Providence Public Library Special Collections: Acquisitions Policies and Practices, part 2

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 iron work 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. In part one of this post we discussed the history of PPL special collections, their acquisitions policies, and their thoughts about access. The following is part two of our discussion.

Do you find patron requests drive your collecting? Do you get a lot of suggestions for additions, besides people who are donating, from patrons and people who come in to use things?

Kate For Rhode Island Collection, like any local history collection, genealogists are a huge population base, so I wouldn’t say necessarily that they advocate for certain things to be added, but I am aware when I’m looking at things that are on the market, if that is something that would be of interest to a large user group. We do get a lot of requests for maps, so I’m always on the lookout for maps that aren’t otherwise represented in our collection.

Jordan I don’t think we have many direct requests. Now and then people will want access to a particular book that fits in our collecting. Like anyplace else, we’re collecting for people who aren’t born yet, so I think we’re essentially trying to imagine the users and buy for them.

Kate Maybe one example…we have long term researchers, we know their subject areas pretty well, having worked with them a long time, and I’m aware there’s not much in the collection related to “x” and I can see something come up, I know that it’s probably pretty rare, because they’ve had a hard time finding information on that topic. If I see something (like that) it might be more likely I’d buy it, but I wouldn’t necessarily say I’m buying for one researcher, it’s that it gives me a sense of what’s available for them to work with.

How do you prioritize your acquisitions? I’m guessing, like everybody else, you have limitations on space and on your budget. Do you identify specific things you’re going to collect for a while, but if something amazing comes up…

Jordan Yes, for instance, for our collection of type specimens we’ve explicitly stated that we want to extend to non-Latin type face and areas of the world that we haven’t in the past, less of the Anglo-American and continental European specimens…so that’s something that’s stated and booksellers know that we’re looking for other things like that.

Kate I would say that for me, it’s under-documented communities, so if I have the choice between a collection that represents the historic east side and College Hill or a neighborhood that is predominantly people of color, I’m going to go for the neighborhood of people of color, because that other neighborhood is well represented in collections across the city as well as in our own. Of course Rhode Island Collection’s acquisitions budget is still relatively small, so if I have to pay a huge amount, I’m less likely (to buy). We are very much still interested in people who want to give us things for free.

I’ll put a plug in for you – if anybody from Rhode Island reads this blog, they’re taking stuff for free!

Jordan Some stuff!

Kate We have a budget, but choosing what to spend money on is actually where it gets a bit like “I don’t have a ton of money, is this one item really worth it?” I’m a little pickier about things I spend (money on).

Jordan I think under-documentation is pretty much the theme for anything in the collections. Like most places, we have documentation of the things that have been collected, so we know that our users are really interested in things that haven’t traditionally been collected.

When you’re collecting from organizations that have a large amount of stuff squirreled away how are you deciding what you can take into your collection, especially things that are oversized or bulky or made of alternative materials that might require some special handling?

Kate Probably UPP Arts is the best example of that; as part of their work they did a lot of parades and processions with a lot of props and we generally don’t collect 3D materials or artifacts, we just don’t have shelving space for that kind of stuff. So, we worked with UPP and said “can you photograph items? We’ll be happy to take photographic evidence of these artifacts.” Then we took a small sample of things that could be flattened without damaging them. We took signage, some costumes which were done on cardboard and could easily be flattened and put in boxes, and a very tiny handful of things that would fit in record cartons. But, generally…(we) say we’re not collecting realia or artifacts (because of) a space constraint.

Do you plan to use this idea of sampling realia or artifacts if you continue to collect from other arts organizations or creative groups or individuals?

Jordan Yes

Kate I think so, it seems to be working. (Also) having a good photographic representation of what was there has worked well in the case of UPP and would be something we could explore. I’m trying to think if there are other types of organizations that would have a lot of artifacts…

Jordan In our work with artists, we are more focused on helping them use our collections…we have no plans to become an art museum. We’re interested in documenting artists and helping them use collections, much more than bringing in artwork.

Kate I’m trying to think for example, say a theater company got in touch with us, we would not be able to take in props or costumes, but we would be interested in…the graphic design related to posters, or handbills and playbills, or institutional records about how you made the decisions about what you put on. I think we would be much more interested in that kind of material, rather than the output of the decision itself.

Since you’re also interested in acquiring digital files, for groups that stage events or performances, maybe having a recording will help document use of costumes or props, even more fully than a photograph might?

Kate for UPP Arts born digital…with the ease of people taking digital photographs, (they had) thousands and thousands of images. We worked with them (and said) for each individual event, let’s constrain it to twenty or twenty-five of the best images that represent that event. For example, go ahead and eliminate the photographs where it’s just the back of people’s heads and it’s not showing anything particular. We don’t need twenty different images of the same speaker at a podium, just pick one. That’s easier when it’s an organization where you’re dealing with the creator/donor directly. Certainly, if we’re taking in collections where people are no longer around that’s a different kind of process.

Do you or does somebody else on your staff help them with selection or do you require them to do that on their own before you collect materials?

Kate Well, UPP Arts was this bizarre dreamlike scenario where they themselves received a grant to hire a project archivist with the intention that the archives would be donated here. Never before in my life, knock on wood, has a collection arrived processed by a professional archivist, foldered, labeled, finding aid and inventory ready!

That is a dream, that’s fantastic!

Kate I know! I worked a lot with her as she was finding things, saying “ok, what makes sense for us in terms of images?” and things like that, but, that was this bizarre dream scenario. But with AS220 for example, our project archivist works very hands on with the people who have been designated as her organizational contacts, so they’re often having conversations about “does it make sense to send this over? Yes, but maybe here’s how we can deal with it.”

I know that this is the thing that you don’t ask a parent, but do either of you have a favorite collection here at PPL?

Jordan You’re not allowed to ask that!

Kate I think that changes depending on what I’ve most recently pulled.

Can you say what is your current favorite?

Jordan Can we say item as well?

Sure, item or collection.

Jordan My favorite item right now is a book on the evolution of industry by a guy whose last name is Butterworth, which already raises it in my estimation, just for that reason. I’ve always been drawn to practical items…I’d be less excited if someone was offering us a first folio than a big collection of manuals of how to repair mill machinery with great illustrations of cogs and people have written in the margins about how they tried something else and it worked better. That kind of stuff, books that people have actually used as tools, are always my favorite.

Kate I’d say my favorite item is a newspaper called The Searchlight, that was published in 1915 by the Rhode Island Society for the Suppression of Vice at the height of progressive moralism. What I think I love about it is although it’s talking about downtown Providence as a den of iniquity, with the theaters and the restaurants and the nightclubs and the vaudeville circuit, what is fascinating about it is it’s the only good source of information I’ve ever seen on drug dealers and prostitution in downtown Providence. They’re talking about it as a way to stay away from sinfulness and by issue number six they’re having letters to the editor where they’re talking about how all they’re doing is driving up interest! I love this idea that people are reading the (publication for) Society for the Suppression of Vice and actually just going out and participating in the vice.

It’s actually a road map!

Kate Absolutely! Here’s where all the brothels are and what they serve! I think as a collection we took in, in multiple acquisitions, the Lou Costa collection on Fox Point, a neighborhood in Providence that historically has been immigrants and over the past one hundred years has been mostly Cape Verdean immigrants and other Portuguese Azorian and Portuguese diaspora and then in the past 20 years has been completely gentrified and is now almost all student apartments. So, it’s a fascinating look at one hundred years of this immigrant community and it’s just the daily lives of people. It’s really fun to look at people’s personal photo albums that were donated by somebody who is still collecting. He grew up there and has a love of the neighborhood and talks about how he goes to peoples’ funerals and says to their children “don’t clean out your mother’s house until you think about saving things that document the neighborhood.” For us, that was exciting because it was our first big collection that related to immigrants and people of color as well as a non-English speaking community.

It hit all your collecting points!

Kate Yes, it absolutely hit all our points. The photographs could be interesting for an architectural preservationist who’s interested in the past one hundred years of this historic neighborhood, or it’s genealogists, or it’s people interested in immigrant communities, this really hits so many different levels

Here’s my last unfair question: what’s your current dream acquisition? If money wasn’t an object…is there something that you’ve had your eye on and thought “we’d love to add that?”

Kate I will say that when I first started this job our dream acquisition was AS220 and we got it, so I’m not sure…Now I feel like, oh gosh, I have to be careful what I look for next, because that was a big collection! …I would love to do more to document the alternative leftist progressive community in Providence from the 1960’s forward, but that’s a lot of relationship building with people who are getting ready to retire.

And who might be slightly suspicious…

Kate That’s true! I will say, it’s not a Rhode Island based collection, but the collection at Brown that I love is the Hoagland Howe collection, who was a centrist and was completely suspicious of radicals on either the right or the left and who collected all sorts of propaganda material. It’s this unbelievably interesting collection, that would be the kind of thing that would be fascinating.

Jordan I’m going to give you a cop-out answer to an unfair question: I’m excited by an acquisition of something that I didn’t know existed. Our most recent purchase is a couple of Irish broadsides called Skellig Lists, which apparently were lists that were printed in Irish towns trying to shame all the single people into getting married. Maybe I should have heard of these things before, but I hadn’t, and so it was one of those things you see in a catalog and you think “I have to have that right now!” My dream acquisition is another one of those, where you just open the catalog, say “I’ve never heard of this before in the world and it’s just gotta be here!”

I want to thank Kate and Jordan for participating in this conversation and I hope the next time you’re in Rhode Island, you stop by Providence Public Library!

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