The Significance of Special Collections


The title of this presentation, “The Significance of Special Collections,” is a statement of fact. But is it also a question? As a declaration it reaches a dead end: either special collections are significant or they are not. But as a question, it opens several lines of inquiry. For example, significant to whom or to what? And significant in the past, in the present or in the future? Or for all time?

Garrett Park Archives, where I work, is a type of special collection. We have a small library, a stock of town records dating back to the incorporation of the town in 1898, some artifacts, and some donated private collections which include residential files, records of various civic groups, and oral histories. Our nearby  neighbors in Kensington, Rockville and Chevy Chase call their collections historical societies, and that, in essence, is what we are, a historical society, a memory institution.

A special collection is significant as a memory institution to the community it covers and represents. In the case of Moorland Spingarn, that community is Howard University students, faculty and researchers, in particular, and the community of people of African descent in general.

I read in the Libguide that Moorland Spingarn Research Center is comprised of four content units: the university archives, a library division, a print and photo unit, and a manuscript division. And a fifth unit consists of digital collections, both born digital assets and items digitized on site. This brings us to an additional significance of a special collection.

For promoting access, for preservation considerations, for space and cost constraints, digitization is by all accounts the path forward. Digitization of records and actual items across content types, like books, photographs, manuscripts, archive and museum artifacts presents a great opportunity to apply common cataloguing standards and common taxonomies that will serve as a multiplying effect for additional access opportunities for students, faculty, researchers, and community users, both on site, and in an online environment.

Additionally, it could provide avenues for cooperation and collaboration across institutions in the future that may or may not exist in the present. I am thinking here about the Library of Congress and the massive universe of Smithsonian museums. But this also could include smaller institutions and learning centers as well.

Of course, digitization is not a panacea. We are already seeing digital decay in degradations in the quality of storage media (try playing that CD you bought twenty years ago). File glut, bit corruption, hardware failure, and obsolescence of formats over time are all examples. Document formatting changes over time. In general, entropy rules – things gradually decline from order to disorder.

Even the internet is not a cure all, though from where we sit it looks like it may last forever. One internet guru says, “If it doesn’t exist on the Internet, it doesn’t exist.” He points out the obvious, that access to special collections on the internet can promote greater access to that collection. But he makes a more significant point – when the collection is also connected to a learning institution, there are added benefits: the institution gives added credibility to the online resource, and the online resource brings a much larger audience of students, scholars and researchers to the learning institution. Without going into too much detail, a center like Moorland-Spingarn connected to Howard University has built-in advantages that a larger center like Schomburg lacks.

Finally, much of my MSLIS course work revolved around a growing trend of convergence across cultural heritage institutions, galleries, libraries, archives and museums. I am including a list of readings from various courses at the end of this presentation. Convergence ultimately results in the creation of a networked information society with online access to all facets of information in the social and informational space. The opportunity to approach and take part in this convergence movement may be the greatest significance offered by special collection, a significance shared equally by staff, students, faculty, scholars and the community at large.

Thank you for this opportunity to have this conversation.

References and additional reading

Bray, David (2007) ‘Knowledge Ecosystems: A Theoretical Lens for Organizations Confronting Hypertubulent Environments,’ in IFIP International Federation for Information Processing, Volume 235, Organizational Dynamics of Technology-Based Innovation: Diversifying the Research Agenda, eds. McMaster, T., Wastell, D., Ferneley, E., and DeGross, J. (Boston: Springer), pp. 457-462. Accessed January 14, 2019 at http://dl.ifip.org/db/conf/ifip8-6/ifip8-6-2007/Bray07.pdf

Erway, Ricky, and Jennifer Schaffner (2017) ‘Shifting Gears: Gearing Up to Get into the Flow’. 2nd Ed. Dublin, OH: OCLC Research. doi:10.25333/C3159X. Accessed January 14, 2019 at https://www.oclc.org/content/dam/research/publications/2017/oclcresearch-shifting-gears-second-edition-2017.pdf

Fox. Robert (2011) “Forensics of digital librarianship”, OCLC Systems & Services: International digital library perspectives, Vol. 27 Issue: 4, pp.264-271, https://doi.org/10.1108/10650751111182560

Goldsmith, Kenneth (2007) ‘If it doesn’t exist on the internet, it doesn’t exist.’ Poetry Foundation, March, 2007, Accessed on January 14, 2019 at https://www.poetryfoundation.org/harriet/2007/03/if-it-doesnt-exist-on-the-internet-it-doesnt-exist.

Gorzalski, Matt (2016) ‘Archivists and Thespians: A Case Study and Reflections on Context and Authenticity in a Digitization Project,’ The American Archivist Vol. 79, No. 1 Spring/Summer 2016 161–185, Accessed January 14, 2019 at http://americanarchivist.org/doi/10.17723/0360-9081.79.1.161

Marty, Paul F. (2009) ‘An introduction to digital convergence: libraries, archives, and museums in the information age.’ Museum Management and Curatorship Vol. 24, No. 4, December 2009, 295-298. Accessed January 14, 2019 at https://marty.cci.fsu.edu/preprints/marty_mmc2009.pdf .

Trant, Jennifer (2009) ‘Emerging convergence? Thoughts on museums, archives, libraries, and professional training’, Museum Management and Curatorship, 24: 4, 369 — 387. Accessed January 14, 2019 at https://courses.ischool.berkeley.edu/i290-ppos/reading/EmergingConvergence.pdf

Author: Raymond Maxwell

https://raymmaxx.wordpress.com/ Librarian, archivist, retired foreign service officer and Navy veteran.

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