- Special Collections Surge to the Fore
As libraries increasingly subscribe and have access to the same packages of easily replicated digital content and as publishers’ portfolios merge and converge, what will be the features that differentiate libraries and that help us assess the quality of information services available at a given institution? The sheer volume of large general collections will gradually be less distinctive than such things as professional consultation and instruction, provision of tools for information management, customization of resources and interfaces, and—especially for libraries supporting research and cultural heritage organizations—the provision of unique primary sources.
Although such primary source materials, in every format from cuneiform tablets to interactive digital multimedia, have always been the jewels in the crowns of research libraries, the reality is that they are spread across a great variety of libraries and are treated with an even greater variety of access mechanisms and preservation conditions. Numerous smaller academic libraries, historical societies, museums, corporations, state agencies, and other places boast of materials of essential value to research and national heritage. Although the Internet has helped increase awareness about these places and collections, the underlying challenges of lack of staff and time to fully document these materials renders them invisible to potential users right at a time when more opportunities than ever before exist to improve their dissemination and preservation. Both well-endowed libraries and small shoe-string operations have difficulty keeping up with the detailed item-level tasks required to create good registers for collections of manuscripts, archives, photographs, maps, ephemera, architectural drawings, sound recordings, and more. To the known risks suffered by these formats is now added the mind-boggling challenge of trying to preserve unique documents and creative works that are born digital, have no pre-existing physical version, and could not even be rendered accurately in static media.
Librarians, curators, scholars, and volunteers have worked for years to overcome what has become known as the problem of “hidden collections.” Now, we have just seen another major step in what has been a 10-year trajectory of initiatives designed to articulate new strategies to unearth these collections: to get them cataloged, post the records in our digital systems, ensure some physical stability for the items, and eventually, perhaps, digitize to the extent possible in order to share the content if not the [End Page 177] artifact. In December 2008, the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) announced 15 awards in its new program to begin to catalog hidden collections.1 The successful projects are located in major research libraries, liberal arts colleges, historical societies, and museums, and span collections related to the social and political history of the United States and of Africa, to the history of science and medicine, and to other high demand subjects.
The work targeted by the new funding is not preservation or digitization (although that could be supported by the libraries themselves) but cataloging—that stalwart component of library work that some are too quick to dismiss as unneeded in the era of sophisticated computing algorithms and fully machine-readable texts. It is clear to all of us who work with researchers that for distinctive primary sources to be effectively represented in the digital environment, systematic catalog entries and metadata still need to be prepared. The creative aspect of this CLIR initiative is that this labor-intensive cataloging is being carried out utilizing new workflows, streamlined levels of description, simplified record structures, multiple metadata schemas, and other techniques that will maximize the ways the data can be used and minimize the time spent in preparation.
This initiative builds on a series of conferences and reports sponsored by Association of Research Libraries, the Library of Congress, and others that started around 1999 and gave rise to the term “hidden collections” and to calls for a re-energized and nationally coordinated approach to every aspect of special collections, from acquisitions to cataloging to preservation to scholarly use.2 Surveys of research libraries raised a high level of alarm at the growing body of distinctive collections relegated to arrearages and unopened boxes. Increasingly, it was recognized that to set values of access and preservation in...