“I’m beginning to think that what’s wrong with special collections and archives today is that they are considered special. They are set aside, revered and left as the last great mystery the Library holds. The collections themselves are special in that they are rare, unique, fantastic and archaic and they do need special handling and care. However, our regard for these materials has enabled us to treat them so differently that they are not accessible. We have locked these materials up in our processes and our delivery services, which has kept them out of the mainstream of information available to knowledge seekers. They are only rarely seen as part of the knowledge building conversation and it is because of how we (as librarians and archivists) treat them and present them. We treat them as special in the sense of ‘separate,’ ‘extra,’ ‘having special needs’ instead of special in that they are what make our library special as ‘distinctive signifiers,’ ‘our enduring core’ and ‘our unique contribution to the world of knowledge.’
As librarians and archivists redefine ourselves and better articulate how we add value, as we break down long established barriers in our processes, spaces and services, we need to include our most unique collections. We regularly leverage quickly evolving trends in the information environment by refocusing on the needs and preferences of our users in the context of very real competition and economic difficulty. In this framework, libraries can embrace their special collections and archives as a locus of distinction, experimentation and core value. The time has come for libraries to integrate special collections into the flow in every aspect of our work…
For libraries to contribute effectively to knowledge-building in their communities, the constructed partition that has set special collections aside as ‘special’ must be dismantled. It is time to integrate the selection, description, research service and technological activities in every library with those needed to connect users to our most distinctive, unique collections. Libraries must recognize that while the collections are special and even have special needs, the talents and skills needed to expose them are found library-wide. Additionally, many special collection materials are now born digital and do not require physical segregation in our traditional Special Collections units. Further, enterprise-wide effort is even more critical to born-digital collections’ exposure and survival. Users just want the best information for their task and they want it to be available all in the same place.
…Special Collections and Archives may sense a loss of their unique identity during such a transformation. Partners in other library units may resist activity previously outside their purview. Yet sharing responsibility for our distinctive, valued and unique collections will raise the profile of the whole library and, most importantly, benefit our users...”