What is Special Collections?

Special Collections, or Spec Coll., refers to a group of resources within a library which are ‘special.’ Special Collections frequently include Rare Books, archives, and manuscripts. They can be valuable, but most frequently are rare/unique and fragile. The purpose of special collections is to care for such materials while still keeping them accessible to researchers. Special Collections have slowly developed in Academic Libraries over the last hundred years but have only been viewed as significant research resources worthy of significant development within Universities for the last fifty years or so. ALA has a full list of competencies for Special Collections librarians which can be found here.

Special Collections in general and archives in particular face a variety of issues. The first is how to describe their usefulness. They are important research centers. Special Collections may serve as repositories for manuscript and professional collections on a variety of personal and public matters. They provide the documentary evidence for research, but they also serve as cultural heritage repositories and therefore take on the responsibility of gathering and preserving records of group or individual identities. With the shifting emphasis on digital surrogates of special collection materials, Special Collections have moved into a community building (maintaining) role. As time moves forward how we see the past changes and this will affect what the public expects from Special Collections.

An interesting idea that I came across while reading for class was an ‘embedded curator.’ Lynne Thomas defines an embedded curator as one who ‘uses his or her physical presence within a selected community to document that community while simultaneously serving as a resource to it.’ Specifically Thomas uses twitter, facebook, and a blog to maintain a network of connections related to her subject area, Science Fiction. I am impressed and a little jealous (of her collection).

In class we determined that a good collection development policy is based on keeping the content of the collection relevant, keeping in mind storage space, identifying preservation issues, and planning for access. Samples of collection development policies can be seen here, here, and here. It was also brought up that a deaccessioning plan should probably accompany a collection development policy. The process of deaccessioning begins after a collection assessment / analysis. The key questions to ask when performing a collection analysis are:
  1. What are the current strengths and scope of the collection?
  2. What are the 'high spots' and what supports research / teaching at the institution?
  3. Is the collection unique?
  4. How does the collection fit the mission of the institution?
  5. Are there similar collections which will increase research potential?
  6. Does the possibility exist to acquire complementary materials and resources?

Citations –
Cook, Terry. (2012). Evidence, memory, identity, and community: Four shifting archival paradigms. Archival Science.

Greene, Mark A. (2002). The power of meaning: The archival mission in the postmodern age. American Archivist, 65, 42-55. http://archivists.metapress.com/content/l914668v881wv19n/fulltext.pdf

Joyce, William. (1988). The evolution of the concept of Special Collections in American Research Libraries. Rare Books & Manuscript Librarianship, 3, 19-29. http://rbm.acrl.org/content/rbml/3/1/19.full.pdf+html

Taylor, Marvin J. (2002). I’ll be your mirror, reflect what you are: Postmodern documentation and the downtown New York scene from 1975 to the present. RBM: A Journal of Rare Books, Manuscripts, & Cultural Heritage, 3, 32-52. http://rbm.acrl.org/content/3/1/32.full.pdf+html

Thomas, Lynne M. (2012). The embedded curator: Reexamining documentation strategy of archival acquisitions in a web 2.0 environment. RBM: A Journal of Rare Books, Manuscripts, & Cultural Heritage, 13, 38-48.

Have a great day and keep smiling! :)