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.


I am in my third class in the MSLS program at Catholic University and I anticipate completion by December, 2014. I am also on terminal leave in advance of retirement from a 21 year career in the Foreign Service. My next career goal is to work as an information professional in a small or special library setting in a position that may lead to entrepreneurial opportunities within five years.

Thoughts about my interest is special libraries take me back to weekly, Saturday-afternoon visits with my father and sister to the Carnegie Negro Library in my hometown, Greensboro NC, in the early 60’s. It was a special library inasmuch as it served a special population at a special time in U.S. history. My father would park us in the basement where the children’s books were shelved, while he withdrew to a cubicle upstairs to work on his Sunday School lesson plan for the next day. In the late 60’s, with the integration of the library system, that special library was acquired by the Greensboro Public Library and became a branch library accessible to all Greensboro citizens. In high school I got my first real job there as a library page.

Years later, I would seek refuge at small libraries on U.S. Navy bases, far from the roar of main engines, air compressors, and hydraulic plants, my primary occupation at the time, as I climbed my way through the enlisted ranks. The thought occurred to me to create a small borrowing collection on my ship, a thought which thrilled the base librarians to the point that they provided donated books to help me get started. When we got underway, I “ran” the crew library, between watches and drills and equipment maintenance emergencies (of which there were always many!), a very special, special library (to use the term loosely).

And in my most recent employment, through a domestic assignment as special assistant to the Assistant Secretary for Administration, I was fortunate to become involved with the Ralph Bunche Library, a fascinating collection of books, documents and artifacts at the Department of State. Among other things, I couldn’t believe there were no links to Ralph Bunche on the Department’s internal homepage, previous attempts to do so getting lost in the bureaucracy. Forever the iconoclast, I used an old Navy trick of pretending to speak for my boss to get a good thing for my shipmates: I phoned the Department webmasters and told them the Assistant Secretary (my immediate boss, their boss several times removed) wanted to know why he could not find a link to the Ralph Bunche Library on the Department homepage. That same day, three links appeared, all occupying prominent real estate on the page, and to this day, one link remains.

Special libraries are, by definition, more nimble, flexible, agile, and responsive to the needs of the population they serve, and less encumbered by the rigidities inherent in massive bureaucratic organizations. I had a handful of interests that “called” me to the library and information profession. Many of those interests revolved around knowledge management and continuity of information in the business operations of overseas embassies. But several of my interests were and are less global (although perhaps, in a manner of speaking, more): the growing digital divide; the growing gap in information literacy between the haves and the have-nots, and even between the haves and the haves, and the impact on society overall; the policy of outsourcing information control to massive private companies like Google, or even of scientific information to companies like Monsanto; and the growing threat to our constitutional right to information as the key to social and professional mobility. These diverse interests hardly translate into a single goal, but a lifetime of goals. And as this is my third career, I don’t have a lifetime left, maybe thirty good years, at best. So I should chose my goals wisely…

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

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

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

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

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

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 .

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

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