Friday, April 10, 2009

Special Challenges and Opportunities for Special Collections

The Association of Research Libraries Working Group on Special Collections has released a “discussion report” on current, critical issues related to the management of special collections material.

The report, which defines special collections broadly and is concerned with traditional and as well as digital special collections, begins with an increasingly common claim about the value of unique local collections:

In an environment where mass digitization of books and periodicals for Web access is accelerating, and electronic journals and aggregated databases are part of the shared landscape of scholarly communication, it is their accumulated special collections that increasingly define the uniqueness and character of individual research libraries. The time is now to meet the challenges and responsibilities that these materials present.

And then it goes a bit further, and suggests that special collections “encapsulate the essence of a research library” (9). The claim is restated in the conclusion: “special collections, taken together, define the distinctive features of the modern research library” (31).

The report highlights many challenges and presents 17 recommendations under three broad rubrics:

I. Collecting Carefully, with Regard to Costs, and Ethical and Legal Concerns

II. Ensuring Discovery and Access

III. The Challenge of Born-Digital Collections

Given the “exceptional opportunities” and “glorious future” for special collections, these issues are worthy of attention and resources (6).

The report’s preface mentions “the increasing convergence between special collections in libraries and those held in museums and archives” (6), but little is said about integrating the management of such collections. Moreover, nothing is said about how special collections operations might be integrated with general library operations. If special collections are essential or central to a research library, then we need to begin thinking about their departmental status.