vibrant this digital arts community is, but also how vulnerable and suspicious it
can be. As research libraries work to document such movements, it will be
critical for librarians and archivists to engage sensitively with the community to
help preserve and protect its work. We may not have all the answers but,
without this engagement, we might not even know what questions to ask.
Serving Users
Joshua Greenberg, Director of Digital Strategy and Scholarship at the New York
Public Library (NYPL), recently called NYPL “the library of the unaffiliated,”
an epigram that suggests the future of all research libraries in the digital world.
Mass digitization of special collections and online access can lead to mass
consumption. Users will come in all shapes and sizes, with varying needs and
levels of preparation, and they will come from everywhere. Their numbers will
extend well beyond the scholarly community. Over the past nine years, Cornell
has provided digital access to documentary evidence on the tragic Triangle
Factory Fire of 1911 that took the lives of 146 young women and girls.12 The
materials include content from the records of the International Ladies’ Garment
Workers’ Union and other unions, photographs, first-hand testimonies from
survivors, and documentation on the resulting investigations and reforms.
The site was originally created to respond to the steady flow of requests for
information on the Triangle Fire that Cornell received from middle- and high-
school students. A visitors’ book added in 2001 to the site contains hundreds of
postings, including very recent ones, which help document the diversity of
audiences served. Users include students, teachers, scholars, political activists,
family members of the women who worked in the thread and needle trades,
as well as fire marshals from around the country who have made the site
mandatory reading in their training programs.
Most users are profoundly grateful for digital access to such resources, but
increasingly the “unaffiliated” are beginning to expect special collections Web
sites to provide services and support comparable to what they can obtain
elsewhere on the Internet. Recently, Cornell upgraded its Making of America
(MOA) digital collection of 19th- and early 20th-century materials13
and, as is
often the case, there were some bugs that needed to be fixed. A number of
habitual users of the site (most of whom are not affiliated with Cornell)
complained and the staff responded to the satisfaction of most of them. One
power user, however, went on the offensive when it looked like a certain feature
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The Collaborative Imperative: Special Collections in the Digital Age
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C O N T I N U E D
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DECEMBER 2009 RESEARCH LIBRARY ISSUES: A BIMONTHLY REPORT FROM ARL, CNI, AND SPARC
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