Automation traditionally has been viewed as an inappropriate means of control of the unique item in special collections libraries because of its fundamental requirement of standardization. However it has come to be viewed as an excellent means of control of and access to these item by curators who view the special collections library as a system precisely because of standardization. This study looks at the issue of standardization in the application of computerized automation--specifically to rare books and art objects--and at some recent examples of those applications in both North America and Western Europe.
Historically, automation has come late to special collections, even later than to libraries generally. The primary reason for this tardiness, which may turn out to be advantageous as computer applications become over time more refined and more economical, lies in the apparent nature of the two entities: special collections materials are by definition rare or unique items that do not on first sight lend themselves readily to the standardization characteristic of computer technology. For example, the benefits derived from the shared cataloging of current materials via national bibliographic database utilities like OCLC and RLIN are not easily applicable to unique copies of rare books, manuscripts, or archives. Furthermore, standards of bibliographic control become irrelevant when applied to works of art and other museum objects.
Additionally, curators of special collections have been characterized, accurately or not, as obstructionists when confronted with the possibilities of automation: "These attitudes [of curators] seem to reflect a kind of institutional parochialism and lack of vision with regard to the role of special collections as a national research tool and not just a local resource or private treasure. This parochialism combines in some cases with a competitiveness with other special collections, a general unwillingness to engage in cooperative projects, and a highly developed chauvinism about the importance of their own collections," according to Steven Paul Davis. On their side, curators and archivists are frequently mystified by the inability of librarians to comprehend that rare books, manuscripts, and archives are not just peculiar entities whose descriptions should be distorted until they fit those of current monographs.
The major issues in the computerization of special collections are fundamentally a single issue, that of standardization. Although seen as a problem by some special collections curators, standardization via computer technology is, according to those curators and archivists cited in this paper, an excellent means of control of the unique materials found in special collections libraries. They share the view that a special collections library, like any organization, is a structure of interrelated systems with repeated functions that lend themselves to automation. Whether the function has to do with acquiring the items in the collection, establishing a form of inventory control, providing access to and information about the collection, administering the collection, or fitting the collection into its place in larger systems, certain aspects of each function lend themselves to the standardization that is fundamental to the computer. The machines and the software already exist in a bewildering plethora of choices, and new ones are being announced every day. The fundamental issue is that of perspective: approaching the special collections library from a systems point of view and then making appropriate decisions about which automated tools to choose in order to accomplish the objectives of the particular special collections library regarding its clientele and resources. The problem is the solution.
The recent history of the standardization of bibliographic control of rare books dates from the mid-1970s. According to John B. Thomas, III, librarian of the University of Texas at Austin and chair of the Standards Committee of the Rare Books and Manuscripts Section of the Association of College and Research Libraries, "descriptive cataloging codes for preparing machine-readable records for many types of materials (including rare books) began to be created soon after the first presentation by IFLA [International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions] of the International Standard Bibliographic Description for Monographic Publications or ISBD(M) in 1973. …