Last Tuesday, I went to the CILIP Library and Information History Group Conference at University College London. The topic was ‘Libraries under Threat’: a topic that affects more or less everyone in library and information work in one way or another and a topic that, as a member of Voices for the Library, is very important to me. To go with the term ‘threat’, the underlying theme of the conference seemed to be conflict: not between the delegates who were all excellent and lovely people but between less tangible things. Between the past and the future; between the old tradition of books, annotation, marginalia and the new tradition of digitisation; between historical libraries / collections and destruction in the name of progress.
The Hurd Library: a library under threat
Threat necessarily involves conflict. When two sides – organisations, ideologues – have opposing views, one or both will likely feel threatened by the other. Throughout the conference, we were given examples of conflicts with libraries on one side and other bodies on the other. These included physical bodies and conflicts like the Hurd Library’s conflict with those who would sell the Hartlebury Castle that contains it and the University of London Library which faced a very real conflict with German bombers during the Second World War. There were also abstract conflicts – conflicts of philosophy and ideology – such as the Supreme Court Library in Melbourne which is threatened due to the restrictive legal rules that underlie its creation and the newspaper / serial collections of the UK which are threatened by funding problems and changing attitudes to the importance of the press.
One of the most interesting conflicts discussed was the conflict highlighted by Professor Andrew Stauffer of The University of Virginia. Prof. Stauffer discussed the importance of unique books for academic research into topics such as literature and poetry. He used the example of the popular 19th Century American poet Felicia Hemans and how research can be conducted into the lives of people of that period using the annotations and marginalia found in different copies of Hemans’ books. One book contained a fragmentary narrative of a young woman and her lost love told through the medium of notes in the margins of a book of poetry. The conflict is with today’s practices of digitisation: libraries and organisations like Google Books tend to digitise one copy of a work and so all the unique attributes of different versions of the same book are left undigitised and unpreserved. This is a conflict between new methods of storing / presenting information and the age-old methods of historical research. Zdenĕk Uhlíř of the National Library of the Czech Republic provided almost a counterpoint by telling the story of a successful digitisation project and what digitisation is really about.
This highlights something that was discussed later in the conference: the conflict between what we as information providers want to do and what the users want us to do. This is a conflict at the heart of library and information provision. It may be cost-effective and exciting to digitise a wealth of material but close collaboration with scholars and researchers is required to ensure that we do this in a way that still enables them to work. The relationship between information workers and users is an important issue for libraries under threat. It’s also a complicated issue that unfortunately we weren’t able to discuss in full.
Paul Otlet, founder of the Mundaneum
It’s perhaps appropriate that, in a conference discussing conflict, I was filled with internal conflict. I was delivering my first ever conference presentation and though I’d written it weeks in advance and practiced it over half a dozen times, public speaking always makes me nervous. My presentation was about Paul Otlet’s failed bibliographic project and library, the Mundaneum. It prompted some interesting discussion (partly about the user/librarian relationship highlighted above) and everyone was very friendly and receptive. To learn more, my presentation is here and my script is here.
(As an aside: I followed Bethan Ruddock’s advice and used my Kindle for my presentation script. It worked perfectly and would be great for anyone who uses notes when delivering a presentation. It saves messing about with paper, reprinting the script when you make changes, and you can adjust the text format to suit you on the day.)
All in all, it was an excellent conference: it’s always good to be part of discussion and sharing of ideas with other information professionals. Thanks and congratulations to the Library and Information History Group for organising it and for University College London for hosting. Afterwards I nipped off to see, in contrast to a conference on history, the futuristic Out of this World science-fiction exhibition at the British Library. It’s a really well put-together collection of books, periodicals, and cool stuff and I recommend it to everyone whether you enjoy science-fiction or not: you may discover that you already like it more than you think.