What makes special collections so special, anyway?
I’ve been hanging out at the University of Iowa’s Special Collections department lately. My husband is doing research on a copy of the Rhetorica ad Herennium dating from 1340 CE, and I often find myself tagging along. The Iowa Ad Herennium is a beautiful thing, and there’s something magical and transfixing about being able to hold anything, especially a book, that’s nearly 700 years old. I must admit that being in the Special Collections space brings to mind specifically rare books and manuscripts and a sense of luddite-ism. You check your bag, pens, and liquids before you enter – only laptops and pencils allowed. Special Collections is an especially quiet place in the library, complete with an air of I-know-something-special-because-I’m-in-here, that certain smell of old (really old) books, and an affable dowdiness found only in certain deep reaches of academia.
As a Library and Information Science (LIS) student and a data curation fellow, I must confess I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about special collections, or rare books and manuscripts. It is part of my field that, for better or worse, I just don’t have much interaction with at this point, not unlike my colleagues who are training to be K-12 librarians. I’m friendly to their work, and recognize it as sibling to my own. I just happen to find myself awash in the digital, enamored with things like user experience, interface design, metadata, and systems analysis.
So I was interested this week when the New York Times did a story on Emory University’s preservation and presentation of their collection of Salman Rushdie’s archives – not only his papers, but his digital files, and his actual computers. In fact, you can see an emulated environment of his first computer, his Macintosh Performa 5400 at a researchers workstation at Emory. (Read the NYT article, and watch the excellent NYT video with screencasts from the emulator.) And where’s this collection housed? The Manuscript, Archives and Rare Book Library (MARBL) – in special collections.
It might seem odd that such highly digital, tech-forward work is being done in an area of libraries that – to be frank – would seem to prefer the physicality of paper and the cult of the tangible over bits, bytes, data and devices. But if being in library school has taught me anything, it’s that librarians and information scientists are often not what they seem, stereotypes be damned. According to the bloggers from OCLC Research, the debate over if special collections is the place for digital “stuff” is certainly not new. Last October, the Association of Research Libraries hosted a conference in D.C., An Age of Discovery: Distinctive Collections in the Digital Age. In his remarks there, Clifford Lynch summed up the tensions between the special collections and digital worlds:
“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 geographically distributed replication of digital representations of unique treasures is fast becoming an obligation of good and responsible stewardship.”
So let’s assume this divide and debate is passe, that all special collections departments are digital friendly, and that they’re training and staffing themselves for a robust technological future. (Shall I say “Yeah, right?” Down, Cynicism! Down!) How might the increasing ability of scholars and the public to discover materials formerly limited to physical-only entities, stored in esoteric special collections, affect information behavior? The hope would seem obvious: that scholars, researchers, and other interested parties will find material more easily without expending as much effort. These knowledge seekers will no longer have to travel to musty nooks far and wide for primary and secondary documents. These seekers will also be able to know and share information about the holdings of libraries, and research topics and questions will be sparked and ignited by this knowledge of collections. This great flowering of availability will in turn result in a great flowering of important, stimulating scholarship, a more in-depth understanding of our history and world, and special collections departments will be funded adequately by their institutions because their value is recognized, appreciated, and supported. The manna rains from heaven and we all dance naked, filled with joy and love!
Or wait. Maybe we should do the dancing clothed.
It is hard to say if increased digitization and the possibility of increased access and easier discovery will be, or if it is currently, that big of a deal. After all, scholars have been finding what they need for a long time, through printed indexes of holdings and information-sharing scholarly networks. Just because you put something online doesn’t mean it is findable – if you build it, they will not necessarily come. Is your digitized collection’s interface easy to use, and if you are digitizing text, is it actually helpful and usable? (e.g. How accurate is the Optical Character Recognition (OCR) and what are the ramifications for searching as discussed here?) Is your collection’s metadata being harvested and aggregated elsewhere, or is it just on your site, a meek satellite with no force amplification? Are you tracking, analyzing, and reviewing metrics on the use of your digital collection and using that data to further bolster use, discoverability, and usability?
By way of demonstration, I propose a challenge. Without using the above link, find the digitized copy of the Iowa Ad Herennium. Quickly. Go. (Leave a comment and let me know how fast this was for you.)
Now how likely was it that as a scholar you were able to find that volume without knowing it was there, and digitized? And how likely is it that you know the digitized copy is not in the order of the physical item (as my husband’s research has found)? If you were doing in-depth research, attaching your name and scholarly reputation to said research, would you be likely to come and see the real thing? Methinks in certain fields that yes, you would need to.
I don’t mean to sound skeptical or against the digitization of works in special collections; and I do suspect that making online copies available will be helpful and very useful over time. I also believe that there will always be a need for the original object, and that they will be worth saving and using. The challenges will be to make collections quality, highly usable and interoperable, be able to demonstrate the value of both the digital and physical to host institutions, and the ability to market and promote resources (something I worry libraries, not to mention special collections, are not as good at as they need to be.)
So what do you think? What barriers exist now, and into the future, for both bridging the special collections stereotype to the digital future? Will there be a need for physical objects in an digitized future? How will information behavior change going forward? Other thoughts?
This post is, as so many of my other posts are, indebted to my colleagues in LIS590CDO, taught by Dorotha Salo, who is mentioned so often in this blog I’m considering renaming Libraries with/out Walls to “A Drooling Fangirl of Salo Rants On and On,” or perhaps “Dorothea Salo is My Hero.” Of particular note among my classmates is one Trevor Muñoz, co-author of the above-linked OCR paper, and who pointed out that the Rushdie and Updike papers mentioned in the Times article all fall under the purview of special collections. As always, a tip of the hat to you, good sir, and thank you.