Special Collections in the Collective Collection

February 12th, 2013 by Jennifer

Last month I facilitated a forum at the New-York Historical Society about Putting ‘Special’ in the ‘Collective Collection.’ We think it might be the first ever meeting about the centrality of distinctive and unique materials in discourse about the contemporary research ecosystem of shared print agreements, digital materials (both free and licensed), print collections, regional consortia, and resource sharing.

The meeting was standing room only, with a substantial waiting list. This group of thoughtful representatives from OCLC Research Library Partnership institutions set out to reconsider entrenched ideas about the irrelevance, or even the danger, of the collective collection to special collections.

What is the collective collection? In the recent mega-regions report, Constance and Brian defined the “collective collection” to be the combined holdings of a group of institutions, excluding duplicate holdings.

In our thought experiment, we mentally set aside the widespread overlapping collections, like those runs of STEM journals, subscriptions to Evans Online, or Google Books and the Hathi Trust. What’s left is a virtual collection of scarce publications – all in situ – that are held across the institutions in the group.

What remains is the rare stuff, “thy true heritage.” It is the widely-held material that allows us to focus on collecting (collectively) in the margins. The collective collection is not complete without special collections.

What does this strategy mean for researchers? It means that I can look every one of them in the eye and tell them that I can get them everything they need, regardless of where those materials “live”. And I can provide my rare books and special collections to all of my researchers, no matter where they do their work.

What are the implications for library administrators? The distinctiveness of your library’s materials – in concert with your colleagues’ special collections – is the hallmark of the collective collection.

Putting “Special” in the “Collective Collection” from OCLC Research

Share your ideas, in comments below, or in email to me.

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One Response to “Special Collections in the Collective Collection”

  1. Paul Constantine Says:

    I think that this is a very timely issue. At SAA last summer there was a presentation on the ILL of Special Collections materials. Here at the University of Washington, we are part of the Orbis/Cascade Alliance–37 libraries spread across three states. We are launching a shared ILS this summer. There will be one catalog, one database, for the entire Alliance. This has huge implications, it seems to me, for the sharing of special collections materials whether it be digitally, physically, or whatever. I’d love to see more conversation on this topic.
    –Paul

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