Working with collections in a library, archives, or museum (LAM) setting requires knowledgeable professionals. Through a combination of specialized education and experience gained in the field, professionals amass knowledge and skills developed for a very niche area. Most positions found within a LAM will require a high level of education and experience, but not every professional position needed can be funded.
LAMs of any size—yes, even the big, successful ones—can suffer from not having all the specialized personnel needed in order to care for collections and make them accessible. To fill in the gaps, LAMs rely on interns, volunteers, and consultants. For fairly general projects that are temporary in nature, interns and volunteer staff can be an excellent solution. However, there are other activities where a LAM should consider hiring a consultant.
The cost of going without LAM consultants
Consultants are experts for hire who have the knowledge and skills necessary to successfully perform LAM activities. If a LAM project is for an indeterminate amount of time, requires expert-level knowledge, and/or needs to meet legal, regulatory, or otherwise high-pressure demands, a credentialed professional should be engaged. Too often I’ve heard horror stories where a LAM didn’t employ an expert and collection items were destroyed, complicated digital projects were implemented incorrectly, and projects were rendered useless because standards weren’t followed. This can lead to a breach of trust with donors, give rise to legal and ethical issues, and introduce a new area of frustration and overwhelm for existing staff. Not hiring a professional can cost a LAM time, money, and loss of reputation for being a good steward of collections.
Here are 5 times you should bring in a consultant:
Digitization technology, process, and standards are all variable. The collection item being considered for digitization will dictate the possible ways it can be digitized. The desired project outcome and the physical state the item is in will help determine the process in which the collection items should be digitized. Then, depending on the collection’s home (library, archives, or museum) several sets of digitization standards will need to be considered and employed. Given the degree of specialized knowledge and experience needed, if professional staff aren’t in place to conduct a digitization project then a consultant should be employed.
Much like digitization, the cataloging of collection items requires extensive knowledge of several cataloging and descriptive standards in order to accurately populate catalog systems with the correct metadata. If the project involves any sort of collections management software implementation, then a professional must be used to help ensure it operates successfully. I’ve seen too many painful instances where volunteers were improperly trained and given the task to catalog collection items. Unfortunately, this led to far-reaching and costly cleanup of the collection records at a later date because they were unusable.
3. Exhibit Displays
Exhibit displays come in many forms and, in some cases, tasking interns or volunteers to create a display is acceptable. A consultant should be brought in if an exhibit involves original (not reproduction) collection items, tackles intricate or sensitive historical topics, and/or is anticipated to be a long-term or permanent display. While exhibit design can appear an easy process, there’s an incredible amount of research, thought, exhibit methodology, and preservation measures for collection items that need to be used by a trained professional.
4. Preservation & Restoration
Preservation is the effort made to prevent damage happening to an item. Restoration is the effort made to restore an item from damage that has already occurred.
There are some excellent low-cost (or even free!) preservation and restoration workshops. Dedicated, trained volunteers and interns can facilitate basic preservation tasks. For more intricate preservation work where damage may occur, an expert must be consulted. Restoration work inherently has the risk of further damaging an item and specialists for restoring those specific items will need to be engaged.
There are several different types of LAM assessments: preservation, collection, facility, and program. Assessments are sought to provide transparency of LAM efforts or to make a fundraising request. Either reason necessitates the use of an outside professional in order for the assessment to be viewed with authority. Even if in-house employees can conduct all or portions of an assessment, an outside consultant lends integrity and credibility necessary for the successful reception of the assessment.