By Andrew Richard Albanese — November 1, 2005
With digitization, special collections are entering a golden age of usability
Columbia University librarian James G. Neal beams as he walks past item after item on display in the school’s Butler Library, treasures drawn from the massive Brander Matthews Dramatic Museum. The collection is a veritable feast for theater scholars, including everything from rare first editions, sketches, and manuscript drafts to playbills, set designs, ornate masks, and some remarkable 19th-century handcrafted marionettes.
It is in unique collections like these that Neal sees a bright future for libraries. In fact, at the April 2005 Association of College and Research Libraries annual conference in Minneapolis, Neal told an audience of librarians that in the digital age, librarians are poised to enter a new “golden age” of special collections, spurred by digitization and greater online access to primary resources.
“Research libraries traditionally have been evaluated by how many volumes they hold, but the smallest library can eventually access as many volumes as the largest,” Neal explains, alluding to the advent of digital databases for contemporary resources. “In the future, I believe great research libraries will be evaluated more and more on their special collections.”
Here's a (from my perspective) particularly interesting example:
[Alice] Schreyer [special collections librarian at the University of Chicago] points to the Goodspeed Manuscript Collection Project at the University of Chicago. With a $250,000 award from the Institute of Museum and Library Services matched by $227,762 from the university, the project has created a remarkable digital collection of 65 Greek, Syriac, Ethiopian, Armenian, Arabic, and Latin manuscripts dating from the seventh to the 19th century, complete with software to scroll over and examine every part of the manuscripts in detail. The program, Schreyer says, began with a faculty member using the collection with a class but quickly evolved. “We really felt the research potential of the collection was of global interest to scholars, and we wanted to be able to share that worldwide,” Schreyer says. “It’s a collection that has not been heavily researched because it is all in Chicago.” It is now freely accessible, and such efforts epitomize the transformation of learning.
In a curious old-media-mindset lapse, the article neglects to give URLs or links to the projects it cites, but you can access the Goodspeed New Testament Manuscript Collection by following this link.