While COVID-19 posed many challenges for researchers in the past year, it also galvanized Bard Graduate Center’s library staff to find innovative ways to support the research needs of students and faculty. Research librarians embedded into Zoom classrooms with subject-specific research guidance and initiated a remote scanning service. With students and faculty unable to access the wide network of research collections they typically rely upon, BGC librarians became even more critical partners in their work, facilitating access to materials via interlibrary loan and digital resources.

The pandemic also brought new urgency to plans to preserve and digitize BGC’s own collections, spurring creation of the new Department of Research Collections (DRC). By unifying the BGC Library in a single administrative body with its Study Collection of objects, archival materials, and digital assets, the DRC will enable greater communication and coordination across the institution; improve discovery and accessibility of institutional assets; and provide the necessary structure to properly preserve and promote BGC’s unique collection. This reorganization further aligns the institution’s collection with its approach to research, which challenges traditional boundaries, centers the object, and emphasizes interdisciplinarity.

Recently Amy Estes, BGC’s director of marketing and communications, sat down with Heather Topcik, director of research collections, to learn more about the new department.

AE: Tell me how the new Department of Research Collections came to be.

HT: Conceptually, the new Department of Research Collections is a way of unifying the research materials and assets at BGC in one administrative place. The library provides a sound structural foundation as the starting point for researchers who are used to using our catalog to discover books, periodical databases, and, increasingly, the digital resources they need for their research.

Alongside that traditional model, there are the objects in the Study Collection and all of the digital output that BGC has created over the past decade. Especially in the past couple of years, BGC has produced numerous original podcasts, recorded lectures, and digital interactives that account for a growing part of our research landscape. Our goal is to make that content easily discoverable alongside what researchers are accustomed to finding in our library.

In addition, over the past eight years, the library has slowly been developing our institutional archival collection, setting policies and workflows around archiving BGC’s exhibition materials and institutional history. The pandemic definitely foregrounded the importance of preserving and accessing our own content and inspired our new exhibitions archive project, spearheaded by associate curator Emma Cormack (MA ’18) and director of public engagement Emily Reilly, which will allow students, scholars, and guest curators to revisit past exhibitions through their archival content. To support this project, we are working toward processing our paper archives going back to 1993 and simultaneously developing ways to preserve born-digital content, which is actually in greater danger of disappearing as technology changes so rapidly.

AE: I would love to know more about the Study Collection.

HT: BGC was never intended to be a collecting institution, but maybe 10 years ago, I got a memo from [BGC founder and director] Susan Weber saying that the Brooklyn Museum was deaccessioning some items, which could form the basis for a BGC object collection. And over time through various channels, things just started to come to us through donations. Our holdings include artifacts made of glass, metal, ceramic, wood, plastic, textiles, and paper. The primary function of the collection is pedagogical. If we are an institution that studies history through the lens of material culture, it is essential that our students have the opportunity for hands-on, close examination of objects as part of their studies, and faculty often use them in the classroom. Some of my favorite objects are a pair of silver grape shears, a collection of early twentieth-century wallpaper samples, and a mid-century toy robot which was the subject of an MA student’s qualifying paper just last year (Madeline Warner, MA ‘20).

With the collection nearing a critical mass of 2,000 objects, the Study Collection team is expanding to include associate curator Earl Martin, who will focus on collection development and programming; alongside our cataloger, Study Collection librarian Barb Elam; and our faculty liaison, associate professor Deborah L. Krohn.

With the creation of the Department of Research Collections, we are now treating the Study Collection more like a materials library, which will be accessible through BGC’s library catalog. Back in 2016, we launched a custom-built library discovery interface, which we call FOLIO, using the open-source software Blacklight. The beauty of this software is its ability to incorporate a wide variety of collections into one search interface. One of our goals for this summer is to incorporate the Study Collection into our catalog so the contents are discoverable alongside our library materials. And that feels very much in alignment with the mission of the institution, to be interdisciplinary both in subject matter and in materials.

AE: Wow, that sounds really incredible.

HT: It is a really cool project that we were only able to do because of our size. The fact that we are managing just a few thousand assets, rather than hundreds of thousands, makes it possible for us to innovate. After incorporating our object collection, the next iteration of FOLIO will ideally also include the expanding trove of born-digital content that is being created at BGC all the time. Let’s say a researcher interested in Balinese textiles initiates a search in FOLIO. Wouldn’t it be great if, alongside all of the books and articles, they would also find out that we have a Balinese loom in our Study Collection—and see all of the digital content connected to our 2018 exhibition Fabricating Power with Balinese Textiles, including recorded lectures and gallery digital interactives? Right now, all of that content lives on the BGC website, but that content should also be accessible through our research portal as well.

AE: With all of these projects going on, I imagine you need more help! I heard that you are developing a fellowship with Pratt Institute, and I wonder if you could tell me about that.

HT: The fellowship is a mentorship opportunity. We are partnering with Pratt, which specializes in art librarianship, to create a part-time position in our library that will complement their Master of Science in Library and Information Science program. We especially hope it may be an opportunity to support more diversity in the field, and Ama Codjoe [BGC’s consulting director of diversity and inclusion] gave me some helpful feedback about the position description. Pratt will start promoting the position to its graduate library science students this month.

AE: You have so many new projects taking shape, but this must have been a difficult year for the library staff, with so many students and faculty members wanting to do research and needing help accessing everything remotely.

HT: I can’t say enough about how proud I am of our library team this year. Despite the challenges we all faced during the pandemic, every member of our staff went above and beyond to solve problems creatively in real time. We also had an incredible group of student employees who made it possible to remain open and provide services to their remote colleagues and faculty. Ariana Bishop, a first-year MA student, was critical in providing consistent scanning services for remote students and faculty. Students Pim Suapavarasuwat (MA ‘22) and Madison Clyburn (MA ‘21) came in consistently to make sure books were re-shelved and to help with processing new materials that we continued to add all year. And with the help of PhD candidate Colin Fanning, we were actually able to catalog all 11,000 of our auction catalogs into FOLIO, finishing a multi-year project. It was definitely a challenging year, and we are looking forward to moving into this next phase.

Bard Graduate Center’s research library comprises more than 55,000 volumes. Its primary mission is to support the curricular needs of BGC students, faculty, and staff. The library is unable to accommodate walk-in visitors or unconfirmed appointment requests.