Libraries: Past, Present and Future.

Following the New Generations workshop at the Wellcome Library on Febraury 11th 2015, New Generations Programme members Becky Brown and Sam Goodman write:

In February, the New Generations cohort gathered at the Wellcome Trust building in London to discuss The Changing Landscape of Library Provision. On this second of four days in London, the focus was to be on how libraries, archives and the people who work with these collections can respond to the changing needs and challenges for storing and sharing these materials.

Ross MacFarlane provided an initial case study of how the Wellcome library has altered over the years. Initially geared towards holding material that reflected what early twentieth century medical doctors thought was interesting about the History of Medicine, and closely linked to Henry Wellcome’s business and collecting interests, the Wellcome library collection has changed significantly over time. The recently refurbished and newly opened reading room is a reflection of a move towards more inclusivity and access with an interactive ‘virtual autopsy’ table, physiognomic forehead readers, biomedical sculptures, old pharmaceutical containers, boardgames and giant floor cushions breaking up the more traditional book stacks. The idea, Ross explained, is to strike a balance between library and exhibition space, continuing to serve and meet the needs of researchers, but to also attract and include non-academic visitors, as well as to showcase the breadth of the Wellcome’s holdings.

As time has moved on, so too have trends in the History of Medicine. Not only have research interests altered, but the form materials take and the identities of those seeking to access them have changed as well. Correspondingly, historical collections will bear idiosyncrasies relating to the interests of the people with influence to shape their contents, as well as the important role of circumstance and historical coincidence. As such, collections like Wellcome’s must continue to evolve: new material will be acquired, long held materials newly curated, and the form of collections and stories they tell will alter with time. As Jenny Haynes emphasised during her talk on recent Wellcome library acquisitions: this material is not dead, but rich with opportunities to take on new meaning and life; something Wellcome encourages by inviting researchers to contribute their findings and discoveries to its very popular regular blog.

Helping to illustrate the life of the collection further are the Wellcome’s in-house experts such as Elma Brenner, who is a Wellcome Library Specialist in Medieval and Early-Modern Medicine. Elma’s role, like the refashioned library, combines academic and public-facing activities, and her work includes not only the expert interpretation of the library’s holdings but also the active dissemination of that interpretation through outreach and knowledge exchange. Elma stated that she sees her position as a combination of expertise and objects, in that her and other specialists advise the Wellcome on purchasing decisions and acquisition, and then go on to use those objects in the teaching of special classes for students of all ages. Such activities raise awareness not only of the Wellcome’s collection, but also the activities of the Trust in promoting the study of the history of medicine to an ever-expanding audience.

However, such work is not without its challenges. Many of the changes affecting libraries and archive collections are enabled by rapidly developing digital technologies which have hugely altered how researchers and others are able to access and interact with historical materials. Central to this is the decisive move Wellcome (and other collections) have made towards strategic digitisation of materials. Jenn Philips-Bacher described Wellcome’s key digital objectives as being focused on ensuring free access to anybody who wants it; making it easy for people to find what they need; and engaging with new audiences online. Through the digitisation of vast amounts of material and the development of new and accessible interfaces, Wellcome is moving towards these goals.

Opportunities made possible by new technological developments and changing patterns in how people access, store, and interact with materials goes beyond uploading digital copies to the web. Geoff Browell, senior archives services manager at King’s College London, introduced the group to a whole world of linked data, visualisation software, gamification, data mapping, data tracking, and more. Although, for some, there will always be an attraction (and often a real value) to be had in physical interaction with an original document, with so much variety in the way materials can be presented and accessed, it will be fascinating to see how engagement with these materials is altered by the form they take.

Whilst projects such as strategic digitisation and consolidation of collections promise to widen access and perhaps resolve some issues relating to physical storage space, they also bring with them new challenges: first, decisions must be made about what to keep and what to discard. Space is limited and expensive, and collections must be streamlined so as to make the most of their resources. This raises difficult questions for those tasked with shaping and sometimes slimming certain aspects of collections, for it is difficult enough to predict what items will be of interest to people now, let alone future generations of historians. Along with the sheer proliferation of ‘born digital’ works in the last decade, Jenny raised the subject of so-called ‘grey’ literature (i.e. works of an academic nature but which are not formally published in the same way as conventional journals or books), especially with regards to the history of AIDS. Such publications are significant sources within this narrative and help to reveal the ways in which public knowledge of AIDS grew throughout the 1980s and 90s; to adopt a stance in which library acquisition policy prioritises only official texts or ‘big names’ risks obscuring such valuable documents, and marginalising the role they played. The challenges facing the Wellcome library staff are thus not merely related to capacity, but also encompass searching questions of legitimacy central to the discipline of historical study itself and with consequences likely to have a lasting effect on the historiography of the following decades.

A second issue that is not new, though is made more acute by recent developments in effective ways of widening access to library collections, relates to the use of these materials. For example, Wellcome has made its entire online image collection completely free for anybody to access and use as they wish. This raises questions about the appropriateness of some of the uses those images might be put to, and whether some restrictions would be preferable. An interesting discussion was had during the afternoon session with Richard Barnett, author of The Sick Rose, a book containing medical illustrations of people with various forms of ailment and disease. Whilst acknowledging that many of these images are both hard to look at and grimly fascinating, one is confronted with the question of how the subjects of such pictures would feel about images of their diseased bodies being widely distributed and freely viewed by anyone: the concept of informed consent did not exist in the way it does today when most of these images were produced, but even if it did, it’s not clear that any of the subjects could be considered capable of predicting how their images would be used in the future, and agreeing to such use. Richard’s talk and the subsequent discussion highlighted the ethical dimension to library provision within the history of medicine, and how our attitudes as researchers and scholars accessing this material must not only be guided by our assessment of its use-value in relation to our work, but with mindfulness of the need for empathy and consideration of the essential humanity of our source material.

Whatever the future holds for libraries, it is clear that they will need to continue to evolve to match changing uses, technologies, limitations and needs. The often restricted resources available to develop library collections means that the challenge of maintaining and developing collections, whilst expanding access and making the most of new digital technologies, is considerable. The impression given to the New Generations cohort during our day at the Wellcome Collection, however, was one of eagerness to embrace these new challenges, rather than a nostalgia for simpler times past.

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