I missed the CILIP Rare Books and Special Collections Group Conference last week but I did something else that refired my enthusiasm for public engagement with special collections.
Christ’s College Library, where I am currently Assistant Librarian, took part in a local festival, Open Cambridge. This is organised annually by Cambridge University’s Office of External Affairs and Communications and aims to let the local public see private bits of the University in the middle of their town.
It was a relatively hassle free way for the Library to share its current exhibition and beautiful building. Open Cambridge organisers did the publicity, including producing online and print listings of events; reminded us to have a risk assessment and public liability insurance in place; provided generic signage; gave support and guidance; and helped us to evaluate afterwards. In Christ’s case, the Office of External Affairs and Communications brought extra, extra publicity to the exhibition: it featured on the University’s website, in the local newspaper, local BBC radio, and in the Guardian.
All we had to do was send a risk assessment and check our public liability insurance; brief our security staff; produce some customised signage; and staff the Library (with a mixture of staff and volunteers). We also produced an exhibition guide (sold at cost price), counted visitors and took their comments for evaluation purposes.
Spending four hours on Friday and on Saturday watching visitors interact with our current exhibition (Christ’s at War: the College and its members during WWI) was a great experience. I talked to a boy from the Perse School who had brought his family to see letters on display written from the front line by men who studied at the Perse over a hundred years ago. Another visitor asked me about book conservation and in return told me about a library in Portugal where resident bats are seen as an insect control. Another man wondered if they had fountain pens in the early 1900s – how could the letters from the front be so neat otherwise? Our collections obviously sparked all kinds of interest in all kinds of people. (The event was ‘made’ by the exhibition and for that I must congratulate my colleague, Charlotte Byrne, who curated it.)
One couple asked me what was the benefit for the Library and for the College in opening to the public. It’s a hard one to answer because the benefits are not straightforward (or at least straightforwardly monetary). Allowing the public to gain something from the presence of the College strengthens public relations. In the long run having public support, especially local public support, is important for the College. For example, if the College wants to build a new building a sympathetic local public that feels it has some stake in the College is much better than an uncomprehending, possibly hostile, one.
From a library perspective, the public enthusiasm for the Library has boosted staff morale and interest in our own collections. People’s comments gave us new angles on old objects. One of my colleagues made a perceptive comment along the lines of it being those outside the College that showed real interest in the special collections, and perhaps this is because they do not have access to them and collections like them everyday.
Open Cambridge set me wondering whether other universities or towns have other similar festivals. I’m aware of Open House London this coming weekend. Does anyone know of any others?
Talking about how to make the most of collections is important but there is nothing like actually feeling you are doing it. I can look forward to reading about the Conference in the next Rare Books group newsletter. The best of both!