Interview with the Editors: Camlot, Langford, and Morra on Collection Thinking

Lauren Hays

Lauren Hays

June 28, 2022

Jason Camlot, Martha Langford, and Linda M. Morra edited the forthcoming publication Collection Thinking: Within and Without Libraries, Archives and Museums. My interview with them is below. 

1. Please briefly summarize your forthcoming book Collection Thinking: Within and Without Libraries, Archives and Museums

Our book is a big and heavily illustrated collection of essays that explores the cultural meaning and significance of collections as material assemblages, and of collection as an act performed within contexts that implicate individuals, communities and institutions. Each chapter presents a unique case study for its analysis of collection (as an entity and as an act), and the assemblage of cases and stories of collection are extremely diverse and engaging, coming from a wide range of fields, including library and archival studies, literary studies, art history, media studies, sound studies, folklore studies, game studies, and education.  The contributors who are scholars, archivists, librarians, artists and professional collectors reflect on the nature and meaning of collections, the forces that create them, and the communities they serve. The cases discussed are all purposefully “messy” examples that allow us to think around the boundaries and edges of our definitions and practices of collection, examples ranging from collections of medieval cookbooks, to skateboards, records, mobile media Macha games and Indigenous stories.

2. Who is the primary audience for this book?

This book will be of interest to scholars and practitioners within a wide range of disciplines, most notably, archival studies, museum studies, library studies, literary studies, art history, and cultural and media studies. It explores the ways in which we conceptualize and organize materials for research across disciplines in the humanities and social sciences, and so will be attractive and relevant to most departments within these fields of knowledge. Further, it will be of interest to individuals who engage in collecting in the broadest sense. In addition to scholarly chapters on case studies ranging from collecting Barbie dolls to medieval embroideries, the book contains contributions from practitioners on record collecting, the creation of sub-culture archives, and collection as artistic practice. The translation of collecting impulses into the dematerializing, digital universe is also explored for its conventions and departures from notions of authenticity and object-based collecting patterns. The book as a whole offers a rich range of details and images about different kinds of things and assemblages while shaping them conceptually through historical and theoretical narratives and reflections.

3. What sparked your interest in this topic?

Each of us has been immersed in using, shaping, thinking and writing about collections in our own research for years. More recently, our edited collection was inspired by a very successful international conference we organized at Concordia University, in Montreal in June 2018. The Collection Thinking conference (12-14 June 2018) represented an active interdisciplinary exchange of ideas on the topic of collections and collecting. Many of the chapters emerged from this first big exchange of research. The book also originates in a larger research project (The Richler Library Project, funded by the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada [SSHRC]) that considers the literary historical and cultural significance of the author’s personal collection (of books, papers, and ephemera) as a repository of materials with culturally informed organizational structures. And this shared inquiry into collections began with a messy collection of its own. It consisted of everything that was held and left in the working office and family library of Canadian novelist Mordecai Richler’s country home in Quebec’s Eastern Townships, following the author’s death in July 2001, and the family’s sale of that house several years later.

In 2013, Concordia University in Montreal acquired Richler’s personal library, related papers, and materials from the Richler estate. The thousands of books; dozen or so typewriters; piles of newspapers and marked up clippings; drawers and drawers of stationary supplies; framed photos, images, and posters; scores of matchbooks; shelves of folded maps; reams of computer printed drafts, and so on—the materials of this writer’s living and working environment—raised a series of fascinating research questions about collection in a broader sense.  As the materials lost their status as objects in daily use, they became a case study for thinking about how things become collections.  Now that they were boxed up, where should these things go? Where could the boxes be stored? Where might this stuff find a new home as a collection? This very messy collection (eventually installed and catalogued as a kind of “unspecial” collection, housed in an English department, not an archives, served as the first unruly boundary object among many for our collective inquiry into the forms, cultures and politics of collection. 

4. The book is interdisciplinary in nature; why did you decide to edit a book with this range of focus? 

Like the Richler Library, collection studies is very much an unbounded field. There are certainly long-established institutions, and a wealth of scholarship that discusses the systems of knowledge-keeping and knowledge-making that archives, libraries, and museums represent. But those systems have been under critical examination for some time and questions arising from that thinking – collection thinking – have, in a sense, brought those institutions closer together. Against the impression that these institutions are monolithic, we find archivists, librarians, and curators with reflexivity in common, as they develop, preserve, and interpret collections. This is in part because the whole concept of collecting has been opened up by individuals and groups who do not see themselves reflected in the things that collecting bodies preserve, or if these things are there, they have been alienated from their performative purpose by systems of classification and standards of preservation to which they are submitted.  For these reasons, our collection of case studies is not divided into institutional categories but grouped according to ways of thinking, acting, and caring that collecting bodies have in common: ontology, agency, and community. We wanted to know more about what constitutes a collection; what are the motive forces for gathering like things; and what sorts of relationships are formed by collections or the idea of collections.  That these sections and their chapters also speak to each other increases our confidence in the project overall.

5. The book includes cases from a wide range of fields. How did you decide what fields to include? Were there any areas that you did not include?

There is no underestimating the wonder of a call for papers. As conveners of a conference also called “Collection Thinking,” we were impressed by the variety of topics that came forward. Discussions at the conference confirmed that the theme was of broad interest, with unifying factors that stimulated conversations between people who do not often meet, yet who recognized each others’ experiences and preoccupations. That said, the process of editing a collection is a collecting process, meaning that it is motivated, sometimes to the point of obsession. Collectors often seek a level of completion. Just where they set the bar is far from arbitrary, though not necessarily explicable, though we can try. Sufficiency, in our case, was a collection of case studies that were activated by “collection thinking” – studies that focused on process, not only in terms of collection development but also, and emphatically, in terms of the lives and afterlives of related things in individual and collective imaginations. We were never collecting fields for Collection Thinking but clusters of questions that are forming within and without institutional and para-institutional practices.

6. As you read the cases, is there anything that surprised you? 

We were very delighted to discover so much attention to the human factor in a world so apparently focused on technologies of knowledge acquisition and distribution. Digitization of collections is unquestionably useful but sometimes fails the test of sufficiency when it simply replicates the systems that block inquiry or involvement. Drilling down and reaching out are processes of discovering thought-patterns whose explanations bring the local and the global into shouting distance, at the very least. Some of our contributors do shout – hey, look over here or stop messing with our stuff – and that level of expression is precisely what we need as we try to rethink collections for current and future generations.

7. Looking to the future, what do you think will change in our collection practices? 

In bringing together the contributions from different fields of study, what remains consistent is the interest in and call for approaching collection practices with a developed sense of care—that is, an understanding for whom the collection is and for what purposes/ends. A sense of accountability—to other communities, individuals, the environment—is increasingly becoming a strong impulse or drive in collecting practices and will likely shape the mandates of collecting institutions, communities, and individuals well in the future. That said, collecting is also being reshaped by digitization and its affiliated practices and by the shifting landscape of global capital—what will survive well into the future requires the financial means for its subvention. This means that greater attention needs to be paid to that sense of accountability in relation to those institutions, communities, or persons who have the capacity to collect.

8. Is there anything we should be doing now to prepare for collection practices in the future?

That depends on who “we” think the “we” is—communities work collaboratively to preserve materials from the clutches of institutions that either did not realize, or were not invested in, the value of the said materials. These communities prepared themselves in their provision of resources—the space and appropriate conditions—to safeguard what they considered important and valuable to them. One way to prepare, therefore, is to anticipate what may be valued in the future that may (or may not) be of value to institutions invested in archival practices at the moment. Then, determine how to best organize and prepare such materials for the institution. Or become a collector yourself, and leave a legacy to someone (who would likely want what you have). However, if we consider that so much of what we now keep is digital, it’s best to work with changing digital forms and to adapt digital materials to the most recent form of storage technology (unless you are a collector of the technologies of storage).

9. Is there anything else you would like to share?

Don’t casually throw things away—your trash is likely someone else’s treasure.

Lauren Hays

Lauren Hays

Lauren Hays, PhD, is an Assistant Professor of Instructional Technology at the University of Central Missouri, and a frequent presenter on topics related to libraries and librarianship. Her expertise includes information literacy, educational technology, and library and information science education.  Please read Lauren’s other posts relevant to special librarians. And take a look at Lucidea’s powerful integrated library systems, SydneyEnterprise, and GeniePlus used daily by innovative special librarians in libraries of all types, sizes and budgets.

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