Friday, 29 August 2008

Injecting some GLAMour into libraries

I've just come back from the 2008 Society of Archivists' Conference in York1 and it's made me think yet again about how artificial the boundary between cultural institutions has become.

I've spoken at the annual SOA event a few times and each time I've taken pains to say that I work in "a library, an archive, a museum and more..." to reflect the quantity and diversity of our collections.

As someone who came from outside the sector I have sometimes had difficulty differentiating between the archival and library functions (the best description I've heard thus far has been that a big library is "at the same time an artisan chocolatier and a high-volume sausage factory"!). Highly skilled staff can delicately tease the key themes and structures from a seemingly incomprehensible array of personal papers and diaries whilst others can pull in hundreds of catalogue records for legal deposit material through z39.50.

The role of Museums, Libraries and Archives seems to be merging ever closer - we already have some convergence at the policy level (at least in Wales and England) - and it's getting harder to determine collection policies as data stubbornly refuses to fit into our existing boxes.

Lorcan Dempsey adds Galleries to the list and calls them 'GLAM', which I have to say has a nice ring to it. In many ways we're all trying to be a bit more GLAMorous; improving access to our material and attracting the public to our resources, whether online or in person.

Convergence is, however, not the same as unity. We can learn from each other as organisations - that much is clear - but there are still some fundamental differences in terms of training, perspective and operation. True, archives are showing off their unique collections, libraries are leaning more towards interpretation and everyone is engaging with the visual medium of the web but there's still life in the old constructs yet.

As an example, Librarians view everything on the web as published, but a large proportion of this is unique material which fits into our traditional view of archival material - either way a lot of it is ephemeral. In the digital age we can all have a copy, so this shouldn't be a problem (remember, LOCKSS is a philosophy, not just software!) but we can't really afford to duplicate effort so the problem remains.

The challenge for those of us working in GLAMorous organisations is to find out what terms and activities best link in to the public psyche in an age of Google Books, self-archiving, free museums and Who Do You Think You Are? without compromising our core values as cultural organisations.

1 By the way, the irony of the all the SOA conference information disappearing from the website on the last day of the event isn't lost on me. This is a prime example of how a CMS can be anti-informational.

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