Five Theses on the Future of Special Collections

“Preservation without use is an empty victory. It ought to be our primary purpose at all times to minimize barriers to use …”

“[It is] crucial to reach out and demystify special collections, to convey the message: ‘Please touch. This is here for you. You are special enough for special collections’.”

So says John Overholt in a provocative conference summing up*.  He believes that the future for special collections must be about openness (setting texts free to be transformed) and advocacy (demonstrating that they are central to mission and relevant to students).

Look at this lovely ROUND book! It’s from the Unibibliothek Wurzburg, dated 1569-70 and I found out about it via a tweet from @damienkempf. Openness and new tech like social media are bringing early books and manuscripts to new audiences in fun and exciting new ways.  Find out more about this fantastic object here:

I agree!

I think many UK special collections librarians and archivists would come to similar conclusions.  At conferences and meetings I hear again and again how much my colleagues value use of collections over preservation for the sake of it, how they see and want to show their importance to their organisations’ missions.

Maybe the piece isn’t so provocative after all – we are making these things happen already.  Witness all the outreach that goes on, the teaching in universities and schools, mass and boutique digitisation, use of Flickr commons etc etc. There’s much more work to be done of course, but I think we are heading in the right direction.

PS The author makes particularly strong points about institutions adding to the copyright “morass” by claiming copyright – I’ll be writing more about this important and contentious issue soon!

*The article is freely available online via DASH (Harvard’s digital repository) and in RBM: A Journal of Rare Books, Manuscripts, and Cultural Heritage Spring 2013 (access now for subscribers).


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