Christina Kamposiori, programme officer at Research Libraries UK (RLUK), examines the results of RLUK’s recent report on the role that special collections and archives play in enabling libraries to meet their impact goals.

The special collections and archives held by research libraries have long been recognised as cultural assets by their institutions, with strong research and educational potential. Yet, over the past decades, the practices and values of academic and cultural heritage institutions have shifted in response to pressures from a fast-changing society, the digital revolution and a constrained economic climate.

These institutions, including research libraries, have been challenged to respond to the call for openness in scholarship and culture, as well as to prove their worth and positive impact on society. In such a shifting environment, the roles played by unique and distinctive collections are being reassessed and the way in which they can align with the wider institutions’ missions re-evaluated.

For this reason, Research Libraries UK (RLUK) issued a report to explore the role that special collections and archives play in enabling libraries, and their home institutions, to meet their impact goals as well as investigate the ways the impact resulting through relevant services and activities is evidenced. The results showed a shift towards more audience-focused strategies; by employing these approaches, which often include research, teaching and cross-institutional collaborations as well as public engagement activities, libraries aimed to increase physical and digital access to collections and engage with a variety of audience groups.

This project involved analysis of case studies showcasing the different ways through which libraries encourage engagement with collections; from developing new buildings and spaces to collaborating with scholars as part of a wide range of projects. These examples of good practice were collected from RLUK member libraries as well as close RLUK partners, including researchers. Further data collection through a qualitative survey circulated across the RLUK membership enabled us to gather more information around the role of special collections and archives in generating impact and the ways this is evidenced.

Some of the main findings of this project are:

  • research libraries are increasingly taking advantage of technology and fundraising opportunities to develop a variety of activities that raise the profile of their institutions and collections; these have transformed the image of special collection departments, from ‘closed’ spaces to hubs of creativity and innovation
  • terminology used by universities to describe impact (closer to the REF criteria) does not always serve the strategic goals of the library and, thus, relevant activities may fail to reveal the full potential of special collections and archives as well as undermine the expertise and contribution of staff
  • several participants reported difficulties in tracking and capturing the impact of collections when used by external projects, measuring long term impact of library resources and services or effectively evaluating the use of their digital resources
  • the skill-set of collection professionals has expanded; apart from collection management, their responsibilities now include teaching, research and public engagement activities

Yet, as the shift towards openness is not even across institutions, there is still work to be done about maximising opportunities for impact; improving discovery of conventional – especially uncatalogued – and digitised material is necessary to enhance the value of collections. Advocacy is also required to communicate effectively the impact of unique and distinctive collections and bring recognition and reward to the library. The development of a common language around impact which is recognised by home institutions and other collection stakeholders can significantly facilitate the capturing and evidencing of value.

Moreover, although libraries already engage in activities with the purpose of tracking and measuring the value of their collections, there are still challenges that need to be addressed, such as the need for more structured methodologies to capture the long-term impact of collections or better understand how collections and digital resources are used outside institutions. Finally, investing in skills development for staff will not only support collection professionals in their continuously evolving roles, but ultimately also support the library’s aim to increase the reach and impact of its unique and distinctive collections.

To conclude, through this work, we aspire to contribute to the ongoing national and international dialogue around the value and significance of arts and culture and promote the vital role that special collections and archives can play in their institutions and beyond.

Christina Kamposiori is interested in how research libraries support scholarship and foster innovation in the digital age, and in audience engagement and the facilitation of research and learning through collections.

Image: Special Collections, University of Leeds