• Our Reading Rooms Are Empty: Digital Access to Materials in Special Collections and Archives

    “User demand for digitized collections [from Special Collections] remains insatiable.”

    Taking Our Pulse: The OCLC Research Survey of Special Collections and Archives

    Actually our reading rooms aren’t empty; they are bursting at the seams.  Special collections’ and archives’ use statistics zoom up each year.  In fact, we set an all time record for research visits, research hours, and circulation in October at MARBL. And yet . . . I can’t shake the nagging feeling that special collections libraries have been bypassed – left behind – because our access model is obsolete.  The age of the internet, mobile devices, social media, e-readers and the insatiable demand for digitized collections has laid bare for all to see that our ‘consulting-manuscripts-and-rare-books-in-a-staid-and-rarified-reading-room’ model is nothing but a late 19th century genteel tradition that is desperately in need of modification.  So what now?  We have content – lots and lots of rare and unique content relevant to the humanities – but how are special collections going to deliver it?  I’d love to hear thoughts, advice or even rants about this because, after all, we have nothing to lose but our 19th century chains.

5 Comments


  1. randygue says:

    I just came across this post about the large scale digitization of manuscript collections at The University of Chicago Library’s Special Collections Research Center: lib.typepad.com/scrc/2010/11/digitizing-archives-and-manuscript-collections.html

    Interestingly it says that “The digital images are being made available via the online finding aid for each collection. This will recreate for the online user the experience of a researcher encountering the original materials in the SCRC Reading Room, with documents displayed as they are housed in each folder, and with description of the contents in the form of folder headings.”

  2. Profile photo of mebrett mebrett says:

    Just speaking from a user perspective, part of the problem with some special collections libraries is that their finding aids and catalogs are only available on-site. I’m less concerned with the digitization of the material (that would be nice, but expensive) than just getting the finding aids online.

    VIVA here in VA is a good example of how finding aids online can made special collections more accessible. The fact is, it is easier for me to justify travel time and expenses to my museum if I can show that the material we need is there, rather than just saying “Well, I hope so.”

  3. I would like to participate in this discussion too. There is another discussion on the classrooms of the future (and today). Would you consider folding this topic into that one? As your concern is about providing access to special collections, I think it would be nice to have the perspective of instructors on this issue and talk about how we can help in integrating primary sources in an online or in-class environment.

  4. One of the ongoing discussions that both troubles and interests me is whether digitized library items should be provided in the form of “collections” at all. Some in the library world argue that users just want access to the stuff, a la Google, while others feel that the context surrounding a particular library item can be as significant as its specific content and should be provided to the digital user. As a cultural historian with a museum background now working in a library–and a context geek–I’m totally on the keep collections together side of things. But I am also intrigued by both sides of the discussion, and wonder if it isn’t a relevant addition to the issues you mention here.

  5. randygue says:

    Chella55555, Jeffery and I plan to combine the sessions. However, footnote, I am very interested in the issues you have brought up – maybe we could have a separate session surrounding the digital collections issue?

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