As I visit libraries around the world and throughout the country, I'm constantly impressed with their unique and special materials as much as with their collections of published materials. Often when I visit a national library, I regard myself as fortunate when it shows off some of its most valuable and revered treasures. These special collections include artifacts produced by scholars, literary figures, government leaders, or other prominent individuals or organizations that made important contributions to society. These manuscripts, photographs, correspondence files, and physical objects have long been the focus of archives, museums, and the special collections units of libraries and other cultural institutions. Many also manage rare and valuable printed materials, ranging from incunabula, rare editions, early newspapers or periodicals, and other published works too valuable or fragile for general access in a library's circulating collection.
One organization with which I am familiar deals with both traditional library materials and with archival collections. It uses the terminology "published versus unpublished" materials to differentiate these two categories, with the library part of the organization managing published materials and its archives specializing in unpublished works. While there might be some gray areas, these categories have been helpful to me as I think about the similarities and differences between libraries and archives or the other special collections units within libraries.
In recent years, many of these special collections have also had to extend their efforts into the digital realm. Since the creation of content has been performed for a few decades now through some form of computer technology, it's not at all surprising that these special collections are now seeing increasing proportions of their acquisitions arriving in the digital form, and the digitization of extant materials for access and preservation has become a routine activity.
Computer-oriented materials that might find their way into a special collections unit can be incredibly challenging to manage, to enable access, and to preserve. Some of the materials acquired into special collections today may have been created during the earlier phases of the computer era. They might be files stored on media that has long been considered obsolete. It's easy to imagine that a retiring professor, for example, will turn over early article drafts, correspondence, and data stored on floppy diskettes that were widely used in the 1980s. But a library today would not likely have computers available that could physically read these files, much less handle the word processing formats created by the software of that time. The various combinations of computer storage devices and file formats used by authors over the decades present some very challenging problems for those needing to gain access to the information they contain today. Dealing with such materials often takes special equipment and technical expertise, performing activities that might be characterized as digital archaeology.
Websites and other dynamically generated content repositories present another set of difficulties to an archivist. The legacy of a scholar or researcher might, for example, include a database-driven website. An entity of this nature might consist of a physical server and multiple software components in addition to the actual data and textual content. Each of these components may have a very limited practical life span relative to the very long time frames in which archives aim to preserve them. How can custom-written software as well as the standard software components be maintained in perpetuity to provide access to the digital legacy of these resources? Some data might have been created through proprietary software that may require license keys for ongoing access.
It may be even more complicated to deal with digital heritage of recent vintage. …