collections is that such investment is worthy because it will enhance the
distinctiveness of the institution.
A Critique of the Conventional Wisdom
This conventional wisdom about the distinctiveness of special collections
compared to the commonness of book and serial collections certainly provides a
useful heuristic and helps focus much needed attention on the requirements for
building special collections into more useful scholarly resources. However, there
are a variety of dangerous traps in the logic about common and special
collections. First, system-wide analyses of research library holdings have
suggested that books and serials that are being digitized are not so commonly
held in libraries as one might have expected.10
With the lack of overlap, libraries cannot readily
assume that their physical copies are represented
in the common online collections, are held
physically elsewhere, and thus can be readily
discarded. Instead, the digitization process may be accelerating the process of
converting books and serials from circulating collections to collections of
artifacts that need special treatment.11 The most logical special treatment is not
simply moving these artifacts into off-campus shelving but into more deeply
rationalized and cost-effective shared shelving. In September 2009, both the
Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) and the University of
California received grants from the Mellon Foundation for separate but
complementary, multi-institutional efforts to define the terms of and conditions
needed to accelerate research library use of deeply shared storage facilities.
This work builds on extensive previous work, especially by the Center for
Research Libraries, the University of California, and OCLC’s Programs and
A second concern about the distinction between common and special
collections is whether common collections that move online still require careful
metadata treatments. Google, Amazon, JSTOR, and others with large
aggregations of books and serials now provide access to inverted indexes,
frequency analyses, and certain kinds of dynamically computed metadata such
as a list of older works cited by a particular work and newer works that cite it.
These search and discovery tools are proving to be a boon to scholarship.
However, moving book and serial collections to the network has amplified,
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
…there are a variety of dangerous traps in the
logic about common and special collections.