Saturday, November 28, 2009

Review of Celebrating Research: Rare and Special Collections from the Membership of the Association of Research Libraries

Celebrating Research: Rare and Special Collections from the Membership of the Association of Research Libraries

My review of Celebrating Research: Rare and Special Collections from the Membership of the Association of Research Libraries. Edited by Philip N. Cronenwett, Kevin Osborn, and Samuel A. Streit. (Washington, D.C.: Association of Research Libraries, 2007).
Published in Libraries & the Cultural Record, 44(4) 2009.

To commemorate its 75th anniversary, the Association of Research Libraries (ARL) published a book displaying a robust array of holdings from 118 member libraries in the United States and Canada. Celebrating Research: Rare and Special Collections from the Membership of the Association of Research Libraries presents richly illustrated and highly readable profiles selected by Philip N. Cronenwett, Special Collections Librarian Emeritus, Dartmouth College Library; Kevin Osborn, Research & Design Ltd.; and Samuel A. Streit, Director for Special Collections, Brown University Library.

In the introduction, Book Collector editor Nicolas Barker recounts ARL’s history and his experience working with many collections in the volume. He commends ARL’s leadership to “grow and develop local assets into a whole that is one of North America’s greatest cultural assets” (25). Special collections “encompass the distinctive, the rare and unique, emerging media, born-digital, digitized materials, uncommon, non-standard, primary, and heritage materials” (5). Their purpose has shifted since ARL’s 1932 founding, notes Barker: “Where once special collections were regarded as the top dressing on the solid cake of main library management, they are now regarded as distinctive signifiers, almost trademarks ... ARL libraries want to be known for their distinctive collections, not by some characteristic shared by every other library” (15). Indeed, the showcased collections are only a sampling of the substantial holdings of research libraries.

Arranged alphabetically by institution name, the two-page profiles include a description of the collection’s acquisition, development, and use, captivating photographs, and a web address. The profiles cover the range of human achievement and experience in the arts, industry, and science. The collections bear evidence of the cultural history of specific groups, including African-Americans (Emory University), Chicanos (University of California, Berkeley), German and Jewish intellectual émigrés (State University of New York, Albany), Italians (University of Wisconsin, Madison), and women (Duke University), among others. A full range of artistic expression is represented, including alternative press (University of Connecticut), comic art (Michigan State University), and New Orleans jazz (Tulane University). The eclectic and unexpected include public health films (National Library of Medicine), human sexuality (Cornell University), and the 19th century spiritualist movement (University of Manitoba).

The collection overview section summarizes the additional special holdings of contributing libraries and contact information. A subject and proper name index completes the volume, to assist in identifying similar collections at different institutions. The collections are also available online and through the volume’s companion website,

As compelling as the collections themselves are their origins from passionate individuals driven to preserve memory. For instance, the University of Alberta’s 2,300 volumes on North and South American aboriginals was collected by Gregory Javitch, a Russian Jew who fled France to Palestine to escape the Nazis, and then immigrated to Canada. His experience created sympathy to the displacement and genocide of indigenous civilizations of the Americas, and he collected rare books about them, which were donated to the university in 1980. Similarly, enthusiastic collector George Harry Beans, a seed company owner, knew no Japanese, yet composed a world-renowned collection of Tokugawa Era maps, held at the University of British Columbia Library. Stories of equally ardent librarians and archivists are also included. For instance, University of California, Irvine, librarian, Anne Frank founded and almost single-handedly nourished the school’s Southeast Asian Archive during her 40-year tenure. Donald G. Wilson, a librarian at University of California, Riverside, acquired—under initial ridicule—the J. Lloyd Eaton Collection of Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror, and Utopian Literature, the largest publicly accessible collection in its field. Exuberant collectors can also become curators, in the case of Professor Ruth M. Baldwin. The Baldwin Library of Historical Children’s Literature at the University of Florida Libraries began as a birthday gift from her parents and grew to 100,000 children’s books published between 1668 to the present; Baldwin became its curator in 1977.

Celebrating Research: Rare and Special Collections from the Membership of the Association of Research Libraries represents a spectrum of collections from antediluvian items to the future of knowledge preservation such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s DSpace@MIT, a digital research repository, and Wayne State University’s Digital Dress: 200 Years of Urban Style, a digital image collection of American and European garments. The volume, highlighting the exceptional collections of North American research libraries supporting current and future scholarship needs, is recommended for academic and public libraries and museums.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

What is the biggest unsolved issue for digital preservation?

The biggest unsolved issue for digital preservation is advocating and enforcing better ways that it continues throughout the lifespan of a digital document. Preservation should not become an “add-on” feature for born- or made- digital items.

As Lavoie and Dempsey point out, digital preservation has been treated as a solitary, technical problem, rather than an issue of digital stewardship. They write, “…digital preservation is not an isolated process, but instead, one component of a broad aggregation of interconnected services, policies, and stakeholders which together constitute a digital information environment.” The authors believe the preservation is not about rescuing endangered materials, but about managing digital items from their creation to assure their future. Digital preservation is a social, cultural, legal, and economic process, not just a technical one.

Conway offers a similar view of preservation when he writes that, “in the digital world, preservation is the creation of digital products worth maintaining over time.” In breaking down that sentence, he notes that long-term preservation must begin at system design. In the context of digital conversion, preservation must not be a process delayed until technical solutions are developed. Instead, items that have enduring information value must be selected for preservation.

Digital stewardship comes into play because there must be strong relationships between preservation purposes of the digital product, the characteristics of source materials being converted, and the capabilities of scanning technologies available. Responsible custody of information must be present throughout the lifecycle, maintaining over time the value of the document.

Rosenthal et al. defines the goal of a digital preservation system is to make information “remain accessible to users over a long period of time.” They point out that problems stem from the fact that the time that a digital item should still be accessible will outlive computer equipment, systems, and formats.

In their summary of threats and strategies, the authors note that problems do not stem from purely technical obsolesce or failure. Natural disasters, attacks from outside and inside the system also affect preservation. Budgetary and organization problems also affect how information in digital form also influences preservation. Digital preservation costs money, especially compared to physical preservation; compare the astronomical costs of power, cooling, bandwidth, and system administration of preserving digital film as compared to preserving physical film in cold storage. Again, digital preservation must be envisioned as a strategy to create holistic, flexible systems that will continue to keep a digital item usable. Digital preservation is a commitment for the long haul, cooperatively shared by stakeholders.

Works Cited

Conway, P. “Overview: Rationale for Digitization and Preservation,” in Handbook for
Digital Projects: A Management Tool for Preservation and Access. 2003.

Lavoie, B. and Dempsey, L., “Thirteen Ways of Looking at … Digital Preservation,” D-Lib Magazine 10:7/8 (July/August 2004).

Rosenthal, D. et al., “Requirements for Digital Preservation Systems,” D-Lib Magazine, 11:11 (November 2005).