Professional Development

Anna at RBMS 2013

Friday, July 5, 2013 1:54 pm

That’s right, friends. You didn’t misread that title. You’re probably thinking, “Why in the world would Anna go to the Rare Books and Manuscripts Preconference?” While I do value Special Collections and performance (this year’s RBMS motif), I attended this preconference as a panelist/discussion group facilitator. Last summer, Christian Dupont, Special Collections superstar and Aeon purveyor, contacted Megan Mulder and me, seeking our participation in a discussion group about the newly approved ACRL/RBMS Guidelines for the Interlibrary and Exhibition Loan of Special Collections Materials. As I’d learned several years ago at an ILLiad Conference, Special Collections and ILL have a long history of butting heads when it comes to balancing access and preservation, and this concept of sharing rare materials is a hot topic for both groups. And so, I traveled to Minneapolis, the lone (loan?) shark among dolphins.

While the sessions were obviously geared to archivists and Special Collections librarians, I’ve found them quite interesting and relevant, as many have informed my understanding of not only Special Collections-related issues, but my understanding of providing information literacy instruction using primary sources, as well as my overall desire to be inclusive of diverse groups. The opening plenary, “Submerged Voices in Underground Performance”, addressed issues involved in collecting material from living cultures. Larisa Mann, professor of Sociology at Brooklyn College, detailed the concept of exilic performance spaces, specifically in Jamaica, which are controlled and utilized by the urban poor, but through which Jamaican music passes a rigid test; the urban poor, in this instance, determine the success of and validate music produced by peers. Mann stressed the importance of treating cultural artifacts obtained from these groups with dignity and respect, but she also advocated ensuring that our display or presentation of said materials doesn’t inscribe antisocial meanings (i.e., colonial attitudes). While I appreciated her candid discussion of these issues, I also felt a bit like a voyeur as I observed many of the rituals (through her slides) associated with this marginalized group. Those who have been invited in to the group’s exilic performance space undoubtedly would feel more comfortable viewing the archival footage, but I still felt this living culture and their space were off-limits to those who hadn’t been personally invited. I’m wrestling with this concept, so I’d love to know others’ thoughts about this.

The second half of the plenary featured Katherine Reagan (and Ben Ortiz, who moderated the session) of Cornell University Library. In 2007, Cornell acquired – from a private collector – an extensive archive of hip-hop music and film, entitled “Born in the Bronx: the Legacy and Evolution of Hip Hop”, which has now grown to encompass more than 50,000 artifacts. While this was an incredible acquisition, Cornell faced several dilemmas in accepting and housing the collection. First, how could Cornell’s Special Collections staff effectively curate a collection with the kinds of artifacts present within this collection? Second, what were the social implications of such an acquisition? Finally, how could Cornell provide access to those individuals who had created the collection? Cornell’s Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections staff found the collection beyond their expertise; however, they were still able to leverage the collection in such a way as to gain the support of many of hip hop’s earliest creators, including DJ Afrikaa Bambaataa, Grandmaster Caz, and Popmaster Fabel. As curating the collection was still a daunting task, they hired Ben Ortiz as a curatorial assistant to the collection in May 2011. Since then, Ortiz has reached out not only to the Cornell community, but also to the Bronx. He was instrumental in “giving” the collection to a larger audience, both over the airways, through exhibitions, and in developing courses at Cornell in which the archival materials are used. Through this engagement, Cornell also seeks opportunities to reach and engage students in challenged communities, in the hopes they will be interested in and attend Cornell. Cornell also includes the creators in lecturing process; initially, many of the artists and members of the hip hop community didn’t want to be lectured to by those who weren’t there (i.e. scholars). In 2012, Cornell contracted with DJ Afrikaa Bambaataa, who is currently serving a three year term as a visiting scholar, to bridge this gap.

On Monday afternoon, I also attended a session on showcasing diverse collections, “Putting Diversity into Action.” Katharine Chandler, Reference Librarian at the Free Library of Philadelphia’s Rare Books department, facilitated the highly emotional session. Many in Special Collections are concerned about not only expanding their collections, but ensuring that local voices are heard AND are part of the collecting process. In the past, members from marginalized groups have viewed elite institutions as appropriating the various groups’ identities by collecting their materials, and these groups can feel silenced as a result. Athena Jackson, of the University of Miami, recommended hiring individuals who, because of ethnicity, experience, religion, etc., were in a unique position to communicate and engage with members of a marginalized community. In building diverse collections within the academy, Jackson also suggested featuring and continuing to contribute to those collections, which serve as “undergraduate catnip”, through which students can see themselves and feel part of the campus community.

Many of you are aware of my interest in instruction, so you’ll understand why I was naturally drawn to sessions detailing Special Collections instruction and assessment. On Monday morning, I attended “Reviewing our (Classroom) Performance: Evaluating Special Collections Instruction.” Suzy Taraba, Julia Gardner, and Sarah M. Horowitz outlined their methods for assessing student learning, they emphasized the short-term, rather than long-term, effects of primary source instruction on undergraduate students. Prior to library instruction, students often overestimated their research skills (based on pre-class assessment), and Gardner, especially, is interested in comparing faculty perceptions of student mastery and students’ assessments of their own abilities. Horowitz, too, emphasized the importance of faculty engagement, as faculty and librarians can work together to create assignments reflecting the research skills students should learn in a library instruction course. All three panelists stressed that the “one size fits all” assessment/instruction approach is impractical, because instructors are teaching multiple, varied classes; as such, they need meaningful, and not general, data.

On Tuesday afternoon, I made my way to “Progressing Primary Source Literacy: Guidelines, Standards, and Assessment,” where I learned that Special Collections instructors have had limited success in matching the ACRL instruction guidelines with their courses; also, no standard definition of primary source literacy exists. Special Collections instructors often struggle with tailoring their BIs to a specific course due to faculty expectations; in one study, researchers found that faculty cared less about the practical reasons for Special Collections engagement (searching, analyzing, critical thinking, etc.) and more about the abstract (experiencing “realness,” sparking excitement in learning). There were lots of great ideas floating about during the session, and I look forward to seeing the eventual guidelines!

On Tuesday afternoon, Megan and I, along with Sandra Selts (Penn State University) and Michael Inman (New York Public Library) facilitated “Lifting the Curtain: Interlibrary Loan and Special Collections.” Since Fall 2011, Megan and I have worked to establish a satisfactory workflow through which Interlibrary Loan can request scans through Special Collections; though balancing preservation and access can be difficult, Megan and I were able to address workflow issues in both ILL and special Collections; as a result of our continuing dialogue, ILL incorporated a Special Collections-based workflow to request and track scan-on-demand requests for rare and/or archived materials. During the session, I was surprised, but pleased, to hear a number of librarians express interest in lending rare materials, provided that 1) the materials are delivered to and read within our Special Collections department (and we’ve agreed to this numerous times – thanks, Beth and Megan!) and 2) borrowing libraries can insure said rare or archival materials for their appraised value. I’m not sure ILL departments CAN do this now, but it’s certainly food for thought and [hopefully] continued discussion at the NC ILL Users Group Meeting, which will be held at ZSR in July.


One Response to “Anna at RBMS 2013”

  1. Afrikaa Bambaataa is a visiting scholar at Cornell? Too cool.

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