By Tim Feind
In part one of my series on PACSCL I visited the Joseph P. Horner Memorial Library in Philadelphia and talked to Bettina Hess from the German Society of Pennsylvania about challenges and chances, trying to fathom the perspective of a small member of the Philadelphia Area Consortium of Special Collections Libraries (PACSCL). To complete the picture, I also wanted to capture an overarching perspective that can provide insights in the overall structure of the PACSCL network. I met Beth Lander, who has served as PACSCL’s Managing Director since 2020, for a virtual interview.
Good morning Beth, thank you for taking the time. What is your position at PACSCL and what is PACSCL?
I am the Managing Director of the Philadelphia Area Consortium of Special Collections Libraries, otherwise known as PACSCL. PACSCL began in 1985 with a few librarians in Philadelphia going up to New York City to the Grolier Club and seeing an exhibition of rare books. They came back to Philadelphia and said: ‘You know, we’ve got all these incredible collections, we can do even better.’ And they did. They created Legacies of Genius: A Celebration of Philadelphia Libraries, an exhibition which was the first project that provided the foundation for this consortium. PACSCL incorporated in 1993; next year, in 2023, we will be celebrating our 30th anniversary!
At its founding, PACSCL had 16 institutional members, and we are now up to 35. Our members are mostly in the greater Philadelphia area, with Lehigh University and the University of Delaware defining our northern and southern boundaries, and the State Library of Pennsylvania and Princeton University defining our western and eastern boundaries.
When I took this job two years ago, I did some research to see what other special collection consortiums there were in the world. To my knowledge, there are only two in the United States: PACSCL and Chicago Collections, which started ten years ago, inspired, so I’ve been told, by PACSCL. I am the first fulltime Managing Director PACSCL has had in its history. In 2019, PACSCL changed its due structure in order to support a full-time employee as well as to increase its capacity. We now have two standing committees, three ad-hoc committees, and five working groups. Our board is comprised of fifteen members who work at member institutions, with an executive committee consisting of a chair, vice-chair, secretary, and treasurer.
Maybe you could elaborate a little bit more on your function. What are your tasks as a Managing Director?
I am trained as both a librarian and an archivist, although most of my working life I have been an administrator. What I do for PACSCL is everything from organizing a board meeting and assuring that there is coffee and pastry on the table, all the way up to running strategic planning, crafting annual plans, and drafting budgets. It’s like being the pilot of a jet plane. I am there in the cockpit, and I help ensure that everything is going into the right direction.
I also couldn’t find any similar organizations, which kind of surprises me, but maybe we can come back to that later. But besides its mere uniqueness as an organization, what would you say makes PACSCL special?
The fact that PACSCL has not only survived, but thrived over the past 30 years, through economic ups and downs, speaks to the value that it provides to its members. There are other consortia that focus on libraries by size, or by the type of collection or genre, or by the audience they serve. PACSCL’s focus is on special collections, regardless of the type of institution, the audiences served, or what topics are covered by a collection. We are unique – our membership runs the gamut from the tiny German Society of Pennsylvania up to Princeton University. Our members represent an enormous diversity of collections, audiences, and type of material collected. I’ve discovered over the past two years that these institutions, and the staff who work in them, are very thoughtful about what they want to do. PACSCL has grown from – I hate to use the expression – an old boys club to a consortium focused on democratization, not only in the types of institutions represented, but also in who gets to represent those institutions. Board representation has expanded. Committee formation has grown since 2019 and working groups allow people who don’t work at PACSCL member institutions to contribute to the life of the consortium. PACSCL has moved from being an insular organization to one that is really considerate of what it means for a group of people to work together to make these collections known or to challenge the concept of what these collections do, and that is pretty unique.
You already mentioned that there are big and small institutions part of the organization. When I talked to Bettina Hess from the German Society of Pennsylvania and asked her about challenges and opportunities in conjunction with being a member of PACSCL, she said that there are actually just pros and no cons. She also talked about the development you mentioned as well, and that the situation is getting better and better for the small as well as the big institutions. What is your perspective on this balance of power? Would you agree that there is a mutual profiting despite the size of the member institutions?
I don’t see a “balance of power” as much as I see growing pains. There is enormous respect between our institutional members, and a recognition that each member brings strengths, skills, and expertise to the table.
Here’s one example of “growing pains.” There has been tension between some folks within PACSCL who wish to see dues income used to sustain initiatives that would benefit groups outside of PACSCL, groups that are similar in size and scope to some of PACSCL’s smallest institutional members. Those small institutions often forego other budget lines to pay dues to PACSCL because they see the value in membership. This type of “growing pains” is indicative of PACSCL’s recognition that it should serve a larger community, something we are hoping to achieve as we build funding outside of dues payments.
PACSCL will begin a new round of strategic planning in 2024 that, after a year long futures thinking exercise that the Board is now completing, will focus on the concept of “balanced growth.” This perspective will allow the consortium to negotiate those growing pains against the needs of smaller member institutions as it looks to extend its service to new communities.
I would like to point that aspect by a more concrete question. Why would a larger institution, for example the Princeton University, be interested in a smaller collection to join the consortium?
My response here is based on conversations I’ve had with folks at larger institutions like Princeton or the University of Pennsylvania. PACSCL revised its dues structure in 2019 to support a full-time Managing Director, and our largest member institutions saw their dues doubled, an increase that they were willing to support. All our members feel compelled to give back to the community. They feel compelled to encourage their staff to participate in PACSCL committees and working groups, which allows staff to develop skills outside of the scope of their jobs. PACSCL also offers professional development and networking opportunities at no cost.
And I think at the heart of it there is a sense of altruism, and there is the sense that community matters more than size.
How would you describe the opportunities for the smaller institutions regarding a membership at the consortium?
I can share with you my own perspective from the vantage point of a small member institution that I worked at before I became the Managing Director of PACSCL. There, I developed a grant application for a major digitization project that was partnered through PACSCL. My co-author was at another small member institution. This project documented the history of medical education in Philadelphia, which brought us into partnership with the University of Pennsylvania, Drexel University, Thomas Jefferson University, and Pennsylvania Hospital. Not only did my co-author and I get the experience of developing this type of grant application, but once we were funded, the staff at all the partner institutions had the opportunity to develop project management, time management, and collection management skills.
I’ve also worked hard over the past two years to provide other direct benefits of membership, such as vendor discounts, increased professional development opportunities, and direct services for our members, such as a disaster response framework.
But the burden of participation and benefit derivation is on the shoulders of the member institutions and their staff. Folks can participation as much as they are able, and many do; other folks are so stretched for time and resources in their jobs that just maintaining a tie to the larger community is sufficient. It’s my job to communicate with every member, to ensure that their needs are being met to the best of PACSCL’s ability.
How do you evaluate the future development of PACSCL? Which opportunities and challenges do you see? Do you have any dreams or wishes?
I would like $1,000,000. Seriously. The investment income off a $1,000,000 endowment would go a long way in achieving PACSCL’s mission. Our ability to do things is capped by our income, which now is limited to dues and grant funding, which is project specific. The challenge that comes from those “growing pains” I mentioned earlier. Everyone in the consortium is passionate, everyone has great ideas for what PACSCL can achieve – but we need more resources to do that.
PACSCL has done a lot of structural building over the past two years. We’ve established guideposts and parameters that will reassure potential funders of our capacity to steward funds effectively. We’re having conversations about what it means to have this kind of money. What does it mean to the consortium to have the freedom to do what we want to do? What would our community look like at that time?
When most of the people and groups of the archival landscape agree that networks like PACSCL are the way to get organized and that they are such a good thing, how is it possible that they are so rare?
That’s a very good question. The other special collections groups I know of are focused on a particular specialty, such as the Medical Heritage Library, which focuses only on history of medicine collections. The fact that PACSCL is entering its fourth decade, having gone through significant financial upturns and downturns, the response to Covid-19, and changing practices in the field, is pretty significant. I think it’s due to two things. One is Philadelphia and the rich history of this area, and that no one institution has a hard lock on any one topic, something we discovered when we were doing that grant on the history of medical education. Documentation is scattered across diverse organizations in Philadelphia. If you want to know about something, you are going to talk to a lot of collections and those collections are going to be talking to each other about how to meet your needs. It’s the interconnectedness of history in this area.
The other thing that speaks to PACSCL’s success is good management. All the people who have been involved in PACSCL, from Board members to committee workers, understand that, for the consortium to continue, it had to become something more than a small group of big institutional administrators telling other folks what to do. That model could have stagnated very quickly. But PACSCL has always been fluid, not only in the growth of its membership, but also in the diversity of voices represented.
PACSCL formed at the perfect time, when special collections were just beginning to shift from being only physical, hard copy based collections to collections that are represented both physically and virtually. PACSCL started on almost a dare, that Philly could produce something better than New York (and it did!), and that passion took root. PACSCL has surfed the waves of digitization, social media, and born-digital content without taking its eye off one critical thing: we’re a community. We are storytellers. And no matter how we tell it, we have one heck of a story to tell.
Please also review Tim Feind’s first article about PACSCL: Visiting PACSCL — Part 1: Facing Digital Transformations Together.