and standardized classification schemes, and any that is vulnerable to
destruction or disappearance without special treatment.”7 In this sense, special
collections are those materials containing primary evidence for scholarship that
require special treatment in their description or handling.
A value proposition is important because the costs of these special
treatments can be quite substantial. At its most simplistic, the value proposition
for special collections is that scholarship broadly across fields in the humanities,
social sciences, and the sciences just cannot proceed without corollary
investment in the acquisitions and carrying costs of the primary-source evidence
needed to sustain and advance those scholarly fields. But how can or should a
particular institution justify particular investments in particular kinds of
collections? Tomes have been written on this more specific question.
Institutional missions, areas of special expertise, previous investment in
particular areas of scholarship, growth trajectories in new areas, and special
opportunities presented by relationships with donors and private collectors are
all among the factors that play a role in particular value propositions.8 It is
undoubtedly the complex nature of the interaction of these factors that accounts
for the wide and rich variation among research libraries and archives in the
kinds and level of their investment in special collections.
Added to the complex factors we know to be at work, the overall
environment for scholarly communications has changed in startling ways and
with these changes has emerged a new kind of conventional wisdom about
special collections. Over the last 15 years there have been substantial not-for-
profit and commercial investments in the electronic availability of back- and
front-lists of journals and books that are of interest to scholars. What JSTOR,
Project Muse, Elsevier and Wiley (among others) accomplished in the ‘90s for
journals surely has many parallels to what Amazon, Google, and the Internet
Archive (among others) have accomplished in the first decade of the new
century for books. However, the massive Google books digitization project
stands as a buoy marking the sea change that has occurred. As a way of taking
account of these changes in the special collections arena, the conventional
wisdom is to say that because books and serials are now more commonly
available to wide audiences in the form of online networked information, what
now makes libraries distinctive is not their book and serials holdings but their
special collections.9
Building on this conventional wisdom, it seems to follow
logically that the value proposition for institutional investment in special
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The Changing Role of Special Collections in Scholarly Communications
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DECEMBER 2009 RESEARCH LIBRARY ISSUES: A BIMONTHLY REPORT FROM ARL, CNI, AND SPARC
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