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.