sponsoring this forum. But why are the present and future of these collections of
such intense and compelling interest to the organization I lead, the Coalition for
Networked Information? Our mission is to advance scholarship through the cre-
ative use of digital content and advanced information technology. Put simply,
special collections are a nexus where technology and content are meeting to
advance scholarship in extraordinary new ways. We can see existing special col-
lections are being supplemented and expanded by digital representations of the
physical materials; tomorrow’s special collections will include a growing propor-
tion of material that has always and only been digital. Information technology is
reshaping both stewardship and use of these collections. This essay is a brief,
high-level summary of many of the ways in which this is happening; it empha-
sizes examples rather than comprehensive surveys of developments. Many of the
points outlined here are explored in much more depth in sessions at the forum.
First, and foremost, there is the responsibility of stewardship. For our existing
special collections, the creation of digital representations2 of physical materials
offers new pathways to help ensure the survival of the materials in these collec-
tions. The digital representations are not substitutes for all purposes, but they can
be duplicated and replicated in sites around the world with perfect fidelity and at
relatively low marginal cost. The digital representations are both robust and frag-
ile in the way that digital things are, and these strengths and weaknesses are very
different from those of the physical collections; given both the physical material
and its digital representations, chances are much better that something will survive.
With the born-digital materials that will comprise tomorrow’s special collections,
we face new and different challenges in ensuring the long-term integrity and sur-
vival of these materials. For cultural memory organizations, these stewardship
obligations are paramount—and make no mistake: now that the technology is
available and increasingly affordable and well understood, the creation and geo-
graphically distributed replication of digital representations of unique treasures is
fast becoming an obligation of good and responsible stewardship.
Technology is transfiguring our existing physical collections in every
dimension: our understanding of the materials, the potential uses and users of the
materials, the relationships between the local special collections and the collective
worldwide archives of cultural memory. Digital representations are in most regards
and for most purposes at least as good as the physical originals (though, as Walter
Benjamin has famously observed, they lack the majesty, the aura, of the artifact3).
Indeed, practically speaking, digital representations often offer a better engagement
RLI 267
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Special Collections at the Cusp of the Digital Age: A Credo
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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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