Special Collections – the big agenda

In an earlier post I reported some impressions from attending the ARL Special Collections Working Group (SCWG) meeting. One of the reasons that I was there is the large role that special collections play in the research institutions served by RLG Programs and the consequent emphasis we are giving them in our work agenda.

At the SCWG I passed around early review copies of a thoughtful and intentionally provocative essay written by my Programs colleagues, Ricky Erway and Jen Schaffner. Their premise is that special collections need to be in the networkflow, that scaling up digitization of these materials requires a change in a whole variety of historical emphases and practices and that as a community we need to completely retool our attitudes and approaches to extending access to special collections in the library, archives and museum world. It’s titled Shifting Gears: Gearing Up to Get Into the Flow and was inspired by the interactions and presentations at our Digitization Matters forum at the recent Society of American Archivists meeting.

Church doors, WittenbergThey post their theses in clear language
that calls for action. Here’s one:
“Take a page from archivists. Stop obsessing about items…” Their calls for action need to get turned into community activities that build a new infrastructure, new practices and new expectations. Much that needs to be done is appropriate for RLG Programs to undertake and much more needs to be undertaken by individual institutions and the organizations on which they rely for support. We’re interested in a discussion with our Partners to help us focus a program of work and anxious to engage the broad community in discourse that leads to change. The essay (pdf) is now on our website (the contemporary equivalent of those 16th century church doors) and available for comment, debate, copying, translation and ultimately action.

4 Comments on “Special Collections – the big agenda”

  1. Thanks for this clear and useful document, which should be a sound basis for discussion at a time when digitization programs require precise steering.
    The emphasis on the value of collections and ‘good enough’ quality of both images and metadata seem to me the most valuable way of moving things further.

    Incremental approaches, based upon proven experience, and regularly checked against users access may be less enticing than the ‘big picture’ of making available all the knowledge of the world in one batch.
    They definitely feel more realistic and comfortable as they match the learning curve and progressive access to knowledge or skills I experienced both as learner and teacher.

    Now, how to organize effective digital collections, in time, quality and quantity is to be discussed, assessed and funded…

    Interesting times!

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