Providence Public Library Special Collections: Acquisitions Policies and Practices, part 1

by Kathi Isham

This past March, I attended the New England Archivists Spring 2018 Meeting in New Haven and thoroughly enjoyed presentations by Providence Public Library staff about their outreach work to promote use of their special collections by the Providence arts community and their efforts to document that community by collecting material from local arts organizations. Providence Public Library (PPL) is a privately governed and funded institution that has been serving the public since 1878. The library’s late nineteenth century building filled with marble and ornate ironwork was augmented by a sizable modern addition in 1954 and occupies a city block in downtown Providence. PPL’s Special Collections Department is located in the older portion of the building; patrons access Rhode Island Collections in the first floor reading room painted a vibrant “historical” shade of green and ringed with dark wood bookshelves and exhibition cases, access for all other special collections is provided in the former Boys & Girls Reading Room on the second floor, which is decorated with 1930’s murals representing characters from children’s literature. PPL’s holdings include special collections on Checkers & Whist, Children’s Books, Civil War and Slavery, History of the Printed Book, Irish History and Culture, Law and Legal History, Magic, Rhode Island History, and Whaling and Maritime History. All special collections materials are stored on site. In May I traveled to Providence and met with Kate Wells, Curator of Rhode Island Collections and Jordan Goffin, Head Curator of Collections who generously agreed to take a break from planning a major renovation to discuss their acquisitions policies and practices for this blog post. We chatted for close to an hour, the following is part one of our discussion.

What is the history of special collections at PPL?

Jordan It wasn’t until the 60’s that (PPL) actually had special collections and hired a special collections librarian, but before that they had been adding what we now have as special collections to the library…by the mid-1880’s, the library acquired a collection on Civil War & Slavery…this was a collection that the library actually bought, it was seen as an intact special collection, but there was no special collections department, I don’t actually know how access was provided early on, but over the years other special collections were added, essentially as rooms that patrons were provided access to.

Kate The Rhode Island Collection was formed in about 1900 out of the reference department. They created a Rhode Island reference center with a card catalog because they were getting so many repeat reference questions about what was the state bird, etc. It was always part of the reference department and it didn’t circulate, it was library use only materials that were not considered rare at the time. They had a part time reference librarian who was dedicated to the Rhode Island Collection access and providing reference up until, I want to say 8 years ago.

Jordan Actually, maybe 7.

Kate Yes, maybe 7 or 8 years ago when there was a realization that there’s some pretty unique content here as well as some rare materials and things that would be very difficult to replace…it was considered special collections material at that point and there was a reconfiguration of the department. Rhode Island Collection was considered part of special collections, so staffing shifted. I’ve been here 5 years…my predecessor was not here as long…there was an awareness of needing people who had the ability to deal with some of the backlog content that we had, which was archival, whether photographs or manuscript material, and lots of rare book cataloging, which hadn’t really been done in either collection. With the renovation we’ll physically be merging the special collections and Rhode Island Collection; even though we’re part of the same department, we’re physically in different places. Post-renovation our storage will be merged, our reading room will be merged, we’ll have a full departmental staff, which will enable us to staff the reading room jointly. So, the collections have been in place for a long time, but they hadn’t really been considered as an intact department.

Were there other large collections that that were brought in and kept in separate areas for people to access?

Jordan Yes, it’s hard to go back and figure out how (some) were used and managed…there was the Harris Collection and the Updike Collection, (which) was founded in 1937. It had its’ own special room, it was perceived as a collection…We had a librarian who dealt with business and industry and that was how you got access to the collection…The magic collection for a while was maintained outside of special collections…and we recently transitioned an art and architecture collection to special collections. There were little pocket collections across the building… and the library is now realizing it makes a lot more sense to let them coalesce and be treated as special collections.

How large do you think your holdings are in special collections?

Kate I don’t know about the department as a whole. Rhode Island Collection I think has about 20,000 individually cataloged items and about 18,000 photographs or visual materials and I don’t know the linear feet for manuscript, but it’s not huge. We were never focused on manuscript collecting until more recently. That doesn’t include the backlog though, I would almost double those numbers for backlog.

Jordan We’ve traditionally said somewhere in the neighborhood of 40,000 before we added some of the other collections, so 50,000-ish? You can tell from the way that we’re talking that intellectual control has not been solid for these collections. As part of this renovation we’re planning to do an actual inventory and have real numbers. We’re really excited to have the ability to answer that question at some point in the future. Right now, for special collections separate from Rhode Island we estimate that maybe half of the collection is not in the online catalog, which, again, makes it hard for us to count things and give numbers to things. So somewhere between 50 and 100,000, whatever you want to call that number, pick a number.

Is there is special collections department and how many people does that include right now?

Jordan Myself, Kate and Angela are full time permanent staff. We also have a project archivist, who is working through the end of this fiscal year.

Kate She’s grant funded on continuing grants, so fingers crossed we will keep her on.

Jordan We’ve had lots of volunteers over the years and Kate still has a lot of volunteers and interns and people working on projects.

Do you have people from the community or library science students?

Kate We’ve mostly constrained it to library science students, predominantly Simmons students…and we have a long-term volunteer, who is a professional in the field, so that’s fantastic because we can give her more complicated projects. Occasionally we’ll have smaller projects and we’ll bring in people who don’t have any kind of training, but we’ve been pretty lucky with people who have some experience already. Then we have scanning technicians who are short term grant funded, they’re not really part of special collections…usually one or two part-time people for shorter term projects per year.

What do you collect now?

Jordan Until the last couple years, our acquisitions funding has been really limited, so there has been a certain amount of money to purchase Rhode Island materials, there have been endowed funds for purchasing whale log books, and then a little bit of money for other things here and there, like our Irish collection, but other than that it was pretty much collect when you can scrape together money one way or another. Now is the first time we have a more stable source of funding for acquisitions for special collections, so …for me the challenge has been figuring out how to collect in new ways that go just far enough off target from what we have been collecting, they’re still expanding the reach of what we’re collecting, but we’re not collecting the same thing. Because in some cases the things that we’re strongest at, we can’t really buy and the return on that investment is pretty low. So, 18th century English and continental European type specimen books are now really expensive and adding one more…doesn’t do that much for us for the price. We’ve been trying to extend into areas that people who are already coming to our collections would have something new that could be useful in the same ways.

Are you trying to contextualize so you have more supporting material that is complimentary to existing collections?

Jordan Part of it is just geographic and time areas that haven’t been collected before; part of it is we’re really interested in use of our collections by artists and designers and people working creatively in whatever way they might be. For instance, recently we purchased a tattoo collection, which we don’t have any prior collection of tattoo materials, but we do have a whaling collection and a typography collection, so, that tattoo collection kind of sits between them. People who are graphic designers or artists, who are coming in to look at typography might be interested in lettering and design and art of tattoos, so finding areas where we can extend ourselves but remain in contact with what we’ve always been collecting is where we’re changing.

Kate For Rhode Island Collection, when I started we sat down and the challenge was to identify who else in Rhode Island is collecting what and what isn’t being collected, so where does it make the most sense for us to expend our energy? We decided about five years ago to focus on contemporary collecting with the goal that we want to be the first non-academic institution to really be ready to collect born-digital…let’s focus on later 20th century and 21st century, let’s work with our IT folks to be ready to collect born-digital. I think we got to that point about two years ago and the word got out that that’s what we’re interested in collecting. Then, about three years ago we had this focus on the arts community, so that helped us refocus the Rhode Island Collection to say we’re really interested in the creative culture of Rhode Island, Providence specifically, which I think has a really unique creative community, and we’re interested in neighborhood history. Basically, the way I think of it… is that I’m not interested in rich white men…we’ve got enough of them in our collection…who else is out there and how can we capture their history is what we’re interested in. We’ve got really good relationships with our colleagues at other collecting institutions…if something gets offered to us and it doesn’t quite make sense for us… I’ll do my best to try to reign myself in…even though it’s really awesome, and we have our colleagues who are doing the same thing for us, so I think that has created a more collegial sense of understanding who really is working with what.

Jordan I just want to say that one of the things that Kate has done really well is to do outreach to communities and make the case for why those collections belong in a public library. And she’s done a great job of focusing our collecting area on those sorts of communities and organizations whose records should be in a public library and also explaining to them why that’s the case. I think a lot of the really great collections that Kate’s brought in in the last few years (are a result of) starting conversations and then three or four years later, following up in a way that makes it clear that…your papers are something that should be preserved and we really are the place where they should be kept, because of the way we’re going to keep them and also because of the people who are going to access them. The Rhode Island Collection in the past was not really a manuscript repository, it wasn’t an archives, it wasn’t focused on archival collections.

Kate We had a vast amount of photographs donated over the years, so if you’re thinking about a visual archives, yes, but if you’re thinking of manuscript material, not really. That’s newish for us…we would not be the place researchers would think of in terms of “I’ll make sure in my scholarly review of who has what in Rhode Island,” they weren’t thinking of us

Jordan But, organizations like AS220, the Urban Pond Project, individual collectors, some really recent great neighborhood documentation…

Kate What we’re seeing now is the outreach that’s happened with, for example Angela into the arts community as users, is bringing people to this realization of “oh, you also collect? Maybe you’d want my things.” So, I think there’s an easily identifiable relationship between getting people engaged as researchers and then ultimately getting them engaged as donors and that’s huge. I don’t know how much of that is specific to the Providence creative community, which maybe maintains relationships more than larger cities would.

Jordan Most of special collections outside of Rhode Island Collections also hasn’t been a traditionally archival manuscript based collection. We’re trying to bring in some things like that, but we’re less focused on documenting individuals and organizations, we’re more focused on topical collecting and thinking about creating research resources. We might collect the records of a printer, but we’re doing that not because we need to document the community of letterpress printers, we’re collecting it because we have a collection on typography and printing.

Kate I think the tattoo acquisition is one that is a good example of looking at a much broader base (to see if) there other people collecting this kind of material. When that came up, (we thought) is this just a totally random thing that we’re going to have this? Because everybody’s going to think (they should) go to Chicago or San Francisco for it, but in fact, most of those collections are in private hands, there aren’t really many that are held within a library setting. That was one where we looked at the collection (to decide if it) really made sense nationally.

Jordan Yes, we’re approaching some of those manuscript collections from more of a rare book collecting mindset.

Do you have a stated acquisition policy? Do you have something that you can point to when you’re trying to justify a purchase or dealing with a potential donor to say this does or doesn’t fit within our policy?

Kate We do. Rhode Island Collection is still in an internal use only format. We have a blurb on the website…we’re interested in 20th and 21st century, we’re interested in cultural history, we say that. The internal draft for Rhode Island Collection, which has gone by our special collection committee and is definitely an established thing, although not something which we would point the public to, is a little bit more fleshed out, in which we would say, for example, we are not interested in the records of a bank, a church, or an educational institution…although that is malleable to a certain extent.

Jordan The Rhode Island Collection policy was updated more recently, so it really is more detailed…the special collections policy overall was done before we had any real resources for collecting. Essentially it was, we have some money for whales, and that’s that…that one needs to be formalized as part of our renovation and departmental renaissance.

Are you thinking of having it be publicly available once you work on that?

Jordan Yes, we talked about that a little bit, it’s not top secret.

PPL is a public library, although it’s set up a little differently from most other public libraries. Are your stakeholders the same as other public library stakeholders for acquisitions?

Jordan One of the things that has made us a little bit different from other public libraries is our non-Rhode Island collections, which are, in some ways, like a lot of other rare book libraries, and a lot of public libraries don’t necessarily have that kind of collection. What we want to do is rather than turn the collecting, turn the use public, so that essentially there’s no reason that somebody walking in off the street shouldn’t have the chance to just sit (down) and flip through a medieval manuscript. That‘s been our attitude, we’re not focusing thematically in terms of subject collecting on a public library audience, we’re collecting the way other places might and turning our outreach to enable people who want to use it, to use it in a public way.

Kate I would say another piece that access thing has a lot of impact on, more for archival rather than rare books, is we will not take anything in if it is restricted, because access is so much a part of what our focus is. I will say one caveat: for example, the Urban Arts Procession did a lot of programming with youth, so the use copy for a researcher will be redacted with children’s identifying information, and things like that (removed). That’s one reason to restrict that’s totally appropriate, but, for example, if someone said “I’ll give you my papers but, I want you to wait 40 years after my death,” we don’t have the space to accommodate that kind of storage, so we are always thinking about, if something’s coming in the door, how much use is it going to get, and a big piece of that is can it be used immediately? As soon as we can process it or catalog it, is it available to people with limited copyright restrictions, limited privacy restrictions, whatever else? I’ve never (worked) in a public library special collections before and I can’t imagine going back to work for an institution that makes it hard for people to walk in the door. That, to me, is probably what makes working here more fun, because we have a very wide user base and it includes people who are well off and people who are indigent, and people who speak English and who don’t, and children and adults, and everyone across the gamut. Seeing people come in, who may be intimidated by the idea “oh, this is too precious to be handled” and for us to say “are your hands clean? Do you have some sort of photo id? Let’s get you set up” and try to make sure that whatever we bring in the door is something that can be handled. You’re always balancing that against conservation and preservation issues, we’d be irresponsible if we didn’t.

So, two-year olds and medieval manuscripts, you’re a bit iffy on that?

Jordan Not really! …We’ve had birthday parties for eight-year olds and had them passing around scrimshawed whale teeth, and for the record, they are excellent, respectful patrons. Unless it’s physically impossible for somebody to use something without physically damaging it, there’s almost no restriction.

Stay tuned for part 2 where we discuss patrons’ influence on acquisitions and appraising organizational records.

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