AE Monthly

Articles - November - 2005 Issue

An Interview with Terry Belanger of the Rare Book School,<br>Recipient of $500,000 MacArthur Award

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We then asked Mr. Belanger outright whether he considered digitization a threat to rare book libraries. This is not a new topic, as he has been addressing the issue for the past couple of decades. He sees this as a balance between the need to preserve original materials, the need to make their contents available to as many people as possible, and the reality that the local funding needed to support collections in rare book libraries is, in many cases, drying up. Digitization means, in the eyes of some institutions and contributors, less need to fund rare book collections. Mr. Belanger explains, "Perhaps the single greatest challenge rare book libraries have always faced is that their holdings, however important a part of the world's cultural patrimony, must almost always be supported locally. Throughout much of the twentieth century, American university research libraries were typically housed within institutions with ambitions to grow and improve themselves. The argument, 'our library is bigger than your library,' could be - and indeed was - used in much the same way as the argument 'our football stadium is bigger than your football stadium' was used; and research and rare book operations had a lot of support at the local level.

"The digitization of original research materials is changing the rules. Now, it's the number of online services a library subscribes to that's more likely to be the selling point, rather than simply the number of books the library owns. The scene began to alter significantly in the 1980s; by the 1990s, most American rare book and special collections were growing faster than their staffs, a situation that has continued and worsened in recent years. When measured against the growing size of collections, institutional support for rare book libraries is declining.

"I don't know that rare book libraries will change significantly what they do. They will continue to try to preserve original materials and make them accessible, just as they've always done. Their strong current emphasis, reasonably enough, is on making original materials more accessible through digitization. But be that as it may, collectively speaking, rare book libraries are not thereby absolved of their responsibility for the physical care of the original materials in their possession." He concludes, realistically and, undoubtedly, prophetically, "It's going to be tough."

As we said, this is not the first time Terry Belanger has spoken about the changes that electronic copies would bring to libraries. In 1991, he gave the Malkin lecture (still at Columbia then) on the topic of "the future of rare book libraries," and his words were as predictive as they were blunt. At the time he said, "I am convinced that rare book libraries both in the United States and worldwide are in fact at the beginning of a succession of cataclysmic transformations. The most important of these changes will be caused by the increasing disinclination of most general research libraries over the next several decades to continue to maintain large, permanent collections of paper-based books of any sort, rare or non-rare."

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