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By Neil Bennett, Pembrokeshire Libraries
Have you heard the story of the bloke who was interested in the history of the pubs in Torcastle (aka a town near you)? It goes like this:-
A man walks into the Local History section of Torcastle Central Library and tells the librarian that he is interested in the history of the local pubs and asks if they have any books on the subject.The librarian responds by saying that she knows that there are two or three and produces them in a flash. Man sits down and starts to read them. As there was no-one else in the Local History section at that time, the man was conscious of the librarian’s fingers dancing over the keyboard and the noise of a printer churning out a sheet of paper. Moments later, the librarian comes up to him and says,
“I’m not sure how far you want to take your research, but the museum Service have three old pub signs in their store, and the Archive Service have eight or nine title deeds of pubs in their collection”.
“How do you know that?”, said the man, genuinely impressed at this level of service.
“Oh, we hold the Museum and Archive catalogues on-line alongside our Library catalogue”, replied the librarian.
Remember it? No, I guess not. For if that level of service exists anywhere in a local authority in the UK, it will be so rare that most of us have never come across it. Indeed in this age of ‘beacon’ status, that shining light would have been beamed at us all. Why should this be though? The technology is out there to support it, and there probably has never been a greater interest in local history.
Two reasons spring to mind, which both involve the word ‘silo’. There are the professional silos of librarianship, museum, and archive professionals, and corporate or structural silos. The third reason that will be oft mentioned is, obviously, resources. Taking the professional silo first. In an era of dwindling resource budgets, how many local authorities manage to maintain a measurable materials fund for the Local History librarian? So is it surprising that he/she views the service’s holdings as ‘my collection’, and something to be protected, when a lot of effort has gone into collecting it. Archivists, quite naturally, have concerns about the wear and tear on unique items, and so ‘conserve’ their collections. Museums can only exhibit if they have a collection and so they have to retain their jewels.
However, in the services offered by local authorities, is it not the case that these collections belong to the resident population of that area, and therefore that the professionals have a custodial role and not a proprietorial one? Therefore I would suggest that staff charged with these items, which often help define the local culture, have a responsibility to develop access to them, rather than defend them against all potential interested parties.
Perhaps it is at this point that mention should be made of the structural silos. At the overarching level, in England there is MLA. In Wales there is CyMAL. Is it too naïve to assume that someone in Government, in setting up these teams, actually thought that there is a natural synergy between Museums, Libraries and Archives? Given that such a linkage is a good thing, then I accept that there is likely to be a dissonance of thought when one compares this with where they are placed in Local Authority structures. How often do all three sit within one directorate? How often do they sit in three different ones? [Too often I guess].
Even at the fairly populous two Directorate answer, the problems still multiply, because very often the staff are professionals and they do that professional job – quietly. So the service doesn’t appear on the corporate radar and only figures as a small part of the global directorate business plan – how many lines do libraries get in a wider Education department business plan?
Therefore there can be teams with different professional missions working in directorates that have different priorities. Joined-up service provision? Then, within these silos it is the provision of service for which staff are paid, not potentially self-indulgent organising of material that is rarely seen and less often used. Is it service in the Torcastle scenario to suggest that the person interested in the history of the pubs in the area, once he has had a look at the books in the might like to go to the museum and the archive ‘to see if they have anything’?
Being a digital immigrant, rather than native, colleagues think I have a another touching naivety when it comes to what I think computer systems can do for us. But surely there are platforms and programmes that can knit together the digital catalogues and listings of collections in different professional domains so that they can be searched together, no matter that the data was captured in different digital formats in the first place?
Which brings me to the third possible reason I identified for the Torcastle scenario not existing at all or being found in significant numbers - resources to do it. But what are we talking about here? Staff? Kit? Time?
Taking a step back, the first things any catalogue or listing is trying to achieve are access and findability. The customer needs to know that it exists and staff need to be able to find it. But how much detail has to be recorded to achieve these things?
I am not a museum or archive professional. Therefore my example is from the library world. A book written about the part that the Gurkhas played in allied invasion of Italy in 1944 might have a bag load of numbers after the decimal point when catalogued to the enth degree using Dewey. Important to get it right if there were lots of books about the Gurkhas or the Italian campaign or 1944, as there might be in a national library. But the local branch library? A generic ‘World War 2 – Army’ might satisfy most, if not all of the users. Similarly, Calm and Modes are excellent schemes. But are they needed at a local level. Could a basic level of accurate cataloguing be done by someone who has an interest in the subject? Someone who, as a ‘labour of love’ would be happy to make records about trains, or postboxes or 1920’s costume, to help others gain access. Can we really ignore the ranks of ‘experts’ in our communities who have more detailed knowledge in narrow subject areas than our generalist staff do? Might the staff role be to harness the energy of someone who really can get enthusiastic about local buses of the last 80 years, when that member of staff has no interest in transport at all?
Perhaps then, the Torcastle solution is to find the person who is interested in pubs and their history. Then persuade colleagues in other disciplines to let that person see the collections held by other services [avoiding the phrase ‘their collections’]. Then support that person in making simplified catalogue records that can be read across the authority’s computer system and also across the web.
Access or what?