October 23, 2017

USC Libraries to Launch Collections Convergence Initiative

USC’s Doheny Memorial Library Reading Room

A new initiative spearheaded by the University of Southern California (USC) Libraries, the Collections Convergence Initiative (CCI), will bring together researchers, library curators, and scholars to advance research, deepen their work with USC’s extensive special collections, expand the libraries’ public programming, and ultimately develop new collections.

The initiative, announced July 10, will initially focus on five pilot concentrations: the history of Los Angeles, California, and the American West; Holocaust, genocide, and exile studies; LGBTQ history and culture, particularly relating to West Coast activists and activism; film, music, and popular culture; and East Asian history and culture. These areas reflect strong special collections currently held by the libraries—particularly USC’s regional history collections and member archives in L.A. as Subject, the USC Shoah Foundation, and the archival and art collections and programs of ONE Archives at USC Libraries.

Priorities for CCI in its first year include establishing a program of visiting fellows and support for postdoctoral students, identifying library curators to partner with in each area, and developing plans to build collections. CCI will also work with the USC Sidney Harman Academy for Polymathic Study to integrate primary sources into undergraduate research in the subject areas.

William Deverell, professor of history at USC Dornsife, will serve as CCI’s director, as well as leading the California studies work. Wolf Gruner, holder of the Shapell-Guerin Chair in Jewish Studies and director of the Center for Advanced Genocide Research, will head the Holocaust, genocide, and exile studies concentration. Leads for the three remaining areas have not yet been appointed, although USC Libraries Dean Catherine Quinlan plans to pick a scholar to helm the LGBTQ focus by the end of the calendar year.

MAKING AN IMPACT

CCI originated with a series of conversations between Quinlan and her cabinet in summer 2016. Quinlan, who was appointed dean in August 2007, was considering new projects for the libraries as she approached her third five-year term.

“Every time I’ve been asked to stay for another term I always want to think of something that I can do that will be of significant value to the USC community,” she told LJ. “I want to have an impact.” Quinlan’s past accomplishments have included establishing USC’s Master of Management in Library and Information Science program in partnership with USC’s Marshall School of Business (with former CEO of Tulsa City-County Library, OK, and 2006 LJ Mover & Shaker Gary Shaffer serving as director), and the USC Digital Repository.

“Like many academic research libraries we have collections that we’re particularly proud of,” said Quinlan. “And it struck me as we were having the conversation that there isn’t anything that we’re doing on a real systematic basis to leverage the excellence in particular areas.” She imagined a framework to encourage scholars to use the collections more systematically than they have been, and after some discussion with the provost—should it be in the form of a new center, or an institute affiliated with the libraries?—they decided on the more open structure of CCI. “We thought that…calling it an initiative gave us a lot of flexibility over what it could look like and how it could be reshaped as it evolved over the years,” Quinlan explained, and the term “convergence” to emphasize the idea that collections and scholarships should strengthen and improve each other.

Quinlan and her team put together a white paper that fall, sending it to library faculty and staff for critique and input—which was largely positive, with some reservations about where funding would come from. Fortuitously, a new endowment had just been established at the libraries to be spent at the dean’s discretion. Quinlan thought that CCI would be a good use for the funds. “I think that allayed a lot of fears in the library that I would be taking money from current activities or current services to fund something new,” she explained. “This was new money for a new initiative…. It was well timed, that’s for sure.”

LEVERAGING COLLECTIONS

Over the following half year, Quinlan and her cabinet worked to decide which collections to start with. The first few were “no-brainers,” she said.

The Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West (ICW) at the Dornsife College of Letters, Arts, and Science, a center for scholarly investigation of the history and culture of California and the American West, works with students from K–12 schools through postdoctoral programs, and USC’s Archival Research Center has hosted the L.A. as Subject online database since 2000 (and contributed to the Lost LA TV series). The USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education is dedicated to recording and hosting audiovisual interviews with survivors and witnesses of the Holocaust and other genocides, partnering with educators worldwide. The USC-hosted ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives is the largest collection of LGBTQ materials in the world. And USC’s Thornton School of Music recently announced five new graduate programs.

Deverell—a historian specializing in American history with a focus on the 19th and 20th century West, director of ICW, and “an amazing scholar in his own right,” according to Quinlan—was her choice to lead the project as a whole as well as the Western history focus area.

He was enthusiastic about his involvement. “I’ve spent my whole career being in and out of archives and special collections, back from when I was an undergraduate working in special collections—which lit the scholarly fire under me—and then through a longtime affiliation with the Huntington Library and with other archives,” Deverell told LJ. “I’ve always had a huge interest in the interface between doctoral training and primary source collection, cataloging, and interpretation.”

Gruner is a historian and specialist in Holocaust and German-Jewish history, with additional areas of research including the comparative history of mass violence and its resistance on a global scale, as well as racial and state discrimination against indigenous populations, especially in Latin America, and acts of opposition and resistance by German and Austrian Jews during the Holocaust. He has been working for the past nine years to build a robust program of Holocaust and genocide studies at USC, making substantial use of USC’s library resources and archival holdings.

The challenge of the initiative, Deverell told LJ, will be “to help build this thing that has thematic or programmatic connections across…very disparate fields. How do we formalize a lot of the things we’re doing without rendering [them] generic?” It’s a challenge he’s excited about, however.

NEGATIVE SPACE

Quinlan hopes that Deverell and Gruner, in turn, bring more scholarly specialists to CCI. “I’d like to see [scholars] get more involved with the library side of things, not just the research and scholarship side of things,” she told LJ. Another reason she wants to involve scholars from outside the library with CCI, she added, is that they may have a greater awareness of what’s missing from the collections.

Deverell plans to hold his doctoral seminar, History of the American West, in the library this fall in order to give students an overview of working with the source material as well as the subject itself. “We’re going to meet in special collections, in [its] seminar space, once a week, four hours, for 15 weeks,” he told LJ. “We’re not only going to utilize the published scholarly sources, we’re going to bring in [material] from special collections at USC that pertain to whatever theme is under scrutiny that week, to let the students understand what’s there, but maybe more important what’s not there—where’s the missing collection or body of work or materials—and then think very ambitiously about how we get the word out that we might be looking for x y or z.”

Gruner, who requires all of his students to complete research projects, introduces them to USC’s libraries early each semester, where they discover the wealth of archival materials held in the Shoah Foundation collection and the Holocaust and Genocide Studies collection. He encourages them to do library internships as well, to gain practical knowledge of cataloging and working with primary source materials. “There’s a lot of collaboration between me and the library already that I want to build on,” he told LJ. “And I think the initiative will allow me also to find new ways to go even beyond this relationship we have already.”

Quinlan also hopes that scholars in other concentrations will find something to relate to in the pilot subjects. “One concern that everybody has when you start to choose [specific areas] is who’s left out,” she said. Each topic has the potential to touch on many other areas, “So I’m really hoping that people can see themselves in this initiative, if not directly, at least indirectly. We want to be more inclusive, not exclusive.”

GROWING INTEREST, GROWING COLLECTIONS

In the next three or four years Quinlan hopes to double the areas of CCI’s focus. “I do think that libraries have a very important role to play in the academy,” she told LJ—but even more important, “being front and center around the development of scholarship and research is a role that sometimes [libraries] get lost in, and I see this initiative really helping us become more in the center of that activity than as a support by the side.”

Added Deverell, “Our work can be pushed forward really ambitiously by…collaborative ventures that put archival opportunities at the center of the table.”

Quinlan has been approached with suggestions for new acquisitions, and would like to see the initiative spur interest in growing USC’s collections and developing new research—“kind of the long tail idea”—such as further developing the Chinese and Japanese collections to support a broader array of East Asian studies research and teaching, and growing the music and related performing arts collections to work toward equaling the prominence of USC’s cinematic arts holdings.

“If you take Los Angeles [history] as a case study,” Deverell noted, “so much of that scholarly material that we want to get our hands and eyeballs on is still in the closets, attics, and garages of individuals and institutions. So there’s just a ripe opportunity to bring young graduate students and faculty colleagues and the wider world of non-academic partners into that dialog of what do we know that’s out there, what are we really looking for? That’s just tantalizing.”

He added, “Thinking about cleverly approaching public partners who want to see [their] archives utilized, managed, preserved, etc., and working with colleagues at USC who have an interest in this but don’t want to necessarily take an entire agency archive…trying to figure out smart ways to distill some of those collections and bring them under [USC] management, that’s really exciting.”

Gruner, too, hopes to bring in new material. “I was always been keen, from the very beginning, to create other archival resources via donations of private papers of survivors or German Jewish immigrants,” he told LJ. “What I want to do in this initiative is build up…and intensify the relationship [with the libraries] and extend the scope of the archival material at USC.”

The CCI team hopes to share best practices with other institutions as the project evolves. Deverell also wants to make sure that philanthropic organizations and foundations, such as the National Endowment for the Humanities or the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, know about the work being done.

But for now, the mission is to bring a new array of scholars—graduates, undergraduates, postdocs, and instructors—to the library. Recalling his own days at Princeton, Deverell said, “The library was the mothership of intellectual conversations. And we just want to do that in the 21st century, with all the tools and technologies we’ve got at our fingertips.”

Lisa Peet About Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Associate Editor, News for Library Journal.

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