Frances Fox
Frances Fox
September 10, 2019

Response and Responsibility: Special Collections and Climate Change

Frances Fox
Frances Fox

The Rare Books and Manuscripts Section (RBMS) of the American Library Association annually convenes a conference focusing on discourse related to rare books, manuscripts and special collections.

The group in attendance includes librarians, curators and archivists from academic institutions across the country, as well as public and independent institutions such as the New York Public Library, the Rare Book School and the Folger Shakespeare Library. This cohort refers to themselves as the “cultural heritage community” and speak of their role as information professionals as being grounded in empathy, optimism and collaboration.

This year’s conference theme was Response and Responsibility: Special Collections and Climate Change. Sustainability is one of the core values of librarianship and those speaking at the conference shared specific topics related to climate change, resiliency and responsibility within this context.

As an architect and relatively odd participant in an intimate conference of just 500 people, two very powerful ideas stuck with me, both in the context of my work as well as my ever-evolving worldview.

  • How do we change? Speakers and panelists spoke about how archivists and curators can and should leverage their collections for cues on how we have dealt with climatic events in the past and use that as precedent for where we are today. What are the lessons of change? How can we map climate change through history? Does it cause war? Does it impact the conduct of war?
  • What does an archive of extinction look like? Speakers reiterated time and time again that curators must take on the responsibility of collecting an “unbiased” collection. Are the histories of underserved and disadvantaged populations represented in our collections? What should be digitized and represented to all? What should be shielded and protected?

In addition to attending, I had the opportunity to partner with Charlotte Priddle, Director of NYU Special Collections; Sarah Horowitz, Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts and Head of Quaker and Special Collections; and Tim Johnson, Curator of Rare Books, Special Collections and the E. W. McDiarmid Curator of the Sherlock Holmes Collections at the University of Minnesota; to speak on a seminar titled “New Spaces for Old Things: The Realties of Renovation, Before, During, and After.”

As the only design professional on the panel, I focused on offering insights on the design process and the different ways in which to engage in the process and advocate for client needs. My co-presenters gave accounts and advice on having recently lived through a renovation project. Conversation and questions during the seminar were lively, direct and considered. “Planning for the unknown” emerged as a consistent theme.

I was honored to contribute just a tiny piece to the larger conversation generated as part of this conference and am encouraged that as designers, we can advocate for the spaces which support these important conversations. We have an active role in the response and responsibility to change occurring within in our own work and I look forward to continuing the dialog with the cultural heritage community and beyond.