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Special Collections: Past Meets Future: A Harvard Library Strategic Conversation

Sarah Thomas and the University of Chicago’s Alice Schreyer trace the evolution of special collections from forgotten stockpiles to celebrated treasure troves, and what that means for research libraries.


November 11, 2014—“Don't throw the past away / You might need it some rainy day,” sang Peter Allen. “Everything old is new again.”

The adage has certainly proven true for libraries’ special collections. Their transformation from untapped wilderness into researchers’ wonderland was the focus of a recent Harvard Library Strategic Conversation with Sarah Thomas, vice president for the Harvard Library and Roy E. Larsen Librarian for the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and Alice Schreyer, interim library director, associate university librarian for area studies and special collections and curator of rare books at the University of Chicago Library. The talk was moderated by Tom Hyry, the Florence Fearrington Librarian of Houghton Library.

Since special collections today touch almost every area of library development and innovation—digitization, born-digital materials, space management and transformation, discovery systems, outreach, curriculum support—they are often at the figurative center of the library and can be a galvanizing force for innovation throughout the system.

It wasn’t always this way. Thomas delved into the relatively recent reputation of special collections as “Siberia”—an exile for maladroit librarians stewarding musty old materials, made further impenetrable by restrictive and Byzantine access policies. As card catalogs moved online and collections became increasingly available for research, teaching and learning, people began to seek the unique, and the treasure troves of special collections were rediscovered—transforming Siberia, in Thomas’s parlance, into a library’s Shangri-La. (View slides from Thomas's presentation here.)

But while new appreciation for the antique, rare and one-of-a-kind has been a boon in funding and revitalizing special collections, they still face structural and cultural issues. Restrictive access policies intended to protect materials sometimes undermine valid research; acquisitions made with a “hoarder mentality” inadequately consider the time and funding needed to make collections available; hours sometimes don’t accommodate an audience accustomed to constant and instant access.

Scale is the central issue in many of these questions. “We need to move from being so rule-based to being problem-based,” said Thomas. “How can we manage to be protective of our collections while bringing one-to-one interactions to become one-to-many interactions?”

Any solutions will require a shift in thinking, priorities and workflow, and will not be possible without collaboration and innovation, Thomas said: “I do think we’re going to have to take technology and couple it with human expertise to circumvent these barriers.” Not everything can be done perfectly, she said, but balance is the goal. Among others, Thomas cited the Schlesinger Library’s Maximum Access Project and the Smithsonian’s Transcription Center as examples of successful innovative approaches that have one core focus and do it well.

“I’ve done some things that were pretty heretical,” Schreyer admitted, like leaving students and instructors alone with rare materials to save staff time and costs. “I’ve privileged use. If something happens—and we do have a couple of manuscripts that get used a lot and have shown wear and tear—that’s something our conservators can take care of.”

In her remarks, Schreyer explored the role digitization has played in making libraries into laboratories for the humanities. “The transformation of special collections has been intentional,” she said. “We have abandoned the show-and-tell, stations-of-the-cross model of the past.” Instead, users are able to create their own experience of digital materials, often for purposes the author never intended.

Initial concerns that digital surrogates would diminish interest in original materials are gone; instead, they frequently bring new interest in the original. But digitization has become an expectation. “It’s no longer an add-on or a luxury,” Schreyer explained. She said the changed expectations have altered libraries for the better in some cases, sharing a fantastic story of quick code-cracking of the annotations in a 15th-century Homer text using digital resources. “We need to remember that discoveries are often the result of intangible benefits. Original research depends on rare books and manuscripts that do not divulge their secrets at first glance.”

“Special collections were once considered marginal and elitist, but now they are at the heart of what we do. Practices that developed out of the analog age are being superseded by technological innovations to open up our collections on a scale heretofore unimaginable,” said Thomas, noting the new audiences and uses that have grown up around digital access. “As we move from individuals to teams of people, so are institutions shifting from site-specific to very global horizons. Now no one would characterize special collections as Siberia. It’s that wonderful peak we hope to scale with earthly delights and spiritual rewards awaiting us.”

Please join us at three upcoming discussions to revisit the topics of each of this fall’s Strategic Conversations on December 3, 11 and 17. Look for more information soon on the Library Calendar.