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University of Tasmania Library’s Special and Rare Collections

Summary: 

This university library holds a significant collection of special and rare items, which it aims to make digitally accessible for researchers now and in the future. While it has gone some way to achieving this, it needs greater capacity, expert advice about best practice and refinements to its technology to achieve this goal. 

Background: 

Housed in the Morris Miller Library on the Sandy Bay campus, the Special and Rare Collections is a set of legacy collections that has been donated and acquired since the university’s inception in 1890. In 2015 this collection was confirmed as nationally significant by a National Library of Australia assessment. The collection continues to grow by donation, but space is a constraint.

The overall management of these collections is the responsibility of a senior librarian and two part-staff. The library aims to have volunteers to support the maintenance of the collections and is planning to start its volunteer program with tasks related to digitisation and transcribing handwritten documents.

Community engagement and partnerships: 

Staff have identified the need to establish stronger networks and a community of practice around digitisation and preservation. They can seek advice from the Tasmanian Archives and Heritage Office (TAHO) by referring questions to contacts, but there is no formal direction or policy. The library can seek information and ideas through networks with other university libraries and archives. Again, this relies on contacts rather than organised forums.

A community of practice has been established through project funding to investigate discovery platforms and select and implement an archival description and content management system which would position the library to make its Special and Rare Collections globally discoverable. The library has been working with local cultural institutions, TAHO and the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery  (TMAG) to investigate systems and to consider the possibility of interoperability of systems between institutions in Tasmania. TMAG has engaged Gaia Resources to work with them a pilot project to create a common, aggregated digital entry to Tasmania’s cultural collections. The project will produce a pilot web resource, and investigate how to move this into the future as a sustainable and useful resource for all museums and heritage collections across Tasmania.

Collection: 

The collection includes rare books and early manuscripts; journals; maps; university records of a non-business nature; and private papers and materials including diaries, letters, photographs, paintings and other collectable ephemera relating to Tasmania’s cultural and social history. The Royal Society of Tasmania Library Collection is housed as part of a longstanding agreement.

It has more than 8500 rare books and journals and houses the largest collection of Quaker books and private papers in the southern hemisphere. There are 500 private deposits including letters, diaries, papers, photographs. A significant donation of over 100,000 digital images detailing many aspects of Tasmania’s cultural history has recently been accepted.

Digital access: 

Digital access to these materials is provided via various platforms and formats:

  • some collections material has been digitised and can be viewed in the Library Open Repository (ePrints); many of these have been digitised in response to queries from researchers
  • the ePrints institutional repository is used to store digital content; it is accessed from the library website and is harvested by other open data platforms, including Trove
  • rare books and journals are catalogued via the traditional online library catalogue
  • private deposits have been described, to differing levels, on paper indexes and these have been digitised.

It is estimated that 30-59 per cent of the collection is currently described or catalogued.

Challenges: 
  • Difficult to sustain resourcing to prioritise and plan digitisation and preservation, plus provision of description and metadata to make content discoverable.
  • Need for digital collections to be curated and researched, to turn content into meaningful packages, exhibitions and narratives.
  • Funding – the library has received grants to assist with various projects, it does not receive recurrent operational funding for this work.
  • Advice on best management practice for the full range of the library collections is difficult to identify as many institutions are dealing with different platforms and systems.
  • Managing copyright, particularly with unpublished content such as personal diaries and letters.
  • Having a high standard of description for items enhances discoverability, but creating detailed metadata for individual items is resource intensive.
  • While ePrints is highly discoverable via Google, it is not user friendly and there is no capacity to browse images. There are also limits with the way metadata is displayed and to the overall structure of the database.
  • The library is strongly supportive of any integrated national infrastructure initiatives such as Trove, but needs more information about how these might reduce duplication of activities.
Opportunities: 
  • The potential of digital access to add value, where the collection can be researched and navigated by themes and topics, provenance information and links to other collections and data, and would like to transcribe handwritten text.
  • Considering making items digitally accessible and then using crowdsourcing to source metadata, to save time. Volunteers would review the information received and fill in any gaps.
  • Using digital collection access to enhance and develop the library’s exhibition capacity.
  • Currently implementing Artefactual’s Access to Memory (AtoM), an open-source archival description and workflow tool, along with Omeka/Ozmeka as a discovery tool overlaying AtoM, as well as investigating a geo-mapping tool. Omeka has potential to interoperate with the systems used by other Tasmanian cultural collections to provide a single point of discovery.
Full case study: 

This is a summary of the full case study. Download the PDF below to read more about University of Tasmania Library’s ambitious plans to make its Special and Rare Collections digitally accessible to for all to use.