“Don’t throw the past away / You might need it some rainy day,” sang Peter Allen. “Everything old is new again.”
The adage has certainly proven true for libraries’ special collections. Their transformation from untapped wilderness into researchers’ wonderland was the focus of a recent Harvard Library Strategic Conversation with Sarah Thomas, vice president for the Harvard Library and Roy E. Larsen Librarian for the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and Alice Schreyer, interim library director, associate university librarian for area studies and special collections and curator of rare books at the University of Chicago Library. The talk was moderated by Tom Hyry, the Florence Fearrington Librarian of Houghton Library.
Since special collections today touch almost every area of library development and innovation — digitization, born-digital materials, space management and transformation, discovery systems, outreach, curriculum support — they are often at the figurative center of the library and can be a galvanizing force for innovation throughout the system.
It wasn’t always this way. Thomas delved into the relatively recent reputation of special collections as “Siberia”— an exile for maladroit librarians stewarding musty old materials, made further impenetrable by restrictive and Byzantine access policies. As card catalogs moved online and collections became increasingly available for research, teaching and learning, people began to seek the unique, and the treasure troves of special collections were rediscovered — transforming Siberia, in Thomas’s parlance, into a library’s Shangri-La.