I hear it said often that the thing that will distinguish academic libraries in the future will be their special collections of unique material, since Google books or some other cloud-based providers of published content, both journals and monographs, will be available everywhere and the static collections of physical objects in libraries will sooner rather than later be a thing of the past. Only the unique material in special collections and archives will be maintained as locally-held collections. Now I don’t necessarily expect this to happen within the next five years, but it does seem to me that we are very close to, if not beyond the point of no return for paper-based library collections–at least in the minds of students. I think tablets and e-readers (which I think are the salvation for newspapers and popular magazines) will finally bring us to the end of the age of paper in libraries and books that has been so long predicted.
But that’s another story. It is arguable that the quality and uniqueness of a library’s special collections will not necessarily be the defining factor in the reputation of academic libraries, especially if those collections are not generally available electronically. But even so, the paradigm is still somewhat flawed since it is based again on the idea of libraries being storehouses of collections instead of conduits of information and resources.
In the Dark Ages when I was in graduate school and I typed all my papers on an electric typewriter, I needed to go to a nearby University to consult some material in their Special Collections. In order to do so, I had to get a letter of introduction from the librarian at my institution, assuring them that I was a “serious researcher” and worthy of admission. This didn’t bother me a bit, since that seemed to be the normal course of events when doing research in archives, I was just happy that this was within driving distance of my home, or else I’d have great difficulty getting to this resource, being the poor graduate student that I was.
Nowadays, any number of personal papers collections are not only online, but full-text searchable and manipulatable in a number of ways. People doing research of all sorts, “serious” or not, can have access to a multitude of online resources without mediation from archivists or librarians. Or, if they so desire, they can get assistance remotely in a variety of ways. With only a few important exceptions, online access is far preferable to travel for most scholars.
But is merely offering online access to your collections enough? I don’t think so. That would just extend the old paradigm to the electronic medium. Interconnecting local resources with resources in other repositories has always been the goal of archives and special collections, going back to NUCMC, and the traditional practice of printing repository collection guides and disseminating them to other libraries. So again, we see that the digital world is not all that different from the paper world, it is just that the means of transmission and exchange has changed and become more versatile.
So, we want our unique content to be as ubiquitous as possible, discoverable and citable by as many researchers and scholars as possible, and usable and reusable as well. That will make our collections important and provide a measure of value to our institutions.
That being said, I’ll add that discovery alone is not enough, our technology must support use and reuse in multiple forms and formats needed by our researchers. A letter or text might offer for use or download, not only a “page turning” facsimile version of the original, as well as an XML version of the text itself and perhaps a jpeg2000 version as well that could be used in other systems. While the object itself is unique, its discovery should be ubiquitous and its available forms should be as varied as we can support so that the unique object can have as many applications as possible.
This approach is possible now with tools and systems that are commonly available, but usually beyond the reach of the special collections or archives alone. Collaborating with larger IT infrastructure providers, either in the local institution, or possibly out in the cloud will help us to leverage our unique content and make it ubiquitous.