The Collaborative Imperative:
Special Collections in the
Digital Age
Anne R. Kenney, Carl A. Kroch University Librarian, Cornell University
he recent ARL-CNI Fall Forum, “An Age of Discovery: Distinctive
Collections in the Digital Age,” offered a wonderful venue to
the role of special collections—both physical and digital—
in an age that places emphasis on ubiquitous access, social networking, and the
promise of Web 2.0. The forum included presentations by scholars, librarians,
curators, and technologists, and the place was packed. A number of themes
emerged during presentations and the ensuing Q&A sessions, including calls
for greater collaboration across institutional boundaries as well as with content
creators and users. It was not lost on most attendees that the kinds of issues
being discussed would not have been seriously considered by many even five
years ago. Much has changed, but one thing is clear: as special collections face
a new renaissance in the Digital Age, research libraries are challenged to
reconsider institutional practice, and especially the collaborative imperative
that connects institutions, digital communities, and the users we serve.
Digitizing Special Collections
“…large-scale digitization is an exciting option that will almost certainly
become a fact of life for a significant number of special collections
librarians and archivists in the near future.”1
The recent report on special collections in ARL libraries noted that the focus of
large-scale digitization increasingly will be on special collections materials as
the sweep to digitize general stack collections comes to an end. Certainly special
collections have been digitized over the past two decades, but the scope and
expense associated with mass digitization is out of reach for most research
libraries without external funding or external partners. The collaborative
imperative should bind research libraries together as we move into the era of
mass digitization of special collections and permeate our relations with
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