exploration of new trends in research including the rise of digital humanities, open access, the impact agenda and the REF; and consideration of impact and indicators, digitization and new skills frameworks from CILIP Rare Books and Special Collections Group and ACRL Rare Books and Manuscripts Section.
Alison Cullingford is Special Collections Librarian at the University of Bradford, where she is responsible for over 100 collections of modern archives and rare books. The
service was the first English university to achieve Archive Accreditation. She also managed the Unique and Distinctive Collections project for Research Libraries UK. An active member of the CILIP Rare Books and Special Collections Group and many other sector groups, Alison also regularly presents at conferences, blogs and tweets on the importance of the special collections librarian.
More information: http://www.facetpublishing.co.uk/title.php?id=301263
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Facet Publishing have announced the release of the 3rd edition of the Directory of Rare Book and Special Collections in the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland.
The Directory is the only publication to bring together rare book and special collections from all kinds of libraries across the UK and Ireland and is an essential research tool for researchers and librarians throughout the world.
Fully updated since the second edition was published in 1997, this comprehensive and up-to-date guide encompasses collections held in national libraries, academic libraries, public libraries, subscription libraries, clergy libraries, libraries for other professions, school libraries, companies, London clubs, museums and archives, and libraries in stately homes.
Richard Ovenden, Bodley’s Librarian at the University of Oxford said, “The new edition is a long-awaited reference work which will help researchers identify the UK and Republic of Ireland’s great collections of research materials. It provides detailed and authoritative information and is a must for all serious researchers.”
Edited by Karen Attar, Curator of Rare Books and University Art at Senate House Library, The Directory:
- contains a national, cross-sectoral overview of rare book and special collections
- offers full contact details, and descriptions of rare book and named special collections including quantities and particular subject and language strengths
- provides a quick and easy summary of individual libraries’ holdings
- directs researchers to the libraries most relevant for them
- assists libraries to evaluate their special collections according to a ‘unique and distinctive’ model
- enables libraries to make informed decisions about acquisition and collaboration
- helps booksellers and donors to target offers.
David Prosser, Executive Director of Research Libraries UK said, “Together, institutions in the UK and Ireland hold unrivalled special collections. From our great National Libraries, through university collections to the smaller collections of specialist societies, cathedrals, historic homes, and museums we have a centuries-old tradition of collecting, preserving and giving access. Scholars from around the world and across disciplinary differences rely on the treasures held by libraries listed in the Directory to pursue their research and help us make sense of the world in which we live.”