Two delegates kindly kept a record of proceedings at the ILA AGM 2018. This first conference report is by Jessica Hudson, Sion Project Cataloguer at Lambeth Palace Library.
The 2018 Annual meeting of the ILA was this year hosted by the Library of Innerpeffray and the Leighton Library. Entitled Past, Present, Future: the People in Independent Libraries, the general tenor of the conference was one of sharing and collaboration – through networks of librarians and academics, as well as our communities and audiences who help share and engage with our cultural heritage. This year’s speakers represented a variety of institutions both large and small, who delivered talks covering numerous facets of libraries and their histories – reflecting the sheer diversity of the bibliographic community.
Opening with Michael Osborne and Robin Davies representing the Leighton Library, we were told of the strenuous efforts being made to serve a growing network of modern users in an historic building. Looking back over the history of Leighton Library, the hopes and plans for its future were laid out. It was interesting to hear how historic libraries face the issues of modern demand and how this could be achieved, such as shaping the physical structure of the space to accommodate growing visitor numbers and initiatives to engage with the wider community (including tourists). We learned of the struggles of the library’s custodians, not least conservation issues and pressures on a small staff and budget. Later, we were given a tour of the Leighton Library and saw first-hand both the charm and constraints of the building which opened its doors in 1687.
James Hamilton informed and entertained with his discussion of the Signet Library and its people. “War is no excuse”, focused principally on the (sometimes comic) attempts of the former Librarian John Minto to recall books from the front during World War I or from the bemused and horrified relatives of soldiers. In one story, Minto sent an irate letter to a prisoner of war demanding a book’s return as it has been requested by another reader! Through such tales, we saw how library records can provide intriguing insights into libraries and the figures who help to shape them, for better or worse. James reminded us of the rich tapestry of individuals who make up the library community, from fleeting visitors and long-term users to staff. In this way the talk linked into Jill Dye’s presentation of her innovative research into borrowers’ records. Comparing three institutions (Leighton, Innerpeffray and Orkney) Jill has sought out commonality and points of deviation in their individual histories, but most critically unearthed fascinating insights into patterns of usage. Through these records a greater understanding of the character and make-up of past library users can be built and how they influenced the library, and vice versa. For example, Jill’s analysis of the Innerpeffray records reveals that users were (regardless of subject) borrowing mainly new material (i.e. new to the library) preferentially, and the interesting early representation of women readers in Kirkwall (Orkney) Library.
Day two of the conference opened with Neil Pearson (President of the ILA) speaking of his lifelong passion for books. Identifying the challenges faced by libraries, he spoke of his hopes to establish an “across the board initiative” to help members tackle conservation and funding issues by strategizing with the John R. Murray Charitable Trust. Bidding us more “Bibliographical fun”, we moved on to our keynote speaker, Dr Kelsey Jackson Williams (Lecturer in Early Modern Literature, University of Stirling).
“Bibliographers, Book Historians, and Independent Libraries” offered a rigorous and thought-provoking examination of the trends and academic shifts affecting the study of bibliography and libraries. Shifts, for example, from long-term and sweeping historical perspectives to micro-histories and an escalation in provenance research and material culture. There is, Kelsey highlighted, a particular focus on the uniqueness of the individual in terms of both objects and readers/owners of books.
Knowledge exchange was shown to have major positive implications for independent libraries and a ready response was incited with the proposal of forming networking groups to introduce academics and students to libraries in a bid to promote the readier exchange of information and generate new research by making students aware of the rich resources and untapped treasures hidden in library collections. What can libraries and academics do for each other, was a question loaded with promise.
Sue Clutterbuck’s talk “Restoring and Repairing the Iona Cathedral Trustees Collection” described the projects undertaken to modernise the library. Tracing the library’s history from 563 CE to the present, Sue discussed the work she is spearheading thanks to an £80,000 grant from HLF and the Iona Cathedral Trust (awarded in 2016). Part of the funding agreement was the need to focus not just on conservation of this unique library, but to demonstrate its community value through outreach. The Iona project gives a flavour of the cross fertilization of living heritage and the role of the library – the place of the library within its community and its ability to both deliver content and grow with its people. Sue has introduced several initiatives to raise the library’s profile – through cataloguing the collection to make it more discoverable, to fun and educational activities aimed at capturing the imagination of local school children.
Ken Gibb and Jess Hudson introduced the efforts at Lambeth Palace Library to publicise and promote the Sion College Library collection (which came to LPL in 1996). Through an innovative online crowdsourcing project hosted on WordPress the team are working to not only increase awareness of the collection but to garner support and input from the public to assist with provenance research – from transcriptions to identifications of former owners. These efforts are helping to improve the already rich catalogue records that are being produced. The Sion College Library Provenance Project was relaunched in 2017 and has already received nearly 12,000 views from across the globe and delegates were warmly invited to participate.
After the final talk we had a tour of the sublime Innerpeffray Library (founded c.1680 by David Drummond, making it Scotland’s first free public lending library) and grounds including the chapel which originally housed part of the library collection. After this, delegates were treated to a performance of “The Lamp” by Linda Cracknell a play set at and inspired by the Library of Innerpeffray. We would all like to thank the cast for a very enjoyable theatrical afternoon which proved a highlight of the conference.
Louisa Yates was teaching libraries how to be friendly with her talk focusing on Gladstone’s Library Friends scheme. An eye-opener for many in the audience was the concept of “transactional” and “non-transactional” initiatives – what is being offered and what needs be given in return (if anything at all) to members of Friends’ groups? What are the abstract or tangible benefits to your scheme and how does this influence uptake? The example of Gladstone’s scheme (revised in line with GDPR in 2018), suggests donations from the public don’t need to be tied to material benefits. Instead it was strongly advised that it is better to promote the most valuable assets we have – the uniqueness of our libraries. Privilege comes from supporting the library and helping to carry it forward into the future. Having restructured, Gladstone’s have been able to raise their membership figures from 200 to 2000 as well as pulling in more financial support without imposing financial restrictions (such as minimum donations requests) or incentivising.
John Crawford spoke about the library of Leadhills Reading Society, founded in 1741 as the first working class subscription library. Charting its history including the establishment of the first rules and statement of mutual improvement in 1743 and the closure of the mines in the 1930s, John gave an overview of the peaks and troughs that the library has endured, before moving on to discuss the modern strategy being pursued to keep it in the public consciousness and safeguard the collections. This has included increased cataloguing efforts, publicity drives and the identification of areas that may hold potential interest for study, such as the collection of Bargain Books dating from 1737-1854. In this way it is hoped greater contact with academics can be encouraged.
John concluded by outlining key areas of focus to consider when helping to sustain a library:
· Research and understand what you have
· Think strategically and always have the bigger picture in mind
· Find opportunities to work with like-minded organisations
· Pursue skills development and take training seriously
· Aim for a culture of continual improvement.
A novel concept for custodians of historic libraries is the establishment of an entirely new library, but this is precisely what Helen Williams has had the privilege of doing with the Library of Mistakes. Housed in Edinburgh, the library was founded to promote the study of financial history and it is hoped that it will one day become the “world’s best business and finance library”. Established in 2013, the library was the brain child of Russell Napier. Through the hard work of Helen and her volunteer, the collection of c.3000 books (which was formally opened to the public in March 2014) is now catalogued and available online via LibraryThing.
From new to revolutionary, our final speaker was Lynette Cawthra, who gave an account the Working Class Movement Library. Ruth and Eddie Frow were tireless and determined collectors who amassed an astounding collection of radical books, which formed the foundation of the WCML. Originally housed in Ruth and Eddie’s marital home in Talford, by 1987 the collection had swelled to such a size that Salford City Council agreed to support the library and house it (along with Ruth and Eddie) in Jubilee House. This remains the library’s home, but it now operates on a fully independent basis and has seen considerable modernisation to ensure the preservation of the collection. In 2014 the library, in partnership with the People's History Museum/Labour History Archive, was awarded HLF funding to undertake the Voting for Change - 150 years of radical movements, 1819 to 1969 project. The funding facilitates five years’ worth of new acquisitions to enhance the collections as well as supporting vital public engagement works. A positive forward focus to end the conference.
Overall the conference reminded us that together we can not only learn new strategies to tackle issues facing libraries, but work together to sustain libraries and their collections – keeping them as a valuable and current resource ripe for study. Conferences such as this are fertile ground for development and a fantastic opportunity for everyone from librarians to postgraduate students to create connections – both intellectual and social. It is thereby worth urging others to attend similar events in future.
Jessica Hudson, Sion Project Cataloguer, Lambeth Palace Library