In a Still Small Voice, or, Listening to the Voices in Our Collections

By Jason W. Dean
February 2016

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2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 In Wright Morris’s novel Plains Song, the narrator asks, “Is the past a story we are persuaded to believe, in the teeth of the life we endure in the present?” The question is always open. How we treat our world and each other grows from our vision of how we have come to where we are. Ultimately, of course, the issue is not survival but decency and common sense. Everything passes, the psalmist reminds us. No one escapes. The best we can hope is to learn a little from the speaking dead, to find in our deep past some help in acting wisely in the teeth of life1 

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Among the manifold delights of working in special collections is that one is able to spend one’s working life listening to and learning from what Elliott West calls the “speaking dead.” The items and materials in our care all have a story to tell through their content and construction. These stories, and the voices of the living and the dead in our collections, speak only to those who listen to them.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 It falls to us to listen to these stories—and to share them.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 Unlike the last scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark, where a solitary worker moves the ark slowly through a seemingly limitless warehouse, our respective libraries, collections, and departments do not exist to serve the book, the manuscript, or the digital document. We exist to serve fellow listeners: researchers, students, the curious, and the obligated. Inasmuch as it is our duty to listen to the stories, it is also our duty to share them widely and often.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 This is, for me, among my priorities as director of special collections: telling the stories of the objects in our collections in a way that appeals to many different groups with variant interests. Perhaps it’s my background in art museums, but it seems to me that rotating exhibits are the best way to introduce Southwestern’s collections to people is to tell a story about an object in a way that appeals to these variant interests. Through these, guests can see the object for themselves but also have some guidance as to its interpretation and significance. Indeed, I can think of several items in our current exhibition that appear to be unremarkable, but upon listening to the story they tell, it is apparent that they are not unremarkable at all, but are both unique and surprising. This type of “storytelling” gives us the opportunity to engage with guests without the concomitant requirements and strictures associated with using materials from our collections.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 Beyond the traditional exhibit, the department (and by dint of my title, me as well) has a responsibility to change the perceptions of guests—especially students—about special collections. These perceptions are timeworn and do not require enumeration here. Many of our friends and colleagues are leading the way for us in changing perceptions about our profession and our departments through activity on social media, and in interaction with venues and groups typically considered beyond the pale of our profession. It’s my role to listen to these colleagues and leaders, listen to our guests, and work to make the voices and stories louder, and the administrative and perceptual noise quieter.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 Attendant to changing guests’ perceptions about us, our work, and our departments is listening to our guests. Indeed, this is among the key responsibilities of all librarians: to listen and to assist. Listening might be as fundamental as answering a reference query from a patron, helping them find a book, or providing them with primary source materials from your collections that support their work. However, listening to our guests is rarely this straightforward. One must pay attention to how guests use the space, how they use the tools you provide them to search and use our collections, and how you and your department address the myriad challenges, joys, and daily responsibilities we all face.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 Though my primary responsibilities are to listen to and work with the guests and the collections themselves, other voices must also be listened to: those of administrators. This is a different aspect for me in my current position, communicating both from my colleagues and from administration. I am fortunate to have very dynamic and engaged administrators at Southwestern who provide thoughtful feedback and direction to our department and me. This is not an opportunity to become passive; we must make strides to demonstrate the ways in which our work and our collections contribute to a highly engaged and dynamic experience for our students. Listening to what the administration’s priorities, expectations, and concerns are, then working to support and address these through our work, is fundamental to our continued success as special collections, as well as to our larger institutions. This work does not eschew other voices, but instead requires one to synthesize the concerns and messages of an array of people. The voices of your colleagues must also be listened to, and carrying those voices with you to the administration is as important as listening to the administration.

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 This, then, after much labor, is key—listening. It is only through listening that we can learn and share the stories in our collections, advocate for our guests, and support our existence in larger institutions. It is in the listening that we find “some help in acting wisely in the teeth of life.”

  1. 11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0
  2. Elliott West, The Contested Plains: Indians, Goldseekers, and the Rush to Colorado (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1998), 337. []
In a Still Small Voice, or, Listening to the Voices in Our Collections

Jason W. Dean

Director of Special Collections & Archives – Southwestern University

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