handmade and vintage goods, routinely brings in shelter magazine editors,
fashion designers and design bloggers to serve as ‘guest curators.’” And
“promoters at Piano’s, a nightclub on the Lower East Side [of Manhattan], have
recently announced on their Web site that they will ‘curate a night of Curious
burlesque.” Now if all of your competitors are “curating” merchandise, you do
not want to be known as someone who merely “buys and sells” and, similarly,
if all your rival nightclub promoters are “curating” parties, why in the world
would you want to be left to be merely “hosting” one?3
In 1995, I was simply astounded at how change in popular jargon was so
closely tracking a controversial definitional change in more esoteric circles.
You’ll remember that one of the results of the task force was to loosen the
definition of archival practice and extend some of its core concepts to define the
practice of collecting and preserving digital information.4 This definitional
extension has now largely been accepted and even superseded, but at the time of
its formulation, it was met with howls of protest from purists who felt that the
task force was demeaning the value of true archival work by describing work on
the ephemera of bits and bytes in the same terms. Find your own word, they
said.5 And today here we go again as the popular culture is closely tracking a
more esoteric extension of the meaning of the term “curation” from museum
practice to the definition of how effectively to manage and preserve floods of
digital data produced by sensors of various kinds including telescopes, gene
sequencers, and book scanners.6
What, if anything, do these various semantic extensions say about the value
today of special collections, whether in artifactual or digital form? I will return
to this specific question at the end of this paper. In the meantime, I want to
explore some ideas about how best to construct the value proposition justifying
investment in special collections, and about the areas of work that are likely to
be most fruitful to advance scholarly communications.
The Definition of Special Collections
“Special collections” is used in various senses for various purposes, sometimes
referring simply to rare books and manuscript materials, and sometimes more
generally to materials that are used as primary sources of evidence as opposed
to secondary sources. In the recent working group report on Special Collections in
ARL Libraries, “special collections” are defined “ecumenically” to include “any
kind of vehicle for information and communication that lacks readily available
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The Changing Role of Special Collections in Scholarly Communications
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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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