Rationale for Special Collections | Definition of Special Collections | Managing Special Collections | Selecting Materials for Special Collections | Sources for Arizona and Southwest Materials | Further Information | Self-Assessment #9
Rationale for Special Collections
The term “special collection” has come to mean a great many things and as the definition has become less specific and increasingly misunderstood so has the rationale for special collections. In general, a special collection is necessary for one of two primary reasons:
- A collection contains such rare, valuable, and truly unique materials that the items need to be placed in a secure location with environmental controls to preserve the items for posterity. Such collections are often placed in a “rare book room” or other separate facility within a library where there are humidity and temperature controls, air cleaners, security alarms, and staff with specialized skills as archivists. In such collections, access is strictly controlled so that those using the materials may be required to wear gloves, to use only pencils to take notes, and to refrain from photocopying any item.
- A collection is built around a single idea or subject and it is a benefit to the scholars and others who might use the collection to locate it in a separate part of the library. It may or may not have any special restrictions on use and it often does not have any of the environmental controls one associates with archival collections.
Thus special collections are for the benefit of the users and/or for the benefit of the materials themselves. They should never be created just for the convenience of the library staff members.
It is important whenever we are tempted to create a special collection that we ask ourselves the following questions:
- Are the materials themselves at risk and therefore we need to do something “special” to protect them? If yes, then
- Are we able to protect them appropriately? If not,
- Why are we keeping them?
- Should they be given to another library or sold?
- Are they part of a special subject collection but need restricted access for security?
- Are we interested in protecting the item itself or preserving its intellectual contents?
- If we want to protect the item itself, we may have to find a better home for it.
- If we want to preserve the intellectual contents for use, we might consider having it microfilmed or digitized. If the contents are digitized it may be possible to make it more widely available through the web.
- Are the materials rare and valuable (noteworthy) intellectually and as artifacts of their time period, culture, and type?
- If so, we may need to find a new home for them if we cannot provide the environmental and security safeguards necessary to protect them.
- If they are “interesting” but not of particular importance or great rarity we might keep them as examples but not worry too much about their physical state.
- Do we have such depth of subject coverage across many classification areas that we need to pull these materials together in one place rather than leaving them in the regular classification and subject arrangement in the collections? Will this make it easier for users to do research and to find what they need? If yes, then
- Decide if they are merely to be put in a designated place in the library but with open access by all or if they are to be put in a secure environment (a locked case, a special room, another location).
- Decide and write the policies for use, checkout, photocopying and any other related topic so that everyone will be clear about their status.
While special collections can often be justified and can be worthwhile, we often make our collections harder to use rather than easier to use by isolating selective topics. Keep in mind that with our electronic catalogs it is now possible to do key word searching and subject searching in ways that were denied us in the older linear world of catalog cards. Materials can be easily identified by or for the researcher by using our sophisticated bibliographic records in electronic form. In the past, unless we put the materials together it was difficult to identify all the items that dealt with our state history, environment, culture, education, health care, etc. That is no longer the case.
Special collections should remain special and not be created in situations where the library does not have the resources to adequately manage such a collection. Use the questions above to help you decide if having a “special collection” is justified in your situation. Do not confuse the concept of “special collection” with the concept of "collection emphasis" or “collection priority.”
Definition of Special Collection
From the above discussion it should now be clear that a special collection is one that is sometimes a rare book collection. Such collections treat books as historical artifacts and employ specialists to manage the collections in a protected environment ideal for the preservation of these artifacts. Such collections are usually the purview of national libraries, state libraries, historical societies, and research institutions. They are seldom in public libraries with the exception of places such as New York Public Library.
Secondly, a special collection is one that is defined by virtue of the unifying factor of a single topic or subject. Such collections might center on a single person such as “Abraham Lincoln” and contain biographies, histories, photographs, autographs, newspaper clippings, etc. They might contain not just the print record associated with Lincoln but they might also contain artifacts such as campaign buttons or even letters. A special collection might center on a topic such as local history—very appropriate for a public library. If that is the case, then it is essential for the library to define in its collection development policy exactly what the intent of the collection is to be (purpose), what types of materials are to be included or excluded (scrapbooks from clubs and community organizations such as 4H, AAUW, etc., the minutes of town meetings, ordinances, letters, high school yearbooks, telephone books . . . and on and on). Furthermore, the library needs to define what is meant by the term “local” because these collections often tend to expand around the edges and become less and less focused over time unless the policy is well written. Is local for your library the county? Is it the town and the valley in which the town is located? Be quite specific.
A common but often poorly defined and even more poorly managed collection is the so-called “state collection” found in many public libraries. A small public library in Illinois might have an “Illinois Collection” and a similar library in Arizona will have an “Arizona Collection” that may or may not have restricted access. Since the Dewey tables give each state (and county and major city) its own classification number, the majority of the materials related to a particular place (history and geography) are already in a single location within the library. It is not necessary to put these materials in a separate location unless there are unique materials that need protection or there is such a large amount of material that is scattered elsewhere in the Dewey schedules that it justifies bringing these materials together in a “special collection” for all aspects of the state’s history, culture, geography, geology, educational and religious developments, literary survey of authors, etc.
Define any type of special collection by putting a verbal fence around. You can do this by writing a clear policy statement that first describes the purpose or rationale for the collection and includes the benefits of creating a separate collection for these materials. Secondly, the policy statement should define the boundaries for the collection. Such boundaries may be geographic, topical, chronological, linguistic, or consist of any number of other types of boundaries. For example, if the library is going to collect fiction by state authors, one must define what constitutes a state author:
- Does one have to have been born and raised in the state but one can write about anything?
- Does one have to write about the state but it does not matter where the author was born and raised or where one lives at present?
- Are the boundaries for this collection and the material to be included in it some combination of these ideas?
- Does this fiction circulate? (If not, why are you collecting it if I have to sit in the library to read it?)
Thirdly, the policy statement should determine the location of the collection if it is to be located in a separate room, a secure case, or somewhere else in the library. Next, the policy should simply state any unusual restrictions for the collection. The actual procedures for obtaining access or for checking out these items do not have to be in the policy statement.
And lastly, the policy should address:
- Any special funding that might be earmarked for purchases and maintenance of this collection.
- Any special handling of items in this collection (designated with a bookplate, special spine label, no spine label, a special ownership stamp, etc.)
- Formats acceptable for this collection but keep in mind that to provide access to these materials and to do the collection justice everything will need to be cataloged in some manner:
- Published books
- Journal articles
- Newspaper clippings
- Will duplicate copies be provided for some materials so that a copy will be held in both the special collection and the circulating collection?
Managing Special Collections
Managing a special collection requires that the following be in place:
- Policy defining the special collection within the collection development policy. The policy will include these elements:
- Location of the collection
- Any restriction on size or rate of growth dependent upon the reasonable space allocated to the collection
- Authority for the management of the collection should be a designated person or position;
- Statement about duplicates;
- Statement about appropriate or excluded formats;
- Statement defining funding source for this collection (regular materials budget, endowment, other?)
- Statement about how these materials will be designated (bookplate, spine label, special stamp, etc.)
- A statement about collection maintenance. In other words, will this collection be managed according to the general collection maintenance guidelines or are there special guidelines regarding preservation, repair, and withdrawals?
- Procedures guiding the access and use of the special collection need to be clearly stated as part of the circulation procedures and may need to be part of the technical services procedures as well.
Selecting Materials for Special Collections
Identifying materials for a special collection such as a state or local history collection requires some extra time and skill by the selector. Most of these materials are not going to be reviewed in the standard library reviewing sources. Many are published locally or are prepared by governmental or educational institutions. The following are some of the resources to consider when selecting for such a collection:
- Reviews and advertisements in local and major city newspapers in the state.
- The websites for the state historical society, archives, and museums of all types in the region.
- The websites of publishers within the state which might include the state historical society.
- The bookstore at one of the major state universities (visit at least once a year).
- State historical journals or newsletters from regional or local history societies.
- Local bookstores, the grocery store, and anywhere else in town where local material is likely to be sold.
- Local governmental offices.
- All local telephone and other directories, membership lists, alumni information.
- Make a friend of the high school history teacher and involve him/her in helping you identify appropriate items.
- Use your Friends group to help you identify community members who have potential items to donate to the collection.
- Identify unique types of sources that warrant investigation for your local history collection.
In selecting for a special collection we are usually less interested in “quality” and more interested in the topic being covered. Many local histories are done by would-be authors rather than widely published authors. Many are even self-published so that little editorial control was exercised in the publishing process. We still want these materials if we are trying to build a fairly comprehensive collection of materials for local history.
And please do not invent a new classification scheme to use to arrange your special collection. Dewey will work just fine unless you have a truly in-depth and very large collection that exceeds a thousand items in a very narrow single subject.
Sources for Arizona and Southwest Materials
For materials especially related to Arizona and the Southwest or for regional publications anywhere in the country, always consider your state’s historical society or its equivalent and the state museums, if any. Their websites and gift shops will feature many books, maps, recordings and posters that have are related to regional history and culture. In Arizona, for example, the Heard Museum and its shops sell dozens of appropriate books for a local library’s collection emphasis on the Southwest and Native American cultures. In addition, the Arizona State Museum at the University of Arizona sells the Arizona Archaeological and Historical Society’s quarterly journal, Kiva, not only as a regular subscription but it also sells individual issues on specific topics. There are many small publishers who specialize in materials that may be useful for your local interest collection. You can often identify them by checking out the books at a museum bookstore.
The following information will be of special interest to those in Arizona and the Southwest, but you will find similar small presses and even university presses that specialize in your region of the country. For books on the Southwest, try Dream Garden Press, Coyote Press, or Red Crane Books. Scholarly and Southwest books are published by the University of Arizona Press. The University of Nebraska Press publishes many books on the West and Native American history and art many of which relate to peoples of the southwest. The Arizona Highways site has an extensive gift catalog which includes hardback and paperback books on Arizona. Bilingual (English-Spanish) books can be found at Neoclassic E Press. For Latin American books in English translation, try Latin American Literary Review Press. If your collection includes Mexican topics, check out Espadana Press for books on Mexican missions.
American Library Association. Reference and User Services Association. (2005). Guidelines for establishing local history collections (Rev. ed.). Chicago: American Library Association.
Banks, P. N. & Pilette, R. (eds). (2000). Preservation: issues and planning. Chicago: American Library Association.
Balloffet, N. (2005). Preservation and conservation for libraries and archives. Chicago: American Library Association.
Conrad, J. H. (1989). Developing local history programs in community libraries. Chicago: American Library Association. [very good despite age]
Ogden, S. (1999). Preservation of library & archival materials: a manual. Andover, MA: Northeast Document Conservation Center.
Phillips, F. (1995). Local history collections in libraries. Englewood, NJ: Libraries Unlimited.