Why Special Collections?

Terry Abraham
November 14, 1989

During orientation sessions to students I introduce Special Collections with something like this:

"Special Collections includes books, manuscripts, archives, historical photographs, maps, ephemera and other primary source materials. Primary source materials are those which provide first-hand documentation of past events. These research materials are frequently unique or otherwise rare, either singularly or in the aggregate, and thus: Special."

Here is an example: Quintus Curtius Rufus' life of Alexander the Great printed in Milan in 1481; a prime example of that class of books called incunabula -- a Latinate expression for the cradle of printing, meaning it was published within 50 years of the invention of the printing press. Its rarity is well documented; not only is it but one of a dozen copies in the United States, but between 1916 and 1965 only one was offered for sale at auction. As an artifact, an object of art, this book is over 500 years old; but aside from some waterstains and bookworms, it wears its age well. Compare the quality of the paper and inking, black on white, with more recent books. It is easy to see why some believe that the art of printing has never equaled the books of the fifteenth century. So, this is a very special book and its very existence speaks "volumes" to us about the nature of Special Collections.

It is as primary sources that Special Collections materials are revered. While much library research requires only secondary sources, such as books and articles in the general collection, it is important that some of the secondary sources be based on research in primary materials. Without that basis, without that touchstone of source documentation, research becomes the building of imaginary air-castles. Even worse, it becomes self-referential and introspective, with little or no connection to the "real" world.

In recent years, literary criticism has -- to many onlookers -- become private and subjective, solely an interior dialogue between critic and text. While nuances and insights have sometimes resulted from such studies, there is a growing tendency to class them with such pseudo-research as psycho-history and creationism. What is seen as the misuse and abuse of primary sources are among the major criticisms of these kinds of studies.

J. D. Salinger, among all modern authors, through active enforcement of his literary copyright in the courts, has shifted inquiry from his person to his texts. In this way, he maintains control over the world's perception of his antecedents, influences, and associates; all legitimate areas of scholarly inquiry. His overwhelming desire for privacy, which I do not deny him, again illustrates the importance of primary source materials for the study of literature and other fields in the humanities.

The importance of primary sources -- as such -- are amazingly overlooked by the public at large and -- as well -- by many in the scholarly community. Even as librarians have been frequently shunted aside by the academic community, archivists and special collections curators receive scant regard for their efforts. It is common for a researcher to loudly proclaim to reporters the happy discovery of materials "lost" in archives or libraries; materials that have been consistently described in institutional, regional, and national bibliographies and finding aids. If the high point of your professional career is the inclusion of your name in an acknowledgements page, after family, colleagues, and pets, then you are on the right elevator, the one going down.

Equally as disturbing are those scholars who do not seem able to connect their activities, once the article is published, with the larger world of scholarship. I once approached a noted scholar of modern Europe seeking the donation of his papers. I was amazed that he seemed unconcerned about their preservation and future use even as he tantalized me with descriptions of letters, memos, photographs and memorabilia of royalty and heads of state which he had gathered for his own research.

While I have my own theories about scholarly neglect, I would have thought that the fact that the Watergate, Iran-Contra, HUD, and other governmental scandals hinged to a large extent on primary sources including government archives might have prompted a greater appreciation for their importance among the general public. Beyond each specific case, however, they seem unable to extrapolate from those instances to the general principles of the importance of maintaining and preserving governmental and other records.

In my role as defacto University Archivist I often receive calls from office secretaries -- frequently denoted Secretary-slash-Records Manager at our institution -- "We have these old files that we were going to throw away and thought you might want to look through them before we do so." (In Idaho, as in so many other states, it is illegal to discard governmental office files without appropriate authorization.)

One of the goals of the Bicentennial of the Constitution was to again demonstrate to the citizenry of the republic the revolutionary impact of our written constitution -- unlike Britain's ancient but unwritten code. This country was founded and maintained -- up until recently -- on the basis of documents and documentary evidence. All of this, somehow, hasn't made much of an impression -- particularly now that we have tossed books, magazines, and newspapers aside for sound-bites on the TV.

The point here is that Special Collections, as repositories of primary source material, have a major role to play in the preservation and transmission of knowledge. Preservation, in the broadest sense, is perhaps the most visible activity of Special Collections. Special reading rooms, special facilities, special cataloging, special precautions, special rules; all are outward manifestations of the importance, the primacy, of ensuring the survival of unique and/or rare materials.

About one hundred years before Antony Zarotus printed Curtius' Alexander, the fictional abbot in Umberto Eco's Name of the Rose noted: "...a book is a fragile creature, it suffers the wear of time, it fears rodents, the elements, clumsy hands. If for hundred and a hundred years everyone had been able freely to handle our codices, the majority of them would no longer exist. So the librarian protects them not only against mankind but also against nature, and devotes his life to this war with the forces of oblivion, the enemy of truth." (1983, p. 38)

Frequently hidden from view is the role of the Special Collections in the transmission of knowledge. The principal form of this activity is in the description of the collections. Special Collections have experienced -- along with the rest of the library world -- a revolution in this area. First books, and now manuscripts and archives, are accessible through regional and national databases. In my own professional career, the first guide I compiled to a manuscript collection was composed on a typewriter and retyped and retyped until each page was nearly perfect. Later, specific inventories were prepared on the mainframe using clumsy text-handling software. Less than a decade ago, low-cost database and word-processing software on a PC as began to ease inventory and guide preparation. I can remember showing my first built-from-a-kit computer to the processors as they worked on hard-wired terminals. This year, I am directing a grant-funded project that will move data from the PC back to the mainframe in the MARC format and upload it to the Western Library Network for inclusion in the CD-ROM version of their bibliographic database.

Increased access to the holdings of Special Collections will mean increased use; for too long we have -- like Eco's medieval librarian -- guarded our treasures from all but the most persistent users. During the year I served as program officer at the National Endowment for the Humanities I gained a greater appreciation for the breadth and richness of Special Collections in our nation's libraries. The program I helped administer, the Access Category in the Reference Materials Section in the Research Division, was designed to aid scholarly research in the humanities by supporting increased access to primary source materials. Each year, the program supported between twenty and thirty projects to the tune of approximately $2.5 million. These included archival guides and inventories, subject bibliographies, and major database projects at both large and small repositories.

It seems, however, that just as the holdings of Special Collections are being included in the electronic catalogs as integral elements of the library's holdings, libraries in general -- and academic libraries in particular -- are rethinking their role as book repositories. Increased methods of access, improved techniques of data transmission, and higher costs of library materials have propelled some to suggest that libraries should stop being providers of book objects-like and concentrate on being information providers.

The "electronic library," defined as an institution "without walls and without circulating books" is touted by some futurists in the library field as the solution to all our budgetary and professional needs. William Arms, Vice-President for Academic Services at Carnegie Mellon, recently predicted cheaper storage on computer than in libraries within ten years. (Newsletter on Serials Pricing Issues, n.7, p.4) The resulting transformation of libraries will be monumental; but I can do some predicting too. In my crystal ball I see: First, the electronic library will be an incremental event; the transformation of institutions will depend on their mission and their finances (thus the change will take much longer than ten years). Second, Special Collections repositories will never become totally independent of collections of books and primary sources. And third, the word library will eventually come to mean Special Collections.

It is ironic that just as Special Collections are entering the mainstream of the library world, that stream is being channeled in a direction away from the central focus of Special Collections. Again, I point to Quintus Curtius as an example. This artifact -- with its studs and clasps -- is as much evidence of its time as the text it contains. Renaissance scholarship, coupled with the increased availability of books, revived classical texts, among them this frequently reprinted life of Alexander, a cautionary tale of martial imperialism. To bind the book in wood with protective bosses reveals both something of the dangers books were exposed to as well as some of the attitudes toward textual learning. Was it perhaps a textbook for a Milanese knight or politician? Primary sources in Special Collections, books or manuscripts, are often as important for their context or container as for their content. This volume, we must remember, was produced when printed books were as new, as innovative, and as culture-changing as the VCR is today.

The idea that the artifact is an essential part of the documentation, a part that is diminished and lost if abstracted, digitized and faxed is a tough one to get across to some. A culture which has been led to believe that an egg mcmuffin is a reasonable substitute for eggs and toast or that a colorized version of Casablanca is a legitimate motion picture experience will have some trouble recognizing the virtue of "real" books and original source materials.

Special Collections have long been seen as "museums" of the book; dusty books, dusty shelves, dusty librarians, archivists and curators. The adjective "dusty" denotes lack of use. Number of users, however, is an imperfect measurement. Alex Haley, author of Roots, was one archives user. His book, however, sold in the hundreds of thousands. The TV mini-series based on the book was seen by millions. Which number best captures the total use of primary sources?

Another aspect of the transmission of knowledge by Special Collections are public programs, receptions, lectures, exhibits, and publications. These are a natural outcome of the interaction with the special materials in Special Collections. Friends of the Library groups are frequently drawn to support the library as a whole through an interest in the special materials in Special Collections. And, I have noticed that important scholarly resources frequently gravitate towards those repositories with significant and publicly known collections. News can be defined as the non-routine and thus Special Collections -- of all parts of the library -- is the most frequently newsworthy.

In conclusion, I recall that twenty years ago when I was student in the library school at the University of Oregon I took a class in library automation. Large rooms full of humming cabinets were the norm it seemed; our textbook, I recall, was full of flow charts and pictures of key-punch machines. I contrast that with the recent report I received via BITNET from a library school student in Maryland whose automation class is studying interactive CD-ROMs, hypertext, expert systems, artificial intelligence programs, and -- of course -- electronic mail. It would be easy for Special Collections librarians to turn their back on our rapidly changing world and return two decades or so to the cloistered existence they had so long known and fostered; but it would be a denial of their responsibility to the collections. For much as we must work to insure survival of the objects, we must also foster their use. And, as you might be able to tell, I believe that use of Special Collections is the most special thing about them.

whyspcol.htm | August 1995 | tabraham@uidaho.edu | Return to Selected Papers and Presentations