Have you ever wondered why there is what there is in Special Collections & Archives?
Our collections are a fascinating mixture of what survives physical degradation, individual actions, historical events and official censure. But just because something has survived for a long time doesn’t automatically mean it has a place in Special Collections & Archives.
The survival of printed books and archival collections usually contains an element of serendipity; a modicum of good fortune which means they have been able to transcend neglect, wilful destruction, environmental dangers and the censure of authority. But there is also the hand of the librarian and archivist in evidence, selecting and preserving through careful management to ensure the items are kept secure and made available for years to come in a way that is appropriate to both the resources available and the intellectual content of the broader collections.
SCA holds material which was officially banned, as its content was deemed to be controversial or unsuitable for certain audiences. This was often for reasons which reveal more about the prevailing social and political climate than the texts themselves, as the examples from our science fiction collections show. More prosaically, some material in our stores cannot be made available for a number of years due to legal restrictions around data protection, which result in formal ‘closed periods’. This is often straightforward to administer, but can become complicated due to the origin and historical importance of the material, and, as Lord Owen’s work in the former Yugoslavia reveals, the wishes of living donors as to how it is made available.
The survival of a document or book can also represent an overcoming of historical odds, such as the material bearing witness to E.J. and Nancy Burford’s experience of the Spanish Civil War.
War also presented a risk to the Cunard archive, though ultimately it was the more benign circumstances of the business relocation from Liverpool to Southampton which necessitated the rescue effort and transfer to the University. The Liverpool Blitz of 1940-41, Nazi book burnings, and ordinary environmental risks have made some of the books and pamphlets now safely stored in special collections scarce or unique, while others have survived six centuries as prized objects.
One of the major collection management issues we face relates to our youngest items – those created by the various transitory methods which have provided storage and access to information in the electronic age. Material saved on obsolete formats like floppy discs needs to be migrated to a stable, up-to-date software to make it accessible – and even to appraise whether it is worth keeping. Once this decision is made, we are required to continue to store and migrate the information to ensure files are as readable to future generations as a book printed in the sixteenth century is to us today.
Archives and special collections material may have survived historical blacklisting and disasters of one form or another, but then the question arises of why it appears in the collection of one institution rather than another. To ensure our collections grow in a way which makes the most of the limited resources we have available, SCA has a formal collection development policy. Generally material arrives via donation by an individual with a connection to the University, and must be relevant in this context, or link to another existing collection strength.
Of course, choosing which material to put on display to tell a story via an exhibition is another form of ‘selection’ which librarians and archivists do. We hope that the items selected here provide an insight into some of the issues we deal with whilst working to ensure our collections are cared for and made available to facilitate your research and requests.