Posts Tagged ‘National Library of Australia’

Significance – a cautionary tale: Tania Cleary

Dr Tania Cleary presented a paper at the Community Heritage Grant awards at the National Library of Australia last week on Significance. She has been the Significance Assessor for the National Library of Australia since 2006. Dr Cleary has worked with indigenous, colonial and contemporary collections held in both public and private institutions in Australia and Asia. She was a valuer for the Commonwealth government’s Cultural Gifts and Cultural Bequests programs between 1996 and 2007 and was recently appointed Queensland Liaison Officer for the UNESCO Memory of the World Program.

Listen to the audio file or read the transcript here. This material can also be found in Sector Resources on the CAN website.

Let me start by saying that this is a session with a mission – my focus this morning will be on the Significance Assessment process and the Significance Assessment report primarily because I think it is valuable for you to understand how the Community Heritage Grant (CHG) Assessment Panel will consider this report in the future.

For many of you it may be easier to understand the emphasis that I will place on the subject today if you have already read my paper Assessing the Significance of Cultural Heritage which is printed in your workshop handbook.

This paper focuses on how to choose the assessor, necessary preparatory activities and outcomes that demonstrate how the Significance Assessment process can influence collections management, exhibition and conservation decisions, so I will not speak to these issues today. However what I will address is the Significance Assessment Report and the steps you can take to ensure it is a valuable and strategic document.

Let me begin with an anecdote that will serve to illustrate two important points. Recently an organisation achieved a high national significance ranking, it was successful in obtaining a grant to conduct a significance assessment. In the following year the organisation applied for a CHG to undertake conservation treatment on a specific component of its collection. On the surface this seems a logical outcome however the Significance Assessment Report let the organisation down. It did not interrogate that part of the collection that was the subject of the grant, the assessor did not determine its significance and in fact did not mention the objects at all. As a result the CHG Assessment Panel struggled to find evidence to support the need for conservation treatment.

Unfortunately this is not an isolated case; too often the Statement of Significance is couched in generalisations. However it is not about generalisations nor is it about sweeping claims. It is about detail, accuracy and objectivity. The Significance Assessment Report in this case claimed the whole collection was highly significant however it failed to provide reasonable grounds for this determination: comparative collections were not cited and issues of rarity, integrity and representativeness, comparative criteria that provide important contextual information, were not addressed.

Significance is not transferable and it would be wrong to assume that one or a few significant objects from a collection can influence the overall Significance Statement for that collection. In some Significance Assessment Reports the collection’s significance has been unnecessarily enhanced producing an artificially complex or erroneous Statement of Significance.

So what is Significance? For many of us it may be easier to understand Significance as the difference between guesswork and certainty. An assessment methodology that was once marginal and applied to historic sites and properties has now become mainstream. Today Significance is highly promoted because it provides a creditable and well-established framework to determine why an item or collection is important to the nation. The documents Significance: a guide to assessing the significance of cultural heritage items and collections and Significance 2.0 – a guide to assessing the significance of collections (Heritage Collections Council 2001 and 2009 respectively) contain the roadmap for museums, galleries and all collecting institutions wishing to establish the significance of their collections. As the methodology for assessing Significance has developed the gap between assumption and certainty has narrowed.

Significance develops as its controlling elements four primary and four comparative criteria.
*The primary assessment criteria include: historic significance, aesthetic or artistic significance, scientific or research significance, social or spiritual significance.
*The comparative assessment criteria include: provenance, rarity or representativeness, condition or completeness and interpretive capacity. Whichever assessment criteria we start with it is likely to lead to others.

However not all criteria need to be met, not all criteria may be applicable but at least one of them must apply. It is your responsibility, as managers of the project to ensure that the significance assessor that you engage is familiar with the assessment criteria and more importantly collections, i.e. objects, because the significance assessment is more than a report about the history of the collection and your organisation. It is an exercise in curatorial and collection management judgement.

The majority of representatives present this morning have been successful in obtaining a grant for a Significance Assessment. What I wish to highlight for you is how your report should be structured and how it will be scrutinised should you aim to apply for additional CHGs including Preservation Needs Assessment and specific conservation and preservation activities.

In my written paper I have provided a report template that I recommend your assessor adopt. The Significance Assessment Report should include 11 sections:

1. Executive summary
A brief summary of Statement of Significance.
Short, medium and long-term collection management, conservation and interpretation/exhibition= impacts.
2. General information Description of organisation, location and collection management structure.
3. Methodology Discussion of significance assessment criteria and method by which objects are to be
assessed e.g. primary and comparative criteria. Summary of collection that is being assessed (or percentage of whole).
4. Collection Historical background and description of collection including focus, scope and historical
themes represented in the collection.
5. Condition of the collection Summary of collection condition.
6. Comparative examples Comparison with other public collections.
Comparative examples will identify how the collection intersects with other collections.
7. Role of collection in the community
Location and access, significance to the community. What kind of attachment or level of interest does the living community have to the collection?
8. Assessment against primary and comparative criteria
Objective application of primary criteria:
historic, aesthetic, scientific, research or technical and social and spiritual significance.
The degree of significance is evaluated against comparative criteria: provenance, representativeness, rarity, condition, completeness or intactness and integrity and interpretive potential. In combination they determine the meaning and value of an object or collection.
9. List of significant items
A catalogue listing of objects identified within the collection having significance: including registration/accession number, object name and primary and comparative criteria that have
been satisfied/established.
10. Statement(s) of Significance
Relating to individual objects and/or collection as a whole.
11. Conclusion and summary of Statement of Significance.
Summary of recommendations.

To often what is found wanting in the Significance Assessment Report is an accurate and detailed listing of what has been examined, what proportion of the collection this represents and what the selection was based on. The etailed catalogue listing will inform preventative conservation action and specific conservation treatment. It is important to understand that if material has not been identified as Significant then it is unlikely that it would be considered a strong candidate for subsequent grant assistance.

Another anecdote to illustrate the point. Picture a collection of historical and antiquarian books. Volumes line storeroom shelves but there are also stacks of dusty books on tables, in cardboard boxes and in drawers. In amongst the book collection are photographs, prints and letters. This collection might be historically significant because of its association with a deceased figure. It might therefore be rare in that it is not represented in other collections but how do we know unless it is investigated and its component parts identified?

Too often applications have been made to the CHG to “conserve photographs” in collections such as this. Conservation might include physical treatment or digital scanning to increase access and preserve the original.

Although there is nothing wrong with either option the CHG Assessment Panel will be examining the Significance Assessment Report to see if the photographs were examined in any detail and highlighted in any way. The significance of photographs in collections such as this will remain unclear if research does not throw light on who or what was photographed, from whose perspective, what the present condition of the material is and, in terms of reformatting, if copyright clearance has been obtained.

Cultural sensitivity in particular is called for if photographs contain images of Indigenous people. Your significance assessor must explain in the Significance Assessment Report why or how your institution’s documentary heritage, art, material culture, oral history, machinery, transport or textile collection, is of national significance and to do this in the timeframe allocated requires input from you.

To assist the process you will need to prepare for the assessor’s arrival and anticipate their needs: have organisational records in order: object files, catalogue registers, database listings, visitor books, exhibition labels/catalogues and media releases. Determine beforehand if the whole or a component of the collection will be assessed. If it is a survey of the whole collection then think strategically and select a range of objects or items from each category so that the assessor can gain an overview of the strengths and weaknesses of the whole collection. On the other hand if a component of the collection is isolated for detailed investigation then the rationale for this decision must be included in the section of the report concerned with methodology. Organise adequate working space and have people on hand to assist with the physical movement of objects if required. When the draft report is made available to you, you will need to determine if it addresses your needs. If there are recommendations made to improve storage or exhibition conditions, or to undertake specific conservation treatments make sure that the objects or parts of the collection this refers to have been included in the assessment task.

The Significance Assessment Report carries a burden of responsibility regardless of whether national, state or local significance has been determined. As carers of the distributed national collection, i.e. the sum of all heritage collections of significance to the nation, the impact of your management decisions will be felt beyond your community, region and state.

The logic of your management actions will follow from the report’s recommendations. Consequently the report is a key foundation document that should be available for conservators to read if they are engaged to assess the collection for preservation needs or conservation treatment. A nationally
significant object might require a different methodological approach to an object that is without provenance, or has no outstanding aesthetic, historic or social value.

Balancing the scales, the Significance Assessment process can provide an opportunity for collection development through enhanced public recognition and understanding. Some members of the community may have a strong emotional attachment to the collection and this can act as an aid or catalyst
for greater community/council/government participation in the collection’s preservation. Unity of interest can often lead to a strong investment in the collection especially if the collection is unique (the only one), rare (one of a few) or representative (similar to other existing comparable collections).

Your assessor will need to substantiate these claims by demonstrating that comparative research has been conducted. I have read many Significance Assessment Reports claiming that a collection is unique or rare. As I contemplate the impact of such a statement I often think that perhaps it would not have been so confidently made had more comparative research been undertaken.

In closing this session I wish to restate that my objectives this morning were to focus on the Significance Assessment process and the Significance Assessment Report. If I can urge you undertake two tasks before the Significance Assessment commences they would be:
• Firstly, familiarise yourself with Significance 2.0, go online and read the case studies offered.
• Secondly, ask your assessor to follow the Significance Assessment Report template.

In combination these steps should ensure that your Significance Assessment Report becomes a valuable management document in both the short and long term.

Tania Cleary


Myth and reality (social media sites/networks): Ingrid Mason


The reasons for not using social media sites/networks in collecting organisations to engage visitors or new audiences range: a perception that digital technology and social media sites/networks are for young people (myth); the thought that putting time into social media sites/networks is time “wasted” when there are “real people” to engage with in “real spaces” (the time spent on these sites/networks can also pay off in dividends); social media sites/networks are perceived as “entertainment” rather than as a means of “community engagement” (which is a key goal) and internet access from work computers to these networks/sites is blocked; a level of unfamiliarity with social media sites/networks is inhibiting and doing research is in the “too hard basket” (a good reason to learn from others’ efforts); and the idea that going online is “risky” and social media sites/networks (that’s why testing it out is such a good idea).


It isn’t easy to dispel myths and change organisational policies on internet use. The only way to address myth is to provide evidence to the contrary – see Seb Chan’s blogs on Australian internet use and the generational myth. I encourage those in the sector working under conditions of internet restrictions to contest this issue with their organisational IT sections by developing and providing a business case to validate the requirement for access to specific social media sites/networks. The logic being these sites/networks are working tools and spaces and widen access to the collection, provide relevant and practical ways to communicate with current and new audiences and in short — deliver value to the organisation. The question “What is the cost/benefit of using social media sites/networks?” needs to be thought through and answered well so that the reason to change policy is clear.


Sector participants are whole-heartedly encouraged to mull the examples in this blog; to venture into these spaces and look around and find out: what the social networking/media sites are; what people “do” in these places; and why people spend time on and contribute content to social networking and media sites this. It is better to take a look at this with one’s own eyes. In the interim, the short answers are, people participate in social media sites/networks because it gives them satisfaction (otherwise they wouldn’t use these sites or resources) and a sense of community (engagement and interaction is what makes these spaces and resources social!). Doesn’t sound too radically different to why people like to visit collecting organisations and volunteer in them does it?


As a brief starting point, what people do – in a quick summary – is:

Blog — reflect, absorb, write and comment e.g. Blogspot, WordPress, LiveJournal, etc including microblogging — leave (in brief) notes, messages, comments e.g. Twitter, Posterous, etc

Network — debate, advise, share, comment and send notices e.g. Facebook, Ning, MySpace, etc

Generate content — upload content to share with others, comment or tag or reuse the content e.g. YouTube, Vimeo, Flickr, Slideshare

If using these sites/networks is suitable then the next step is to look at implementing these technologies/working spaces in phases, that is: do research, undertake a pilot, evaluate the pilot (lessons learned and potential value), consider implementing their use in business-as-usual, and then conduct periodic reviews.


Finally some real examples to draw from:

ArtBabble: Indianapolis Museum of Art
“ArtBabble was created so others will join in spreading the world of art through video.”

Be Heard Forever: National Library of New Zealand “By sending your music to the National Library’s Legal Deposit team, you guarantee it will be looked after, stored properly, and available to future generations of New Zealanders long after you’re gone.”

Tyrell Collection on Flickr Commons: Powerhouse Museum “The Museum is uploading photographs from its large collections of glass plate negatives. These images go up without alteration or cropping. We continue to add new images every week and, where possible, we are mapping them too! We need your help – if you know more about the locations or people in these photos, or can help tag them, it would be great!”

Library Labs: National Library of Australia “Over the next few weeks and on 27 March itself, National Library staff will be twittering, flickring, podcasting, vodcasting and blogging in an attempt to discover what significance social networking might have for us.”

Museum 3.0: Australian Museum “Museum 3.0: a network for those interested in the future of cultural institutions such as museums, galleries, science centres and other collecting bodies.”


How to apply for a Community Heritage Grant: NLA

Tips+Tricks: Dianne Diahlitz takes over from Erin Stephens in the running of the Community Heritage Grant program. They both give CAN tips on how to successfully apply for the National Library of Australia grant.

Dianne: Hello, I’m Dianne Diahlitz. My new role is to be the Community Heritage Grants coordinator here at the National Library of Australia.

Erin: My name is Erin Stephens, and I’ve been working on Community Heritage Grants as the coordinator for the past two years. I’m moving onto a different role in the library, so I’m handing over to Dianne.

Erin: To be eligible for a Community Heritage Grant, basically your organisation needs to be not-for-profit. You must have a collection that’s available to the public in some way, and your collection has to be of national significance.

We give out grants of up to $15,000. They’re generally for preservation-type projects. It’s a bit of a step-by-step process, but because of that we do encourage repeat applications from organisations.

First off, we’d offer a significance assessment and then a preservation needs assessment or your collection. After that, we’ll help you fund any preservation activities that have been recommended by those surveys.

But outside of that step-by-step process, you can also apply for training projects or collection management software.

Dianne: Application forms are on our website from the opening day in early March. We usually allow about three months for applications to come in. We advise people not to leave it to the last day because we have to be very strict about taking late ones in. After that, we have an assessment panel that processes and assesses each application individually, the ones that have been accepted as meeting all the criteria. And after that, the successful applicants are notified.

Dianne: People who are applying do need to apply for (a specific) amount. They have to know how much they’ll need for what they want to do.

Erin: Firstly, we offer a significance assessment and then a preservation needs assessment of your collection. After that, we’ll help you fund any preservation activities that have been recommended by those surveys.

The significance assessment we offer is actually to employ an external consultant to come and do that assessment for you. So it’s actually quite important that you do get an independent external assessor. You might know that you have a really important collection, but having someone independent confirm that for you gives you a lot more weight when you’re applying for other grants, and basically more funding and things from your local council and governments both. The independent assessment is very important.

Dianne: The rounds start in March each year. We have online promotion and information about the grants. You can apply online and we also take a hard copy application. Application forms are on the library’s website, available in early March.

Erin: My tip would be have a budget that outlines exactly what you need the money for. Your budget should be supported by quotes. Your budget should also match your project description, which is where you tell us exactly what you’re going to do with the money that you acquire.

Dianne: Seek advice if you get halfway through the application form and you’re not quite sure what should go there. You can always ring the office here in the National Library for some advice how to actually proceed with the application.

Erin: I don’t necessarily want people to spend lots of money on a consultant to help them with form. I’d much prefer that they call us. But if people do feel like they need assistance, there’s lots of people around that can help them, like regional museum advisors or Museums Australia and various state bodies that help with grants applications. If you can’t call us, there will be someone around who can help you.

Erin: People also assume that because they’re applying for a significance assessment that they don’t have to complete section six, which is your significance statement. But actually, because national significance is an eligibility requirement of our grants and that needs to be assessed. You have to complete that question even if you’re applying for a significance assessment.

A lot of people actually say that even if they’re unsuccessful the first time that they apply, that the process of digging through their collection and finding what they’ve actually got and forcing themselves to list it all out and examine it properly is a really worthwhile process.

Our significance assessor has to know what’s in your collection. It’s also really useful for you in terms of getting a better understanding of what you actually hold. So it’ll help you a lot in the future, not just for ours, but other grant applications as well.

You might need to research a little bit in terms of knowing what other collections are around that are similar to yours. We had an application from someone recently who had a large printing press, and it’s really useful to know whether there are others in the country or whether yours is really rare and unique, because that does help the significance assessor determine how important it is.

Do some basic online research that helps you research other collections, but really you know better than anyone else what’s in you collection. So if you tell us as best you can what you have and why you think it’s important, then that should be enough for our significance assessor to do the proper assessment themselves.

Dianne: If it’s their first time that they’ve actually been awarded a grant, they’re invited to come to the library for a three-day workshop, usually in November.

Erin: We’ve had a few really good repeat applications who’ve managed to complete the significance assessment and the preservation needs and are now doing fantastic preservation work on their collections.

But there’s also been a few really good stories of people getting grants and their significance assessment leading to recognition from their local council or their state government.

In 2008, the West Coast Heritage Limited received a significance assessment from us, but because of that significance assessment, their local council actually realised that they had this amazing collection and have now offered them $50,000 to redevelop their building and their storage.

So, yes, there are success stories that come out of it.


Links: a blog directory for librarians

The national and state libraries across the country are producing some excellent blogs that are worth subscribing to. In particular, that National Library of Australia discusses the ‘Michael Jackson Effect’ in its Library labs Blog. It focuses on the same questions discussed in last week’s CAN Outreach Blog about whether the cultural sector should be reacting to international events to attract audiences. The State Library of Queensland engages in an active and dynamic dialogue between its library and exhibition space and its community. The John Oxley Library Blog is very connected with its community, focusing on social history. At Our Table publishes recipes and stories from the people of Queensland. There is a childrens book club and exhibitions blog.

Links: Film star Helen Twelvetrees on an elephant, Taronga Park Zoo, Sydney, 1936-7, photograph by Sam Hood, Flickr Commons/ State Library of NSW

Here is a list of the blogs from their peers around the country
National Library of Australia
State Library of Queensland
State Library of Victoria
State Library of Western Australia
State Library of New South Wales has embarked on their blog sites with limited enthusiasm. A successful exhibition promotion used a blog to promote Andrew Zuckerman’s Wisdom by running a competition for the person who could submit the best ‘words of wisdom’. The entries can still be read online. My favourite is: ‘Wisdom is a measure of how much you know you do not yet know’. Posted by: Austin Caffin, 18 October 2008 12:55.

As an aside, I thought I would publish two wiki library blog directories. Blog Without a Library is an international wiki for public libraries. It breaks down the blogs into categories: academic, public, school, special libraries which includes corporate and government or anything that is not part of the former libraries listed. There is a list of blogs for internal staff communication within a library, library associations and library directors.

There is also the Australian public library blog directory Aussie Library Blogs: Libraries Interact. Many of these blogs have not been updated for a while but it is interesting to see how individual librarians are using Web 2.0 compared with public institutions. While this article focuses on cultural institutions Lorcan Dempsey’s blog is highly regarded and has pride of place on the CAN Outreach Blogroll.