Do born-digital materials belong “in” special collections?

Some of us listened in on this morning’s CNI Conversation, in the course of which Cliff Lynch mentioned that the October 16th ARL special collections forum in D.C. was time well spent–with which I agree wholeheartedly. During the Q&A I asked him whether he thinks born-digital collections (e-manuscripts, institutional websites, administrative records, etc.) should be considered “special collections” in terms of custodianship and other aspects of curatorial management. This is a question that began to arise at special collections conferences a couple years ago, and that has sometimes elicited a resounding NO, as in, “That’s unthinkable! We’re all about curation of rare and unique physical artifacts.”

The colleagues whom I’ve heard express this opinion generally seem to have a professional orientation more from the rare books and manuscripts perspective (library based) than institutional archives. (Archivists in the latter context have no issue with born-digital materials being managed as part of traditional archival collections.)

Cliff’s response: he sees no problem considering born-digital materials that comprise unique, distinctive collections to warrant the same type of curatorial oversight that physical special collections receive. His opinion is based at least in part on the special expertise required in areas such as provenance and context, specialized metadata, and a commitment to permanent preservation.

Beyond that, here’s the nugget offered by Cliff that I found particularly useful: Perhaps the tipping point at which a collection should be managed by “special collections” is when an acquiring institution accepts official responsibility for managing (i.e., “owning”) it, such as via an agreement with a donor. In other words, the special collections library is the organization that will provide access, interpret, assist users, understand any intellectual property rights, and assure preservation of that body of digital files and content.

What do you think? Is this a reasonable way to look at it?

Jackie Dooley retired in from OCLC in 2018. She led OCLC Research projects to inform and improve archives and special collections practice.

5 Comments on “Do born-digital materials belong “in” special collections?”

  1. I think “born digital” presents some really interesting questions for collecting institutions, in my case museums, to consider. In museums as you note our practice has grown up around physical object management. In our case the debate is not so much around “special collections” as just how to make decisions around the acquisition, preservation and management of born digital material. I’m trying to start conversations – its certainly interesting and I appreciated your thoughts.

  2. That’s an interesting way to think about it. I think there’s a subtle, important difference between materials being managed “by” special collections and being managed “as” special collections. I’m not convinced that the kinds of academic special collections staff we have today are all that well-versed in the technical issues that it takes to make, as Cliff says, “a commitment to permanent preservation.” They surely bring some of the needed skills and perspectives to the table, but not all. There’s definitely a need for a variety of special expertise, that will likely be found in a group of people working closely together, but how that shakes out against the kinds of special collections we currently see in most academic libraries, I’m not so sure. Does trying to extend the notion of “special collections” into an increasingly born digital world get in the way of the kind of progress we need to see? If we do continue to have “special collections” as some type of library unit, I think they need to be much, much more imbricated with with other outward facing library and campus services than they currently seem to be in most places.

  3. I’m surprised that no one mentioned the collection policy in this discussion. That should be based on the scope of the special collection and its reason for existence. If digital materials would enhance the collection and fit within the scope of the collection it would be a diservice to the users not to include digital items. Why are we still having this discussion?

  4. If RBMS folks don’t think that special collections should have these materials, where do they think they should go?

    I’m with Cliff and Lynne on this one.

  5. This is exactly the reasoning that Beth Whittaker and I argued in Special Collections 2.0. If we aren’t accepting electronic materials from, say, contemporary authors that are being collected for Special Collections, we’re literally missing over half of their archival record, especially as more publishers eliminate paper versions of copy edited manuscripts and galleys.

Comments are closed.