Special Collections: Still that special?

Slistopher has a really good question Donald Waters’ “The Changing Role of Special Collections in Scholarly Communications“:

Prior to reading Waters’s piece, I understood the value of archives and special collections to be rooted in their keeping of primary source materials of enduring historical, informational, and evidentiary value. However, Waters refers to this understanding of value as being the most “simplistic,” so I am left wondering how I arrived at such an incomplete understanding of the value of archives and special collections?

Short answer: Slistopher’s understanding of archives and special collection is fine, very likely a lot better than mine. Waters is challenging our idea of how “un-special” common collections are.

Longer answer: *cracks knuckles* Here goes… Waters’ notion of the conventional wisdom is this: Because the “common collections” are getting digitized and shared, libraries can’t depend on them to answer, “Why should we be here?” Special collections are distinctive and of “historical, informational, and evidentiary value;” that, IN AND OF ITSELF, justifies the expense and time of maintaining them.

Waters goes for an… odd counterargument: He lessens the distance between common and special collections by moving the “common collections” definition closer to that of special collections.

His first point: More expense is needed to examine current common collections, because we can’t assume that “it’s all digitized” now, and too many people are. I have a second-hand tale of a gov docs collection that was getting weeded. There was this huge collection of ag reports in microfilm that was about to get weeded because nobody knew what it was and nobody was using it. Someone decided to quickly look and discovered that, while it was true, a lot of other repositories had decided on weeding it as well, so this pile of film was now rare! So, the common collections are now getting filled with the equivalent of comic books that everyone else’s mom threw out, because she thought they were common junk.

Second point: The digitized common collections still need a lot of metadata control, requiring expense at the institution level. Google and HathiTrust are putting their time into being quick, not necessarily accurate. Every thing they get incorrect is another piece of evidence lost to research, unless institutions get to work.

Third point: Digitization is merely the first step of the process of making items ready for digitized research. More expense is needed to add full metadata to digitized common collections to allow remote research.

Fourth point (not really related to the last three): Thinking of anything as distinctive, like a special collection, causes institutions to clamp down on sharing, making that “distinctive item” LESS valuable to research and less worthy of expense, not more.

Anyhow, Waters argues that common collections, thanks to digitization, are now ALSO “primary source materials of enduring historical, informational, and evidentiary value,” (at least in part). Their digitization and opening of access has caused their value to grow, not shrink. Which makes special collections a restricted, poorly cataloged version of common collections; it’s an “unwelcome white elephant” in comparison. The good news: This means that special collections are especially rich in opportunity for those who want to make them more valuable in the same ways that common collections are growing in value.

At least, that’s Waters’ argument.

Special Collections: Still that special?

2 thoughts on “Special Collections: Still that special?

  1. Yes, yes and yes to your last paragraph. With the rise in accessibility to common collections, special collections needs to keep up in relevancy to scholars and students. Opening their stacks via digital repositories and other technological and scholarly advancements needs to be a priority. This doesn’t mean pumping out a ton of sub-par digital libraries or “Back in the Stacks” websites – they need to think beyond the average Web 2.0 applications and think long term about where they want to take their collections in the future of scholarly research.


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