Special Collections
at the Cusp of the
Digital Age: A Credo
Clifford A. Lynch, Executive Director, Coalition for Networked Information
This essay is an expanded and annotated version of my remarks at the opening of the
October 15–16, 2009, ARL-CNI Fall Forum, “An Age of Discovery: Distinctive
Collections in the Digital Age.”
ach great library has its own unique character; special and
distinctive collections have always been integral to shaping this
When ARL came to recognize its semi-sesquicentennial
anniversary in 2007, it did so with a magnificent volume titled Celebrating Research:
Rare and Special Collections from the Membership of the Association of Research Libraries.
Such collections link research libraries directly to the core missions of the
academy: research, teaching and learning, and public engagement;
simultaneously, they represent unique responsibilities for research libraries as
stewardship institutions for cultural memory within our society broadly. Leading
scholars throughout the centuries have attested to the importance of these
collections to research; while humanists are most prominent here, speaking
sometimes of great research libraries as the “laboratories of the humanities,”1 these
collections are in fact vital resources across all disciplines, including the sciences.
Such rare and distinctive collections are not, of course, the sole province of
research libraries; numerous other academic, public, and special libraries hold
important collections of unique materials. Indeed, responsibility for such
collections is not limited to libraries: archives, historical societies, and museums
have long served as faithful stewards of such collections, and, particularly as we
move into the digital age, there is a growing convergence of vision and of
opportunities to advance scholarship emerging across the spectrum of such
cultural memory organizations. Private collectors have also played a crucial role
in the chain of stewardship.
Today, at this forum, we explore the present and the future of such collections.
It should be absolutely obvious why the Association of Research Libraries is
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