Because special collections in the humanities, social sciences, and the sciences
are full of primary-source materials, they are the fuel of scholarship in these
areas. However, before making investments in them, libraries must answer:
How would the investment advance existing lines of inquiry and open new
ones? How would it make scholars and students more productive? Let me now
offer for your consideration three potentially fruitful areas of activity for
enhancing the value of special collections.
Processing Special Collections
First, while there are many well-known, well-described, and heavily used
special collections, the overwhelming problem that many research librarians
have articulated in multiple conference papers and reports is the mountain of
collections that remain unprocessed. Carol Mandelreferred to the problem
memorably as being like the “unwelcome white elephant” that eats you out of
house and home.21 CLIR’s Hidden Collections program is one small attempt at a
solution. Perhaps more important has been the growing adoption of the “more
product, less process” approaches that Mark Greene and Dennis Meissner have
so effectively advocated.22 Processing tools like the Archivists’ Toolkit and
Archon have emerged and developers of both products are now working
together to create a single unified product that consolidates the best features of
each and is better designed to operate and
interoperate with related open source tools such
as OLE, the Open Library Environment, and
CollectionSpace, which is a museum-oriented
system. We still lack the equivalent of a
bibliographic utility for the detailed descriptions
of special collections.23 And because there is such
a mountain of materials to be processed, not as much attention has been focused
as it should be on methods for efficiently determining priorities.
With Mellon support, a number of institutions have experimented with
assessment tools to determine priorities for processing various types of
collections. Although these tools now need to be accumulated, evaluated, and
appropriately refined, libraries do need to use them more widely because it is
amply clear from early experiments that they help focus library attention on the
needs of scholars. Deep knowledge of the collections is simply not sufficient for
determining priorities for processing. Priorities must also be assessed against
RLI 267
36
The Changing Role of Special Collections in Scholarly Communications
(
C O N T I N U E D
)
DECEMBER 2009 RESEARCH LIBRARY ISSUES: A BIMONTHLY REPORT FROM ARL, CNI, AND SPARC
Deep knowledge of the collections is simply not
sufficient for determining priorities for processing.
Priorities must also be assessed against criteria of
scholarly value
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