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Thursday 11 June 2015

Acquisition is not enough

I meant to post something about the discovery of the missing prints at the Boston Public Library last week in connection with the various comments made in press reports and blog posts about the failure of institutions with substantial document and artefact collections to have adequate collection control in the form of an inventory.

This post I came across today, Libraries and cities are terrible at keeping track of art reminded me.

A major problem seems to me to be that institutions (or their sources of funding) are far more eager to acquire things than to pay for the absolutely necessary basic task of processing them so that they can be kept track of and found when required, as well as described in a meaningful way for researchers to access. This is the invisible labour that makes a collection usable and also provides for its security. I don't think this will ever be solved until it is acknowledged that just acquiring collections, however significant in themselves, is not enough. They have to be accessible.

I suspect that there may also be an issue where one librarian or curator has been dedicated to building up a collection in some particular area but this enthusiasm has not been inherited by successors.

Another issue is that donors may not be presenting their collections to the most appropriate home. It may be very gratifying to be offered an important item or collection, but does the institution have the facilities to care for it? Is the institution a place where researchers are going to look? Would there be much greater research synergy if it were placed elsewhere? Donors should also be aware that their apparently generous gift to an institution comes with ongoing costs of appropriate storage (if not active conservation), processing, and general maintenance.

Books, manuscripts, archives, artworks and artefacts are for posterity, not just an immediate press release and a bullet point in the annual report.