Evidencing the Impact and Value of Special Collections: Report from Research Libraries UK

On 7 March 2019 Research Libraries UK published a report examining the role that special collections play in enabling research libraries to meet the impact goals, and investigates the ways impact resulting through their various services and activities is evidenced. The findings will be of interest to all associated with such collections, either in collections management or as researchers using them.

The following is taken from the executive summary of findings and recommendations.

The unique and distinctive collections held by research libraries have long been recognised as cultural assets to their institutions with strong research and educational potential. Yet, over the past decades, aspects of a fast changing society, such as the digital revolution, and the challenging economic climate have greatly shaped the practices and values of academic and cultural heritage institutions. Many institutions, including research libraries, have been called to respond to the call for openness in scholarship and culture as well as prove their worth and positive impact on society.




Some of the main issues raised in the report are:

  • RLUK research libraries are increasingly taking advantage of technology and fundraising opportunities to develop a variety of activities that raise the profile of their institutions and collections; these have transformed the image of special collection departments, from ‘closed’ spaces to hubs of creativity and innovation.

  • Terminology used by universities to describe impact (closer to the REF criteria) does not always serve the strategic goals of the library and, thus, relevant activities may fail to reveal the full potential of special collections and archives as well as undermine the expertise and contribution of staff.

  • RLUK members reported difficulties in tracking and capturing the impact of collections when used by external projects, measuring long term impact of library resources and services or effectively evaluating the use of their digital resources.
  • The skill-set of collection professionals has expanded; apart from collection management, their responsibilities now include teaching, research and public engagement activities.

The report makes a number of recommendations, including suggestions on how these may be implemented on both an institutional and consortial level.

Recommendation One: Advocacy and Lobbying

Advocating for the potential of special collections and archives to stimulate innovation and creativity in research, teaching and public engagement can lead to more reward and recognition for research libraries. As the results of this report show, this can be translated into greater willingness from stakeholders to support special collections, generate national and international interest and lead to fruitful collaborations.

Recommendation Two: Terminology

It becomes apparent that many university libraries tend to follow the impact statements that their institutions are employing. However, as these are often closer to the REF criteria, they do not always serve the strategic goals of the library and offer limited opportunities for bringing recognition and reward back to the library.

Recommendation Three: Staff Skills Development

Getting involved in teaching, research or public engagement activities was common practice for most of the participants in this project. Moreover, as part of being engaged in impact-enhancing activities, staff members responsible for the management of special collections and archives often communicate and collaborate with other library teams, stakeholders and audience members, such as researchers, and undertake responsibilities that expand their traditional role.

Recommendation Four: Capturing and Demonstrating Value

As this report shows, research libraries have a good level of awareness with regards to the ways their collections are used within institutions which make it easier for them to capture and showcase value. However, many often find it challenging to track and capture the impact of collections when used for external projects, measure long term impact of library resources and services or effectively evaluate the use of their digital resources.

For the original press release from RLUK and the full report, see here.