The Digital Age Comes to the Ivory Tower - <i>A visit to some public and private special collections

- by Susan Halas

Noimage


Born Digital Means a Shift in Focus
This group is avidly interested in the world of technology and its implications for libraries. Pitschmann was one of several who used the term "Born Digital," to refer to the whole generation coming up that has always used the computer and other electronic devices as their primary means of getting information. "We're finding that all our university libraries are technology driven, collaborative, multi media, and much more heavily used than in the past," he said.

"The majority of our users prefer the digital format," said Minnesota's Hedin, "They find it easier to use and easier to search. It also saves wear and tear on the primary source material."

"We have a compelling mission," said Liza Kirwin, curator at the Archives of American Art. She stressed the immediacy of the digital technology saying, "When we get a new donation we don't wait five years to put it up. It's important to have access right away."

The enormous push to digitize books has had a corollary effect of shifting the acquisitions spotlight to other kinds of materials, especially unique items like manuscripts, diaries, or letters. Special collections are also seeking photographs, scrapbooks, broadsides, or similar ephemera that help add depth and focus to their other holdings. "Manuscripts, sound recordings, pictures, illustrations, you name it, we're interested," said Bliss of the Bancroft Library.

He, like others, was quick to point out that the move to put entire collections on-line has not in any way diminished the interest in the specialty reading room. "The Bancroft has one of the busiest university rare book rooms in America," he said, estimating "over ten thousand in-person visitors there annually."

Special Collections Aren't Poor & They Are Selective
While money is tight all over, it is not nearly as tight at the special collections as it is in other parts of the library world. Many mentioned an income stream from endowments and grants. Others pointed to generous benefactors. Alabama has allies at the legislature "where the library budget has been increased every year for the past ten years." Some like the Cherokee Nation are fortunate to have income generating for-profit businesses which help support their cultural and heritage acquisitions.

But all the curators and librarians who spoke with AE Monthly were tactful but emphatic about one thing: Not all gifts are created equal. While they might fight tooth and nail to buy (or have donated) something really desirable, they will decline gifts that don't fit their needs or wants. However, in some cases they may help the donor find an appropriate home at another library or institution.

Making Use of Special Collections
Whether you're a dealer or collector or just someone with a question special collections welcome your interest. There are however some provisos:

If you plan to visit in person and you want to have your research materials ready for use when you get there: Do call ahead. Do make an appointment. Do realize that some of these collections are vast and spread out over many buildings. Be sure to allow sufficient time for the things you want to be found and assembled for your use.

Also, despite the emphasis on on-line and electronic technology, don't be surprised if everything isn't digital yet. There's still a great deal of microfilm and its older cousins out there and you might find that what you want is provided in these older formats.