Libraries are interdisciplinary!
Libraries, by their very nature, embody interdisciplinarity. However, whilst our classification schemes bring together related topics, there are many other interdisciplinary connections just waiting to be found. In promoting our collections, I suggest we sometimes miss opportunities to highlight or even draw upon such unexpected connections.
Buzz-words: Interdisciplinarity and Liminality
Interdisciplinarity was hardly even a concept when I was an undergraduate. However, if I hadn’t heard of interdisciplinarity then, I certainly became aware of it as my career developed; it has become something of a buzz-word over the past decade.
Liminality, on the other hand, is a word that has been around for over a century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, although I only encountered it when I was doing doctoral research a few years ago, and it’s not a term in general parlance outside academia. Liminality concerns boundaries, both specific (scientific, geographic, psychological) and more generally situational boundaries. As such it sits rather well with interdisciplinarity, suggesting the blurred boundary where subjects merge and overlap.
Sitting on the Fence: my Dual Identity as Librarian and Researcher
Either way, both words have a particular resonance for me in my working life as a subject librarian currently seconded part-time to postdoctoral research. I work in two worlds, academic librarianship and scholarly musicology. Even my own doctoral studies in music owed nearly as much to literature and cultural history as they did to the song-books I was studying. All this means that, whatever role I occupy at any particular time, I tend to view the task or discussion in hand from a variety of different angles.
Public Engagement or Library Outreach
I am particularly aware of my liminal perspective when thinking about public engagement, because my librarian’s interest in collection development is overlaid with a scholarly interest in the subjects we collect. ‘Public engagement’ is a term particularly embraced by academia – for example, The National Co-Ordinating Centre for Public Engagement has as its strapline, ‘We help universities engage with the public’  – but it’s arguably similar to library outreach activities. Both are akin to marketing, but we’re generally trying to demonstrate our relevance in a broad sense to ‘the public out there’, rather than (although not necessarily excluding!) the narrower income-raising goals that are normally associated with marketing. However, whilst we have many opportunities to discern what our internal audience’s current preoccupations are, the external audience is something of an unknown quantity.
The Common Mission
Academia and librarianship surely coincide in our mission to make our work accessible to as many people as possible. We’re accountable both to our pay-masters, and to the tax-payer, although obviously many of our responsibilities are directly to the staff and students we work with. For example, the academic library may welcome members of the public for private research or study, but library subscriptions to electronic resources may be restricted to institutional members under licensing agreements. However, marketing and outreach are still required to raise the profile of e-resources to our own staff and students, our aim being to demonstrate the relevance of these resources to the courses that they are teaching or studying.
Rare Books – the Challenge of Attracting an Audience
My particular interest in rare 18th and 19th century materials is a very different matter. As a librarian, I want as many people as possible to have appropriate access to them. Meanwhile, as a scholar, it is my responsibility to write about my research not only for academic but also for less-scholarly audiences, in order both to widen the reach of my findings and to increase the chances of reaching that unknown, and perhaps unknowing audience who might just stumble across my work and have their imagination fired by something they encounter, be it something in the popular press, a radio interview or a public talk.
The audience for such collections may be quite limited, both within and beyond academia. Librarians and academics need both to collaborate, and to experiment with wide-ranging outreach methods to increase the extent of their public engagement, including social media, the printed and spoken word, exhibitions and live events, with the aim of heightening awareness of these rare materials and demonstrating some of the different ways they can be interrogated. Our larger national institutions have enviable resources to facilitate this, in terms of materials, staffing and exhibition budgets – take, for example, the British Library’s current Gothic exhibition, Terror and Wonder – the Gothic Imagination, bringing together a wide range of materials from the 18th to 20th centuries, different media, and related workshop activities for schools.
On a smaller scale, unique individual items or discrete collections can be interrogated in a wide variety of ways; for example, the University of St Andrews’ Rare Books team has been blogging ‘52 Weeks of Historical How-Tos’, in their innovative and highly effective Echoes from the Vault blog, including the formation of a small but enthusiastic library choir to explore some historic song books: 52 Weeks of Historical How-Tos: Week 24: Singing the Collections. Alternatively, the repertoire of a corpus of material might make an interesting focus for an undergraduate or extra-mural workshop, or there may be intriguing prefatory material to interest the cultural historian – for example, who were the subscribers or dedicatees? What cultural attitudes are displayed in a book’s presentation, and what was the compiler or author’s motivation? Increasingly, there may be the possibility of ‘big data’ research to reveal trends that have hitherto gone unnoticed. Although one might initially imagine that song-books are only interesting to singers, such a myopic view would rule out many other potential approaches, and this must be the case in a wide range of material, from maps to manuscripts.
First, Make it Findable …
Underpinning all this valuable activity is the deeply unsexy catalogue record. For materials to be interrogated, they must first be found. Without a bibliographic record, an undocumented item – of whatever kind – is essentially not there, and readers will only find out about them by chance, whether from a general collection description or perhaps the detailed knowledge of a staff member. Furthermore, records can be significantly enriched by added keywords and other data facilitating retrieval by different routes. The specialist cataloguer, for too long the Cinderella of librarianship, is in fact a valuable resource, employing their bibliographical skills for the better discovery of the collection’s treasures. Specialist subject knowledge is invaluable, enabling the cataloguer better to predict how the library management system might later be interrogated in pursuit of these items.
Then Encourage Folk to Find it!
Whether one has a scholarly or information supporting role, it is essential not to lose sight of the ‘unknown audience’. We don’t know who they are; how many there are; or what their particular interest might be; but our goal is to ensure that our collections are widely promoted, easily interrogated, and can be accessed in a welcoming and supportive environment.
 The National Co-Ordinating Centre for Public Engagement, accessed 01.11.2014
 52 Weeks of Historical How-Tos: Week 24: Singing the Collections, accessed 02.11.2014