Special Collections – the big deal

I attended the Association of Research Libraries Membership Meeting last week. The Special Collections Working Group of ARL met for nearly a full day and I was pleased to be part of the discussions as an invited liaison.

The Working Group was formed following an earlier effort that resulted in the “Hidden Collections” agenda. At this point the working group is struggling to articulate principles, practices and behaviors that ought to define 21st century special collections. They won’t necessarily embrace a program of work so much as articulate a path forward for those institutions that have and will continue to have ‘special’ collections. I put quotation marks around ‘special’ because there is considerable debate and some confusion about what special collections might mean as the 21st century progresses in a predominantly digital information and publication form.

Dealing with the extant base of special collections – identifying, describing, digitizing and disclosing them – is an enormous challenge and opportunity. In discussion this challenge gets elided with the challenge of managing the flood of digital materials – electronic records, personal research collections, web sites, blogs, and all sorts of digital ephemera – that may represent the sources and materials that we called ‘special’ in the print format world.

One of the most interesting exchanges was precipitated by the observations that “special formats are not special collections” and that “collecting in the 21st century is different than a 21st century collection”. (I believe these came from Mark Dimunation of LC.) This sparked some debate about what we will be collecting and whether our thinking is perhaps shaped too much by trying to extend or extrapolate from our traditional and historic collecting practices. For instance our past practices, while striving to achieve community consistency and collaboration in descriptive efforts, were at the same time characterized by a fundamental dynamic of competition for the scarce, unique or reputedly valuable.

This led to some speculation about what collaborative collecting for special collections might mean in the 21st century. Are there new opportunities to collect as a community and focus institutional competition on the distinctive ways in which researchers are supported in using and making sense of a commonly-held collection of ‘special’ resources?

Cliff Lynch of CNI opined that if we were to behave that way the community ought to come together to collectively support the Internet Archive and, via its support, dictate requirements that ensured the web archives would meet community requirements – we’d collectively own a huge and critical historical resource that is maintained economically and accessible under terms and mechanisms shaped by the needs of future research.

I extended the thought to the blogosphere. There are a relatively small number of blog support providers. Couldn’t we make a comparable deal with them on behalf of the entire research community? This extends the logic and economics of the consortial ‘big deal’ to the special collections arena. It eliminates the enormous investments that we currently make in selection of materials and allows us to redirect those resources to the tools and technology that support researchers in making sense and use of the material.

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