by Daniel D. Stuhlman
Library Special Collections
Every institution, business, library and even personal collection owns items that have value as artifacts not just as intellectual materials or ideas. Electronic storage of information will never replace the need and desire to hold the physical objects and artifacts associated with personal, organizational, or societal history. These collections may include books and other media that have a special value because of their age, rarity, or previous ownership. The collection may include unique manuscripts such as letters, notes, and documents. These archives or special collections contain items that the organization or person wants to keep safe for a long time, yet may not need immediate or daily access.
In the library the items designated "special collections" include items that are the show items. These are items that the library will treasure and display, but not loan. The task of a librarian is to balance the need for preservation with the desire to show, use these materials, and make them available to scholars and researchers. Here are some examples of materials and how they are displayed. A library owns a copy of Profiles in Courage by John F. Kennedy. This is a very common item that went through many editions and is available today in English several editions. If your library has the Hebrew translation with President Kennedy's autograph upside down (because he didn't know Hebrew) this item is unique and belongs in special collections. Books before a certain date such as 1800 belong in special collections because of their age and need for special care. Receipt books, transaction reports, and business records belong in the institutional archives. Some libraries have items that are valuable because of their previous ownership. If that owner was famous or connected to the institution, the value is enhanced and the item deserved special care. Owning a large number of books on a single subject does not mean they belong in "special collections."
There is a difference between examining an artifact from another era and just reading a copy, a contemporary edition, or an electronic copy. When examining an artifact the feel is different. Scholars examining illustrated items will be able to identify the pigments and inks. This may yield information on the making of a book or manuscript. When put into the context of other documents from the same time period, the analysis of the physical materials adds to our understanding of the era and the information trade. The experience of examining an artifact involves all the senses.
Most large research libraries have special collections they are proud to show off. Materials are frequently chosen to be on display. That is the way the general public views the materials.
Rules of access to the room and materials vary from open access (i.e. just show up) or requiring scholars to make advance appointments. The justification to see materials varies in strictness. Some libraries allow browsing; some require a justification for scholarly research. They all have additional security measures in addition to he normal library security. The climate control is appropriate for the type of materials. Because of the unique or fragile nature of some materials libraries limit the photocopying of materials. The library may also restrict the copying for publication of materials, since they own the copyright. Some libraries limit note taking to pencils and will not allow cameras in the special collections reading rooms. These restrictions are in place to protect the items so that future scholars may have access to them.
Below is a sample from my personal special collection. This, gilded postcard, is one of 44 Biblical scenes in my collection. Below are two example pictures. The first is the Akedat (Sacrifice) of Isaac. The text says: "Abraham-Abraha ne extendas manu tuam super puerum.(Abraham extends his hand above his son)." The second picture is Rebbecca giving water to the servant of Abraham. The text says: "Rebecca dat potu seru o-Abrahe 7 camelis suis (Rebecca gives drink to the seven camels of the servant of Abraham.)" The picture is from the 12th century S. Maria Nuova church in Monreale, Sicily, Italy. The postcards are taken from the church's dazzling mosaics. The church has 130 individual mosaic scenes of Biblical scenes. The clothes look more 12th century and Biblical. The pictures start with creation and end with Jacob's fight with the angel. My father obtained these postcards when he served in Italy during World War II. Today these postcards are worth over $100 each.
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©2005 by Daniel D. Stuhlman.
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Last revised May 21, 2005