Monday, November 15, 2010

The Age of Special Collections

 Last week R2 visited the Five Colleges libraries in western Massachusetts: Amherst, Smith, Mount Holyoke, Hamphsire, and the University of Massachusetts. The week's work took us, among other places, to Special Collections & Archives in each of the institutions.

At UMass, I witnessed first-hand the sheer effort now going into digitization of the papers of W.E.B. DuBois, the Library's namesake. Over 50,000 items are being scanned, described, and prepared for presentation on the web sometime in 2011. Special Collections staff have created a Fedora-based hosting and presentation environment that will bring these papers to life and to the world at large in a way they have never been before.

At Smith, I looked closely at page proofs from the American edition of Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse, amended in her own hand in purple ink. I also looked at the way these and other Woolf artifacts had been used to create excellent exhibits to accompany a 2003 conference of scholars at Smith.

At Hampshire, graduating seniors produce final projects known as "Div III's" that can take not only written form, but might include dance or musical recitals, art exhibitions and other difficult-to-capture forms.

At all five libraries, the role of the library in preserving and curating archival material is being reconsidered, refined, and retooled for the digital age.

And, although the content is unique, this story is not. Library after library seeks the time, talent, and space to make its treasures discoverable. Archives and Special Collections, along with institutional repositories, are areas where libraries will distinguish themselves in future, as print collections and commercial electronic resources become ever more widely shared.

This emphasis on primary materials will inevitably draw staff, financial, and systems resources from other library collections and service areas. To enable this digital renaissance of unique content, libraries must continue to find ways to handle mainstream content more efficiently.

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