With the increasing emphasis being placed on improving access to the content of research resources in the UK, the importance of collection description as a means of ensuring that access has received a great deal of attention in recent years. The resultant debate that has surrounded the concept of collection description has been particularly fuelled by the work of the Research Support Libraries Programme (RSLP) and the many projects it has sponsored over the past three years . The UK Collection Description Focus set up in June 2001 was established to add form and structure to this growing debate by co-ordinating collection description activities in the UK and further contributing to international discussion on the subject on behalf of the national interest . In its first 12 months, the Collection Description Focus has, through a very full and pro-active programme of events and publications, successfully established itself in this role. Fundamental to this achievement has been the series of three workshops organised and held by the Focus for practitioners and other interested parties in the period from November 2001 to March 2002. The following paper intends to comment in more detail on the value and experience of these workshops from one practitioner’s point of view.
When it was first announced in September 2001 that the Collection Description Focus was to organise and facilitate a series of workshops, a great deal of excitement and trepidation was generated in the RASCAL Project office. RASCAL (Research And Special Collections Available Locally) is a two year RSLP Project based at Queen’s University Belfast, charged with the creation of a web-based directory of research and special collections in Northern Ireland . Providing unprecedented access to information about the full range of research materials available to researchers in the region, the compilation of collection descriptions has been an essential element of the Project with individual entries prepared using the RSLP Collection Description Schema recommended for Project use . By September 2001 when news of the workshops first transpired, RASCAL was already fairly well into the process of collection description and therefore anxious to interact and learn from the experiences of other collection description initiatives. We were also particularly interested to hear more about the reasons behind some Projects’ decisions to forego use of the RSLP standard in favour of other standards. Although we had been happy with this standard, the thought that maybe we had been too naïve in our decision did occur and were thus somewhat reticent about what to expect from the workshops and whether or not our prospective resource would make the grade.
Based primarily on issues arising out of the Collection Description Focus Briefing Day held at the British Library in October 2001 , the three workshops were organised on a regional basis taking the collection description debate outside London to ensure a wide representation of opinion, interest and experience from practitioners and information professionals in the UK more generally. Each workshop followed a similar format with mornings packed with interesting and at times intriguing presentations from those involved in current collection description activities at both theoretical and practical levels and across professional domains. Afternoon sessions were dedicated to discussion on related topics through break-out groups and a general feedback session. A member of the Collection Description Focus then ended the event with a résumé of the day’s findings which were to be used to inform future developments and thinking on collection description.
The first workshop, held on 1 November 2001 at UMIST in Manchester, entitled “Thinking Collectively: approaches to collections and collection description,” took as its starting point the concept of the collection . Providing a useful introduction to the world of collection description, the day was spent exploring the different interpretations adopted by information professionals across domains and the ways in which these had been deployed. Emphasis was placed on the emergence of networked and web-based resources and the value of collection description as a means of facilitating resource discovery by researchers in the digital environment. Case studies on the Archives Hub, the RSLP Backstage Project and the Natural History Museum were particularly instructive and enlightening as examples of how collection description can be used to great effect within professional domains . The need to look beyond the confines of these individual spheres towards the virtual integration of resources was also stressed and so the relative value of the different schemas and methods adopted by these case studies were discussed.
The second workshop on “Multi-purpose metadata for collections: creating usable Collection Level Descriptions” took place at the Aston Business School in Birmingham on 8 February 2002 . Building on the previous event, this workshop took a wider look at how and why collection descriptions were being created in the UK and the issues that needed to be considered to ensure that, once created, descriptions could be re-used for other purposes or in different contexts. A number of practical considerations were highlighted throughout the day with the need for standards at both technical and theoretical levels particularly emphasised to facilitate the process of resource discovery and data exchange between institutions and/or projects. The granularity of collection descriptions, copyright restrictions, user requirements and the need for greater dissemination between collection description initiatives were also stressed throughout the day.
The third and final workshop in this series was held at the University of Edinburgh on 21 March 2002 . Entitled “Raising Standards for Collection Description: Subject and Strength in Collection Level Descriptions,” this event concentrated on the issues of content standards and terminological control in collection description activities and the value of collection strength indicators. Presentations covered a diverse range of project and institutional experience including that of the HILT (High Level Thesaurus) Project, SCONE (Scottish Cultural Resources Access Network), the Performing Arts Data Service (PADS) and CURL (Consortium of University Research Libraries) . Particular problems and practicalities encountered by each of these ventures were highlighted and discussed throughout the day with cross-domain standards and user needs again coming high on the agenda.
After having attended all three workshops, were our initial expectations in the RASCAL Project then realised? Based in Northern Ireland, one can at times feel quite cut off from developments in the rest of the UK and it can be difficult to keep pace. Certainly during the opening months of the RASCAL Project when we were attempting to find our feet, the practical implications of implementing the RSLP Collection Description Schema appeared particularly daunting. Of course, a system and method of collection description eventually evolved, but it would have been easier if a group like the Collection Description Focus had existed earlier. In the absence of this support, our attendance at the workshops was then based on a desire to secure some sort of approval or vindication for the route we had decided to take. These initial expectations were in fact common with other participants. During the first workshop in Manchester, a general atmosphere of apprehension was apparent throughout the day with projects’ quick to defend and justify their work. However, as the series progressed, so participants became more relaxed and willing to listen and learn from what they heard and, more importantly, contribute to the growing debate. Indeed, all three workshops proved to be particularly constructive in this respect and so allowed all participants the opportunity to have their say and to help shape the development of future collection description activities in this country. From RASCAL’s point of view, the workshops were not only useful for dispelling initial fears, but they also provided a valuable open forum in which to meet and discuss common concerns. Indeed, the networking opportunities that the workshops afforded can be highlighted as one of the overriding benefits of the series, particularly for the development and encouragement of cross-sectoral and cross-domain working. It has to be said, it is not often that archivists, librarians and museologists find themselves together in the one room debating the same issues!
Finally, the workshops have also proved themselves a useful source of dissemination and publicity for the various initiatives, institutions and projects that were invited to speak. RASCAL was one such project and we presented during the second workshop at Birmingham . Having not had much previous experience in this sort of thing, the opportunity was gladly welcomed not just for the practice it gave us, but also for allowing us to bring news of the RASCAL Project to a wider audience and thus promote the wealth of resources available to researchers in Northern Ireland which colleagues may not hitherto have been aware.
The series of workshops organised and held by the Collection Description Focus from November 2001-March 2002, have greatly advanced and facilitated the growing debate on collection description within the United Kingdom. Bringing together archivists, librarians, museologists and other information professionals, they have provided a valuable opportunity for practitioners to come together to discuss and highlight matters of common concern. Although a little late for many RSLP funded projects, which were, by then, already well established, the workshops did, nonetheless, provide an important, open platform for all those interested in collection description activities and will undoubtedly serve to benefit future initiatives in this area.