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Collections at Risk (CILIP rare books conference 2017)

By ucylgng, on 18 October 2017

At the beginning of September I visited the University of Sussex to attend the CILIP Rare Books and Special Collections Group’s annual conference on the theme “Collections at Risk”. The three days of the conference covered different types of risk, from mice and silverfish to thefts to catastrophic floods. Terrifying, but very useful!

As in previous years, the attendees and speakers were from a range of libraries and institutions, from the keynote speaker Elizabeth Oxborrow-Cowan, consultant archivist at the UNESCO Memory of the World project, who spoke about using the UNESCO brand as a way to promote and protect collections, to Anastasia Tennant from Collections and Cultural Property – Arts Council England, who gave an informative talk on some of the ways export laws and tax breaks work to keep special collections material from being sold abroad.

This year’s conference was largely practical, looking at ways to prevent and mitigate risks to the collections whether within the library or out and about. There were, however, two sessions that particularly stood out to me.

First, Sarah Bashir, who is the Preservation Manager at Lambeth Palace Library, shared some of the work she and her team do to look after their collections with a very small budget. It’s easy to say “prevention is key” in the abstract, but she put prevention in context. I think we all know that regular cleaning is important to prevent mould and pest infestation, but when was the last time anyone saw the powerboxes on the floors being cleaned? She also reiterated the importance of monitoring – not only does regular monitoring help ensure that early problems are nipped in the bud, tracking the results of your monitoring provides valuable data in the event of a major problem (or, as another attendee pointed out, when trying to secure funding for building works!).

Second, Adrian Edwards, who is Head of Printed Heritage Collections at the British Library, gave a talk about preventing thefts. While much of his talk was about the sorts of things you’d expect, from having a good policy on bags and coats to excellent invigilation, I was surprised at the emphasis he placed on the role of good cataloguing in securing library collections. Without good records of holdings, you can’t be 100% certain of what you’ve got. And without those same records and records of reader access to the collections, you can’t prove that a stolen item was really yours in the first place.

Adrian summed up by explaining how the best security policies are embedded in all aspects of library work, from reader services to cataloguing; I think it fair to say that the well-being of our collections generally ought to be embedded in all aspects of our work.

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