18 May 2009

Refugee Studies Centre Library

The most recent RSC newsletter reported that the Refugee Studies Centre has now moved to brand new offices. Unfortunately, the library will not be joining them when it leaves its current premises in August. Instead, the staff and collection will be incorporated into Oxford University's Social Science library (SSL). It is hard not to be saddened by this development. The RSC library has served as a longstanding advocate of and focal point for the organization and dissemination of forced migration information.

What is so special about the RSC library? First, it has been collecting both traditional and non-traditional materials for some 25 years, resulting in a unique and diverse mix of holdings for an academic library. Second, the library is a physical model of how a refugee/forced migration collection can be successfully organized using specialist classification & cataloguing standards. Library staff have helped numerous organizations create their own documentation centres based on these standards, including the Univ. of Dar es Salaam, the Univ. of Makerere, the Forced Migration and Refugee Studies Program at the American Univ. of Cairo, and the Centre for Refugee Studies at Moi Univ. (I even use these standards in my research guide wiki; see, e.g., "subject categories" and "index terms"). Third, despite being an academic library, the RSC library has always reached out to constituencies beyond the immediate academic community it serves, including practitioners, policy makers, other librarians, and forced migrants themselves. And it has welcomed many researchers from around the world over the years.

In tandem with its hallmark openness, the library recognized that not everyone could visit in person. It was one of the first refugee libraries to make its library catalogue available on the web for searching, and staff members circulated accessions lists as another means of informing researchers about the library's latest materials. In parallel, they also provided a document delivery service for items users located through the catalogue and via the lists. In the late 1990s, the RSC library took an even bigger step toward making its holdings more accessible by establishing an online digital library made up of a selection of its grey literature.

I used to work as a documentalist at UNHCR's former Centre for Documentation on Refugees, which later became the Centre for Documentation and Research. And I have used the RSC library as a visiting fellow, as a Forced Migration Online staff member, and as an independent information specialist. It was always a pleasure. The openness of these collections, and the breadth and depth of their coverage of such an interdisciplinary subject area went a long way to advancing research in forced migration. Once these collections are absorbed into larger institutional repositories (the UN Office in Geneva Library in the case of UNHCR's collection), one will have to jump through many more hoops to gain access to them.

So even though the RSC collection will live on in one form or another and staff members will continue to provide their high quality reference and information services, the unique - and uniquely organized - library as we have known it for so long will essentially disappear.

Please join me in thanking Sarah, Joanna and Ann for all the wonderful assistance they have provided over the years, and in wishing them the very best in their new capacities at the SSL!

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barbara harrell-bond said...

Does this change mean the ending of the use of the standard key words for refugee materials? Barbara Harrell-Bond

EEM said...

The librarians have been using subject terms from both the Refugee Thesaurus and the Library of Congress for some time now, and I believe they will continue with this practice for now. The main problem with the Refugee Thesaurus is that it has not been updated and now that the UNHCR library has been shuttered, there is no longer a focal point for coordinating this effort.