17 reasons

As I mentioned in a previous post, Susan Allen (Associate Director of the Getty Research Institute and Chief Librarian of the Getty Research Library) has started a list of reasons (“beyond sentimentality”) that special collections are important. I asked if she would share her list, and she agreed. Take a look, and if there are things that are not on this list, please add them in the comments. Are there other, similar lists elsewhere? Let us know!

Some of the items on the list are directly from our recent Digitization and the Humanities Symposium.

Ways in Which Scholars/Librarians Use Rare Materials

  1. Teach “History of the Book” topics using EBBO, DEEP (Database of Early English Plays), and rare materials in combination [Zachary Lesser, Univ. of Penn.];
  2. Uses mss to study alchemy: needs actual copies of old texts and their copies; new texts that record experiments, i.e. personal notebooks & commonplace books; transcriptions; and digital copies [Anke Timmermann, Chemical Heritage Foundation];
  3. Public school system archive used with new data tools such as GIS [Douglas Reed, Georgetown Univ.];
  4. S/C, museums, archives, and old books all have a “marquee” value and all serve scholarship [Paul Courant, UM];
  5. Need analog because we will never be able to scan everything [Paul Courant, UM];
  6. Digitization has increased the use of the analog [Paul Courant, UM];
  7. Digitization is a use of the analog; can’t digitize it if you don’t have it [Paul Courant, UM];
  8. S/C are used to teach the “scholarly method” (use of sources and authorities); should teach “scholar literacy” instead of “information literacy” [Paul Courant, UM];
  9. Use S/C for funding raising; rare materials are a magnet to attract donors [Paul Courant, UM];
  10. Rare materials represent authority; if use something today, it must be available in 50 years [Paul Courant, UM];
  11. Rare materials may be a profitable deaccession; if you have two copies of the Gutenberg Bible you may be able to raise funds by selling one [Paul Courant, UM];
  12. Digitization will expose rare materials to new, more democratic user groups who will want to see the originals, e.g. the Book of Kells, now available to women;
  13. Rare materials attract a community around them and provide an opportunity for librarians and faculty to partner;
  14. Rare materials have artifactual value;
  15. Rare materials are often expressions of national and ethnic identity;
  16. Digitization may not be able to capture all of the physical attributes of rare materials, e.g. quality of the paper, smell, etc.;
  17. Research may demand multiple copies of a rare book; a single digitized copy will not suffice.

Following the ACLS, RLG Programs [Digitzation and the Humanities], and IRLA annual meetings
June 16, 2008/SMA

Both LIBER [pdf] and the Association of Research Libraries (ARL) have statements of principles about the importance of special collections. I think that lists that more specifically articulate reasons for the importance of special collections are also important.

I hope you will add your own reasons in the comments, so that this list can grow.

3 Comments on “17 reasons”

  1. Not being an archivist (or a librarian), I’m not sure if these count, but they came to mind for me.

    Rare materials have an architectural value; ie, the actual items have (had) to *fit* inside the world for which they were created. That is, books go on shelves (or in boxes or pockets, etc), photos go in frames, frames go on walls, diaries go in drawers, etc. The utility (or lack thereof) of a container often tells us about the other things that it touched in the physical world and what accommodations were made for it.

    Rare materials have a material value. They are made of something or somethings. The study of the crafts and industries used to create an object provide both historical and technological data and metadata.

    Rare materials may have a sensory value beyond the visual or audio that can be digitized; I’m thinking primarily of feel (though, I guess, smells can last a long time). For items that were routinely held or worn, tactile properties are very important. Though, of course, lots of handling can have adverse effects.

    Rare materials have artistic and/or craft value (though that may be covered in “artifactual,” I’m not sure).

    Really interesting, thought provoking question.

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