Magazine article American Libraries

Isn't This Special?

Magazine article American Libraries

Isn't This Special?

Article excerpt

This guest issue moves to the beat of a different drummer. Instead of rounding up the usual topics on special collections--preservation, digitization, collecting, etc.--we focus on some new twists to this important area of librarianship. Of the four feature articles, one challenges the profession to change its act on rare-book collecting; another offers a possible model for the future development of special collections; a third shows how it's possible for two libraries in two starkly different countries, one rich, one poor, to collaborate and build a viable special collection; and a fourth highlights some private collections located in a charming southern city steeped in tradition.

Mark Herring tees off with an iconoclastic but thought-provoking article, which, no doubt, will unsettle many a library director, trustee, or special-collections librarian. The piece has a simple but blunt thesis: Not every library can adequately maintain a rare book collection, so why don't those that can't just not try? Herring has no quarrel with those special collections that preserve the "faded photographs of the mayor in a one-library town," but he does with those that don't have the money, means, or collection policy to handle adequately the truly rare and important stuff.

Herring articulates his point well. As a special-collection librarian, I have often thought about who is better served when a small, underfunded, and understaffed special collection eclectically acquires rare materials: the public or the library's ego? Now, thanks to Herring's timely article, the issue is out of the closet and ready for professional examination.

An alternative to competition

Rare-book collecting can be a competitive world of Hobbesian dimension, where two special collections often chase after the same pricey material. Costs of the material, however, are skyrocketing, while special collections' acquisitions budgets shrink, so such intense competition can be counterproductive and a drain on limited resources. What's the alternative? Barbara Jones and Paul Saenger's article shows how it's possible for two special collections to collaborate effectively for the benefit of each other as well as scholarship.

Jones and Saenger are librarians at the University of Illinois/Urbana-Champaign (UI/UC) and the Newberry Library in Chicago who are involved in an unusual venture: the joint purchasing of rare material. The project meets two goals: allowing scholars to use original materials while addressing the special-collections problem of declining purchasing power. …

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