“Fifteen years ago I remember seeing it on that top shelf, the fourth from the window, right at the back, and the title tag had just ‘A Dissertation on Tactics’ on it. Let me get it for you. I don’t expect it’s been moved since then.”
-Sulpicius in I, Claudius, by Robert Graves.
Here is where people,
One frequently finds,
Lower their voices,
And raise their minds.
One frequently finds,
Lower their voices,
And raise their minds.
-Richard Armour, Light Armour
Special collections or rare book rooms play an unusual role in public services. They are a source of pride, image and, occasionally, value to both the library and the community the library serves. Even small public libraries open only a few hours a week often have one shelf, in a secure area, where one or two books of special value to the library reside. The value is not always monetary; it can be informational or even psychological in nature. Like the old family Bible, retained because of age and its record of the family, communities and organizations frequently have materials that carry special meaning and that may only exist in one copy. Preserving and protecting these items is one of the primary purposes of special collections.
The terms rare book room and rare book collections are inappropriate for many collections, if “rare” means monetarily valuable. A better and more comprehensive term is special collections; it is the term that is gaining general acceptance. The term does not identify a single format. Most rare book collections contain many types of material: manuscripts, photographs, other objects, and memorabilia. In many ways the library’s special collection is society’s equivalent of an old home attic, filled with material of special meaning and importance. Undoubtedly, without special collections, knowledge of our past would be less complete and likely much less interesting. Individuals lucky enough to work in special collections have an opportunity to handle and study pieces of our past.
One trend in this area, especially in academic libraries, is a combining of the institutional archives program with special collections. This makes sense, especially in an era of limited funding, and both functions have many common elements. Combining the staff of the two functions often results in increased service capability. Preserving institutional history is often a challenge due to the need to create and maintain a balance between a dumping ground for overflowing office file cabinets and assuring that important documents do become part of the permanent collection. A factor in this challenge is the fact that many organizations do not have a record managements program. The result is confusion in the mind of the user between archival functions and those of records management. A records management program assures that the institution complies with a host of codes and regulations that require the organization to retain certain types of documents for prescribed periods: personnel records, invoices, accounting records, and so forth. The key is to remember that a records management program does not assure there will be a retention of documents of historical interest. Records management retention schedules also serve as the maximum time an organization must keep the material. Many organizations dispose of the records as quickly as possible.
A rare book collection and/or other “special materials” are important parts of any special collections. If the library collects (as it should) local history materials – books, booklets, pamphlets, and so forth – even the smallest public library special collection can have research value beyond its modest size.
Role and philosophy of special collections
Preservation and controlled access to items of unusual value are the major functions of special collections. An important secondary role is to assist in or be the focal point of the library’s overall preservation program. Special collections can and should house and provide access to those materials requiring special handling and treatment different than what items in the general collection receives. Frequently the unit is responsible for the acquisition and processing of these materials as well, again because of their atypical handling requirements.
While most of the material housed in or acquired for special collections is old, age alone is not a deciding factor. Something may be more than 100 years old and yet not be appropriate for the collection, while something produced yester day may be the most appropriate. The two basic factors for inclusion are, first, the item’s suitability for the library’s collection, and second, its need for special handling to assure long-term preservation. If an item fits both criteria, it should be in special collections.
Staff who work in special collections are custodian in t he same sense as the old phrase for a librarian, “keeper of the books,” conveyed. Few school media centers or community college learning resource centers have special collections of the type covered here. Some special libraries, especially those with a records management responsibility, will probably engage in many of the activities of special collections, at least for the organization’s historical records.
The majority of special collections, in the sense used here, are in public and academic libraries. In the majority of libraries with special collections, however, this activity usually constitutes neither a separate administrative unit nor an area with a significant expenditure of money. The Molokai Public Library (located on the island of Molokai and part of the Hawaii State Library System), for example, has a special locked glass case that contains a few hundred items. Most of the items relate to Molokai but a few are general Hawaiiana. In essence, it is a small local history collection containing primarily commercial publications. It also is probably the world’s only collection of publications produced by the Molokai service clubs, churches, and other local organizations. What other agency is likely to care about, much less acquire, a copy of the Molokai Lions Club’s recipe book? For the residents of Molokai the library’s glass case special collections is a source of local history and information. The items in the case do not circulate and customers surrender their driver’s license or library card before they may use the books. Often, there is a second copy of the item in the circulating collection which, if dirty and worn pages are valid evidence, receives heavy use by the community. This pattern, with minor variations, occurs in thousands of libraries across the United States and around the world.
At the other end of the spectrum are the large libraries. The Newberry, the Huntington, and the Folger Shakespeare libraries, for example, are, for all practical purposes, solely special collection operations. In between the giants and dwarfs are hundreds of general libraries with separate special collection units with budgets, modest or not, for the purchase of materials for inclusion in their collections. It is this mid-range group that are addressed in this chapter. These libraries are the ones in which a library staff member who becomes involved in special collections activities is most likely to work.
Special collections is the area where one sees the difference between contemporary public service philosophy and the pre-twentieth-century literary philosophy. The phrase ‘keeper-of-the-books’ was used for the people in charge of libraries well into the nineteenth-century. All too often today ‘keeper-of-the-books’ generates a negative image or reaction. Such a response is unfortunate and inappropriate. What we have are two different, and equally valid, philosophies about the purpose of libraries and their primary societal role. As the head of the LMU Archives and Special Collections stated, “It has been my experience that users do not resent this (very controlled access) but seem to feel t hey have been privileged by gaining access to something important and special.”
Today the predominant philosophy is that collections are for use; the materials should be as accessible as possible. Potential use is a major factor in deciding to add an item to the collection. The general attitude is that using a book to pieces is better than having it sit unused on the shelf. Ranganathan’s five laws sum up current thinking about library collections and services:
1. Books are for use.
2. Every reader his book.
3. Every book its reader.
4. Save the time of the reader.
5. A library is a growing organism.
S. R. Ranganathan, Library book selection (New Dehli: Indian Library Association, 1952), 35-61.
However, in special collections, the goal is to preserve the work, both its physical being and its information, by limiting access to essential, rather than casual use.
The role of the keeper of the books was to preserve what was a scarce commodity. And, while it was true the keeper’s primary duty was to know where every book in his care was, providing some access to these ma trials was also part of his duties. (Note: In the case of pre-nineteenth-century keepers the pronoun “his” is correct both literally and grammatically, because almost all of them were males.) Kenneth Carpenter recounted what is very likely an apocryphal story of an encounter between Harvard librarian John Sibley and President Charles Eliot in 1858. The story is that one day President Eliot met Librarian Sibley briskly walking across Harvard Yard. Mr. Sibley was smiling and when asked where he was going, he supposedly said, “The library is locked up and every book is in it but two, and I know where they are and I am going to get them.” Mr. Carpenter’s comments about that story clarify the role of the nineteenth-century librarian: “To see it as a symbol of a librarian delighting in having the books all locked up and unused is false. Sibley was doing exactly what was expected of him. It was an ancient practice that all books were to be in the library at the time of the examination by the Visiting Committee.”
K. E. Carpenter, The first 350 years of the Harvard University Library, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, 1986), 68.
Just is as true today, there were certain duties that the librarian had to per form, and the primary duty then was preserving the collection. In some cases the librarian had to buy a replacement for any book missing; the difference between then and now is that the money for the book came from his pocket, not the library’s.
It is also important to note that the men who were the keepers of the books, were also, in most cases, scholars. Thus, they brought to their work the attitudes and views of the working scholar. Until the late nineteenth century this was the normal pattern and it was only after the first library school opened at Columbia University in 1876 that there was an opportunity to have formal training in library operations. Library school graduates brought different attitudes and views about the role and purpose of the library to the job. Roderick Cave described this when writing about the establishment of some of the large rare book rooms and special collections libraries: “In selecting their librarians and curators the benefactors usually consciously avoided the ‘professional librarian’ and chose men and women who were sympathetic with the humanistic and bibliographic motives behind their collections to carry on the humanistic traditions of librarianship.” (Roderick Cave, Rare book librarianship, 2d rev. ed. (London: Clive Bingley, 1982, 14) While we disagree with the implied suggestion that ‘professional librarians’ are unhumanistic in their approach to librarianship, the point is that there is a difference in philosophy. It is worth mentioning that today archives and special collections place much more emphasis on proper conservation and preservation activities than what was true in the past.
What it all comes down to is that there are different classes of material in library collections. One class consists of heavily used materials (circulating materials) and another consists of those materials requiring special handling and preservation, where staff can control and monitor use. It is a question of balancing two priorities, use and preservation. Both circulating and special collections work involve both use and preservation. For the circulating collection use is first, then preservation, with the reverse true for special collections. One might also say that circulating collections are for present use, while special collections are “for the ages”.
Collections and storage
Before discussing prevention, it is appropriate to describe briefly the types of material found in special collections and their storage. This discussion is necessarily brief because the range of materials seems limited only by a donor’s imagination. As an example, the Von der Ahe Library’s special collections department has, of course, printed books ranging from two incunabula and the four Shakespeare seventeenth-century folios to contemporary books. In addition, there are manuscripts, maps (from hand drawn maps on goat skin to early twentieth-century developer maps used to promote various areas of Los Angeles), photographs, sketches for movie sets, paintings, sculptures, furniture and rugs, two gold records, medals and awards/trophies, and hundreds of thousands of postcards. Before selling them to raise money to support special collections, they also had chess sets and other board games, tin soldiers, a flintlock pistol, model ships, ladies’ shawls, a tapestry, and boxes of basketball and football trading cards. There are even two of the masks used in filming the movie Planet of the Apes. The above range of materials is not atypical for a medium-sized library with a special collections unit. Obviously, storing this range of material safely requires time, thought, money, and equipment.
One might think that the mélange listed above sounds like a museum collection, not a library’s, and one would be right. Many special collections take on the characteristics of a museum, especially in small communities lacking a museum. Even when a museum exists donors may, for a variety of reasons, decide to give their collections to a library. More often than not special collections, other than those of local or regional history, start through more or less chance donations to the library. It is important for the library to place limits on the scope of the collection(s) to avoid becoming society’s “attic of the unwanted”.
Most special collections attempt to limit the scope of their collecting activities. While one does not always have the ability to choose what one can accept (for political and other reasons), libraries generally attempt to retain the right to dispose of materials that fall outside the primary collecting areas. Disposal may be by sale, gift, or trade to another institution that actively collects the material. Part of the idea behind such exchanges is to concentrate materials at institutions that have a strong interest in an area. Such concentration makes the work of the scholar/researcher less time consuming, expensive, and frustrating. Monies raised as a result of such sales provide funding for acquisition of materials central to the library’s collecting interests.
A fact for public service staff to remember is that each year dozens of people ask about giving something to the library, especially when they are about to move. A long-distance move and its expense often generate gift offers to the library. The majority of the time the collections offered contain only popular books (generally book club editions at that) and magazines (for example 20 years of National Geographic), which the library may or may not accept or, if accepted, keep. On occasion, however, the gift proves to be of substantial value, intellectual, financial, or both. Thus, it is important to refer such inquiries to the library staff member who makes the acceptance or rejection decisions. In essence only one person should be responsible for determining if an item is appropriate for special collections. Normally, this is the special collections librarian.
Donations for tax purposes and “house cleaning” frequently result in special collections departments receiving a conglomeration of unrelated materials—even if some of the items may be valuable from either the intellectual or financial point of view. Because of this fact the library must have a clear collection policy statement, as well as a gift policy, that makes it clear that the library has the right to dispose “out-of-scope” materials. Of course, special collections staff and library administrators, for political and other reasons, may not be able to refuse the gift or dispose of materials. This can lead to problems. For example, a former president of a public university once accepted a large collection of travel films with the attached condition that the gift could not be sold, given away, or otherwise disposed of. As of 1999, the collection had not found a permanent storage place on the campus.
In time the library will, or should, decide to concentrate its efforts in only a few areas. This may lead to the sale of some items in special collections. After considerable thought and discussion, staff may identify areas if existing strength in which it could be reasonably expected to acquire additional material. It should be important to the library’s mission of supporting any parent programs and acquire items from time to time for those collections. Several collecting areas may involve traditional book materials and pose no unusual problems, at least in terms of typical special collection materials. Some items may require special storage units together with the normal preservation and conservation needs of special materials.
When a library begins to accept and collect in contemporary areas, such as theater and film, storage problems can multiply. Usually the donor, either the collector or their family, does not want the “collection” broken up, so in essence, it is a matter of accepting everything or nothing. It can take years to work through the material and buy the appropriate equipment for housing the collection.
Providing the appropriate storage units is only the first step in what must be a never-ending process of preservation and conservation. Reducing the issue to its most basic components, the problem is how to preserve paper, wood, fabric, leather, plastic, and metal. Each of these has slightly different ideal storage conditions. If special collections is just a room or two – which is usually the case – there is a problem in just accommodating a growing collection. Confined to a relatively small area, it is too costly to create a number of mini-climates with major differences in temperature and humidity. Even if a library could afford to do this, the materials do not always lend themselves to such simple divisions. Most are composites of different materials; for example, many early bindings consist of leather stretched over wooden boards, the boards caparisoned with metal bosses. And of course, between these boards are the sections of pa per or vellum sewn together with thread. All these elements form an integral bound unit, one whole book.
All the handling do’s and don’ts described apply even more to special collections. Materials must be handled gently and carefully at all times. Piling books on top of one another, tugging at headcaps (the top of the book spine, where so many people unfortunately hook their fingers and yank), laying open books down spine-up, mixing large and small or heavy and fragile materials together, and any other unfortunately common practice can have dire consequences.
Manuscripts and other archival materials deserve a brief mention. One can minimize damage to such collections by storing them properly. Placing manuscripts in alkaline folders is the basic first step. A second step is to place groups of related folders into archival boxes. When the group of folders do not fill the box they have a tendency to go into an “archival slump,” the curving of folders one often sees in partially filled filing cabinets. The archive goal is indefinite preservation, and such slumping can cause damage to materials over time. A simple solution to slumping problems is to fill the space with crumpled-up, acid-free containers. There are also non-acidic multi-ply spacers available commercially to keep materials upright and flat. When handling manuscript materials, the person should wear cotton gloves to protect the items from harmful skin oils and dirt.
Monitoring the condition of materials is an important aspect of special collections work. Noticing any change in condition, such as cracking leather or paint, warping boards (book covers), splitting vellum, or just new abrasion from reshelving, is an important habit. Clues like the above might call for anything from minute treatment or protective enclosures to major conservation work. The librarian in charge of the department or section should be notified of any such indication of change. Of course, a professional conservator should be contacted in the case of significant changes to important items. Library preservation workshops are a good way to help staff learn to identify potential problems.
As with the rest of the library, basic good housekeeping practices are vital, but even more so in special collections. Proper temperature and humidity control are important for a circulating collection but are critical for the survival of special collections. Special air filters can reduce the dust and other airborne particles that act like sandpaper on bindings. For libraries, historical societies, and the like that must live with ordinary filter systems (or none), storing the books in half-sized record center books on industrial shelving units will offer protection from particulate matter in the air, as well as offering some protection from sprinkler systems that might go off, or even damage from falling off the shelf in an earthquake. Special Collections at the California State University at Northridge, seriously affected by the 1994 earthquake, has been using such boxes and reports that they can hold between 10 and 25 books each.
Pulling a book off the shelf or pushing it across a work surface causes abrasion from the dust and grit particles. A better practice is to lift books rather than pull them and place materials where wanted rather than drag or slide them. Regular cleaning of both work and storage surfaces increases the useful life and maintains the value of the items in the collection.
Metal shelving is superior to wood because the stains, varnishes, and paints used on wood can damage bindings. If wooden shelves are a given, insulate materials by lining the shelves with nonharmful materials, such as buffered paper board. On the other hand, be sure that metal shelves and filing cabinets are not painted with “never-dry” paints that out-gas (give off fumes) indefinitely, which can affect paper, photographic negatives, and other materials. Metal storage units should have only a layer of inert, baked-on enamel finish.
If there is no special collections room and storing the materials in locked glass cases is the only option available, be certain there is a way to control heat and humidity inside the case. (The same applies to exhibit cases.) If nothing else is possible, drilling some ventilation holes in the back of the case will help, as long as the air can circulate throughout. If there is no space behind and in front of each shelf it will be necessary to drill holes in each shelving segment to assure the required airflow, but be sure no harmful insects are around to crawl or fly through these holes!
The lower the temperature, the better it is for paper and fabrics, but low temperatures can damage leather and plastics. Several people suggest 68 plus or minus 2 degrees Fahrenheit and 45 percent plus or minus 5 percent humidity as a reasonable compromise. Many people, however, find 68 degrees Fahrenheit too cool for prolonged sedentary activity. Ultimately, there has to be a compromise between ideal conditions for housing the material and the conditions for people to sit and work with the materials.
One other important fact to keep in mind is that the temperature and humidity should be constant 24 hours a day, seven days a week, year round. Often, meeting such a requirement is almost impossible to achieve with existing equipment. Maintaining levels close to the ideal is expensive. A constant level, even at higher temperatures and humidity than indicated above, is less damaging to the material than are roller coaster changes, or cycling, especially on a daily basis. When a library is able to achieve the ideal in temperature and humidity control, it may have to set up a separate work area with higher temperatures for people. In this case, it is necessary to provide for a slow warm-up period for the materials before handling them, as well as a slow cool-down period before shelving. This will preserve the materials but does add to the time expended by users and staff.
It is preferable to provide special collections with an independent heating, ventilation, and air conditioning system (HVAC). Such systems are very costly if installed as a remodeling or renovation project; they also add to the cost of new construction, but a much lower per-foot cost. Oil, water, or electronic air filter systems can be part of the system. Depending on the system chosen, these special filters can remove particles down to less than one micron in size. (A micron is 1/25,400 of an inch.) Such a filter system would effectively remove lint, fly ash, dust, pollen, fungus spores, fog and mist, the majority of the bacteria, and a fairly high percentage of tobacco and oil smoke, any of which can pose problems for the material in special collections.
There are several good Web sites, such as Conservation Online (CoOl), that give authoritative information on a wide variety of preservation and conservation topics, ranging from guidelines for special collections exhibits to environmental control to disaster recovery.
Like all other units in public service, the materials in special collections are available for use. At the same time the special, if not unique, character of the materials suggest that limited access to them is prudent. Cave clearly set out the problems addressed in this section:
In organizing rare book collections for use, the librarian is subject to a sort of professional schizophrenia. On the one hand, guided by his role as conservator, he is concerned to devise methods of control over the use of materials in his care, hedging them around with various restrictions so they will survive for the enjoyment of posterity even at the inconvenience of present users. At the same time he must be conscious that the collections represent considerable capital investment which can be justified only by use: use for general cultural purposes at a popular level as well as research by scholars; to strike the right balance between conservation and current use is not simple, but is essential if the collection is to continue as a lively service.Relatively recent developments in electronic technologies are providing a way to overcome the “professional schizophrenia.” Storage capacities for PCs have escalated and the cost as fallen as dramatically. Digitizing equipment and software likewise have improved in quality and dropped in price. While not a ware of any empirical study on the subject, it seems very likely that the vast majority of researchers only need to access to the content of the materials in special collections and archives. That is, they do not need to handle the original item as long as the digitized record is an accurate reproduction of the original material. Certainly there are occasions when the physical properties of an item require examination to determine, for example, specific printing or state, but such events are relatively rare. Institutions with users who are specialists in descriptive bibliography or the history of printing see this type of hands-on examination more regularly.
Museums, archives, and special collections departments are digitizing more and more of their collections: print, photographs, and other graphic materials, as well as three-dimensional objects. Such projects accomplish several goals and help assure the long-term preservation of the original material:
- less handling, therefore better preservation;
- less restrictive—often unrestricted—access;
- less time and expense to researchers who can access the material remotely, often through the Internet;
- more service to customers on their own terms;
- more security for the materials by limiting the use to only those times it is essential to have the original.
Many of the projects relate to unique materials that only a few people might be able to consult in person. All such projects greatly enhance the visibility of special collections and archives for the majority of library customers. It also means an ever-increasing role in the overall service program of the library.
While some special collections have been fully catalogued, with their records in printed catalogs and in databases such as OCLC and RLIN, the increased security arising from digitized materials has substantially increased posting to such bibliographic utilities. Because of the “content” of the digitized item is more readily available, very few people will have a legitimate need to handle the original material, which in turn means greater security for the item. Such postings assist researchers in quickly locating material of interest.
Restrictions on access may be no more than Molokai Public Library’s requiring a driver’s license before letting a customer consult their special collections. At the other end of the spectrum are sophisticated electronic security systems, with motion detectors and the like, and the completion of several checks before granting a person access.
Another form of access, as well as promotion and publicity for special collections, is the use of its materials in exhibitions. If the exhibition is in the library, proper display cases may already be available. It is essential that such display cases be secure and suitable for use with a theft detection system and have a micro-environment that controls temperature, humidity, and lighting. Because both natural and artificial lighting have an aging effect and because book structures, even if properly supported, can become stressed over time, special collections materials should not be on exhibit for long. Materials loaned to other institutions for exhibits should be dealt with just as safe and securely.
Access and security involve three issues: admission to the area, rules regulating use of materials, and the physical protection of the collection. The staff must constantly strive to address and balance all three.
Admission and use
Regulating admission ranges from no restrictions to requiring a written request in advance of using the materials (sometimes with personal references) explaining why it is necessary to use the collection. The more screening before a person gains access to the collection, the less likely the library is to have problems with misuse—but it is also less likely that the collection will be used. However, for “libraries of record,” that is, research libraries that have the responsibility of preserving one copy of each important book or other material for posterity, the extra procedures make perfect sense. Library of record materials do not circulate outside the library except for exhibit and so are almost always available.
There are forms related to reader access to special collections, including making copies of materials. The list of rules for researchers (http://www.lmu.edu/Page32709.aspx) lays out the basic requirements for using special collections materials, including restrictions and basic handling guidelines. At this institution, additional handling guidelines are communicated to the reader orally before materials are given out. The reader registration for is useful as both a vetting or screening instrument and as a permanent record of a reader. Admission is granted for various lengths of time, according to established need.
The call slip shown is a two-part no carbon required (NCR) form. When a book is paged, the shorter original (paper) slip is separated and inserted in the book, or clipped to the manuscript box. When the book or material is placed on the reader’s table, the slip is put on the desk of a staff member charged with monitoring the reading room. Thus, at any time, this staff member knows what items, and how many, are in use. The carbon (thin alkaline card stock) is left in the empty shelf slot where the material belongs, so the identity of items not returned to the shelf at the end of the day is evident, initiating an immediate search. In some libraries, a reader’s driver’s license or other identification is clipped to the call slip in the monitor’s box and is only returned to the reader when the library material is returned and inspected.
Materials are sometimes held on reserve for scholars who use them from day to day. The two-part acid-free slip is split, the longer half remaining with the item, the shorter is filed with the regular call slips during use and returned to the item nightly.
Use of the manuscript collections entails more detailed vetting. A signature confirming the reader’s awareness and cooperation regarding copyright limitations on use and publication restrictions is required before any material is paged. (See Ethical and legal considerations for more on these restrictions)
The complex issue of access via duplication of special collections materials is too broad to address in detail. A good quality copy (paper or electronic), however, may provide a satisfactory and cost-effective solution to the problem of access, supervision, and preservation. In such a situation, the library makes a paper, microform, or digitized copy of the item, which the reader may take away to use at his or her leisure. Thus, the material is not handled unnecessarily and the staff need not engage in all the activities required when the reader uses the physical item in special collections. Obviously, copyright restrictions apply and often donors impose additional restrictions upon both the use and duplication of their gifts. Photography, photocopying, or digitizing are some of the ways special collections departments can generate revenue. Prices for such duplication are often set at a level to discourage excessive and often unnecessary copying. All such handling and copying places stress on the material. Staff should refuse to copy fragile items.
Even if you allow people to come to special collections without prior screening, you must still ascertain that the general, circulating collection is unable to supply adequately the desired information. A major purpose of special collections is to preserve and conserve these materials in these collections; if the same information is obtainable from a non-rare or non-special source, so much the better. This is especially true for libraries of record. Thus, students who come to the library of record to use books available at their institutional library might be turned away.
The vetting of prospective users is important, and individuals who need access rarely resent the precautions. Naturally, the process requires tact and respect for the applicant as well as the staff’s understanding of the reasons for the importance of the process.
Once a prospective user becomes an approved user, other conditions regarding use apply. The draft guidelines for the security of a rare book, manuscript, and other special collections outline the major areas of concern:
Each user should have an orientation regarding the rules governing the use of the collections in general and, specifically, the handling of the requested materials. Readers should not be allowed to take extraneous personal materials (for example, notebooks, briefcases, heavy coats, books, or voluminous papers) into the reading room. Lockers or some kind of secure area should be provided for personal items. The users should be watched at all times and not allowed to hide their work behind book carts, book racks, piles of books, or any other obstacles. Readers should be limited to only those books, manuscripts, or other items they need at one time to perform the research at hand. Each item should be checked before it is given to the user, and when returned; staff should check condition, content, and completeness. Users should be required to return all library materials before leaving the reading room area, even if they plan to return later in the day to continue their research. Readers should not be allowed to trade materials or have access to materials another user has checked out. The special collections staff must be able to identify who has used which material by keeping adequate check-out records. These records should be kept indefinitely.(Guidelines for the Security of Rare Book, Manuscript, and Other Special Collections: A Draft,” College & Research Library News 50, no. 5 (May 1989): 399)
These relatively few words have significant implications for staffing and operational procedures in special collections. Providing adequate, secure storage space for the users’ personal property may present a problem if there are a large number of them but is essential if one is to maintain collection security. Checking each item before and after each use for “condition, content, and completeness” will add a significant element to the workload. Not doing the checking, however, can result in the loss of plates, charts, maps, pages from books, or important pages from manuscript collections. Having a staff member present in the reading room when customers are present helps with monitoring. Few departments have the luxury of staffing such that the reading room monitor can do nothing else. However, the physical presence of a staff member who clearly is monitoring user activities does increase security. Closed-circuit television cameras, especially those that record, provide even more security, but cannot replace the presence of a staff person.
A good discussion of monitoring is Anthony Amodeo’s “Special Collections Desk Duty: Preventing Damage.” (A. J. Amodeo, “Special Collections Desk Duty: Preventing Damage,” College & Research Library News 44 (June 1983): cover, 180-82. Reprinted in The Whole Library Handbook, edited by George M. Eberhart (Chicago: American Library Association ,1991.) Limiting the number of items a reader may have at one time certainly adds to the workload. The proctor, however, helps assure that users cannot build up visual barriers that impede monitoring their activities and use of the materials. Carefully planned placement of user stations can help staff monitor the use of materials. Maintaining checkout records indefinitely presents few problems, except in large, heavily used collections where eventually storage space may become a problem.
Why maintain usage records? Few, if any, special collections have enough staff to literally check every page of every item after every use. When a user reports something missing, having past use records may allow the library to recover the missing material. Occasionally these records also help identify and convict a thief. One such case occurred in Norway. In that instance, a high government official had been stealing rare book plates and maps from special collections around the country. The records of his use of rare items, which had missing plates and maps, helped convict the man. (L. S. Thompson, “Biblioclasm in Norway,” Library and Archival Security 6 (Winter 1984): 13-16.)
Pre-use screening is expensive and suggests the collection may be monetarily valuable; that can help the professional thief identify potential targets. Requiring letters of introduction and other forms of identification is a helpful practice but presents no problem for the professional thief.
As the LMU head of Archives and Special Collections noted when reviewing this chapter, “It is not possible to verify Ids by telephone or FAX. Professional thieves may carry forged Ids, but this does not mean that it is not important to ask for identification. The amateur thieves can be screened out or at least discouraged. “As learnt from high profile trials, even an alias can be of use in tracking down a criminal. Even though theft is a real theft, it is hardly possible to turn away a researcher who claims to have a legitimate need to look at material. It is important to follow procedures carefully and to treat all collection items equally, applying the same precautions to postcards as to the First Folio. If we did not value it, it would not be here. All researchers should be treated equally. Many thefts are by the “trusted” research. For theft to take place, the opportunity for theft must exist. Our job is to reduce the window of opportunity.
Certainly there is a public relations value in showing a casual visitor some of the special items in the collection. You need to balance the public relations value against the remote, but nonetheless real, danger that the visitor is a professional thief. The 1990 arrest of Stephen Blumberg in Iowa with over 16,000 books, manuscripts, and other special collections items, worth over an estimated $20 million, taken from libraries across the United States illustrated the point: Professional book thieves do exist. In all probability pre-screening would not detect many professional book thieves because they know how to circumvent such procedures. And the sad truth is that many of the thefts are a result of library or institutional staff activities. The news section of American Libraries for April 1990 carried a story about the arrest of a University of Pennsylvania Special Collections employee for the theft of materials from the collection. As Paul Mosher, the Director of University Libraries said, “The paradox in holding rare materials is in how to keep them accessible and secure.” (“Library Worker Accused in $1.5 Million Rare Book Theft,” American Libraries 21 (April 1990): 278)
While we know such thieves exist and pose a very real threat to the collections, staff members must not let fear and excessive caution lead to inappropriate actions. In the recent past, a few special collections staff members risked being sued for libel. They did so by posting descriptions and names of individuals they believed were “suspicious characters”. Even if a person is arrested the library should not publicize the person’s name and description, but leave such matters in the hands of law enforcement officials.
A final note about theft and thieves relate to security systems. As the market for home security systems has increased, the cost of the systems has decreased. At the same time, the monetary value of special collections has escalated. These facts combine to create a situation in which it may even be cost effective for the library to install such a system. Generally such systems will lower the cost of risk insurance. Certainly, that reduction will not cover the cost of the system, but it helps make it more affordable. Truly professional thieves will know how to defeat such systems; however, when faced with a choice between going after a protected versus a unprotected collection, their decision is easy: “Why make life more difficult than necessary?”
It is important that all public and technical service staff have a sound and understanding of what kinds of materials are in special collection and know how to recognize these items. Processing for most special collection items is different from general collection materials. General collection items are heavily “stamped, folded, spindled, and mutilated.” That is, they carry property stamps, have call number labels, and contain pasted-in book pockets and date-due slips, so there is no doubt they belong to a library.
Special collections items may be catalogued but they rarely carry obvious library property marks. To mark special collections materials in the same way as circulating materials would greatly devalue from their value. They may or may not have an electronic target that sets off the library’s security system. Call numbers appear on acid-free card stock strips inserted into the book, or perhaps the library has had a special box or container made to house the item and the box has the call number or location information on it. The point is that special collections are particularly susceptible to theft because they do not have the usual ownership markings. If the staff is not aware of what is and not in special collections, a thief could openly carry off items without challenge.
As shown, a comprehensive plan to protect the collections will encompass several topics. Already covered has been aspects of protection from the forces of time and use (environmental and handling concerns) and concerns about theft and mutilation. Preservation specialists must also deal with some less natural forces, such as the tendency of certain materials to break down on their own (“inherent vice”) in a “normal” environment, which results in such things as acidic paper and brittle books. There are, however, even more dramatic things against which libraries, and particularly special collections, must protect themselves, including fire, flood or water damage, earthquakes, and other disasters, natural or man-made.
Specialized building construction can generate increase in security from disaster. Construction costs may be higher than one would like, but long-term security and maintenance costs will be lower. Many special collection areas have a bank-vault-like rooms that are highly fire-resistant and provide a measure of theft protection as well. Fire-resistant vaults are not necessarily burglary-resistant and vaults designed to slow down burglars do not always provide more than minimal fire protection. Basically, vaults buy time, whether one hour, two hours, or longer—perhaps enough time for the police or fire department to arrive and solve the problem. Many vault units are extremely heavy and require extra supports under the floor or must be in the basement of the building. Basements, however, are not good locations for special collections because the location increases their susceptibility to flooding and mould. Burglar or fire vaults have an additional advantage: They increase the level of protection to the collection during earthquakes and other natural disasters, provided interior storage support is adequate. The vaults provide more protection from falling ceilings and walls because they are self-contained units. In earthquake-susceptible areas, some sort of restraining system, especially on the upper shelves, can prevent materials falling to the floor. Protective enclosures, such as fitted alkaline book boxes can protect materials that do fall, as well as provide some extra protection from sprinklers. Even without a disaster, enclosures can mitigate damage from ordinary environmental changes.
Having a written plan for handling a disaster is also a key element in any special collection security program. Even if the rest of the library does not have a plan for handling disaster, special collections should. Trying to decide what to do after a disaster strikes usually compounds the disaster. In many disasters, time becomes the main enemy; a few hours’ delay can increase losses significantly. With a disaster plan in place all the library staff need to do is follow the steps already outlined and use material already stockpiled or readily available.
While both patrons and staff take pride in the library’s special collections, it requires promotion to grow and thrive. Special collections are costly in terms of material, labour, and maintenance of proper preservation and security. Publicity reminds everyone about the collections’ existence and helps in obtaining the necessary funds to maintain and expand the program.
Exhibitions in the library are one of the most common methods for maintaining public and staff awareness of special collections. Frequently the person in charge of special collections is also responsible for scheduling, if not actually preparing, library exhibitions. When that is the situation, one can expect that at least one of the exhibitions each year will feature special collections. An important goal for exhibitions each year will feature special collections. An important goal for exhibitions is to educate and inform the viewers, not just to display “treasures”. Linking exhibitions to special community or institutional events can pay off in unexpected support at a later date.
A second method, which is now almost mandatory, is to have a special collections Web page. Web pages provide an excellent means for promoting services as well as describing the content of special collections. They also may become more heavily used than the reading room, if major segments of the collection are digitized.
Within the limits of good security and conservation practice, allowing the special collections area to serve as a background for receptions or special meetings also draws attention to the program. Balancing the value of such attention against potential problems of security and conservation can be difficult. For example, can you control smoking, eating, and drinking in a party atmosphere? Pressure to use “that lovely room” for any and all functions can be hard to resist when it comes from members of the library’s governing board or the library’s funding body. Public service staff should refer all such requests to the head of special collections or the library director—even those requests that start with, “The Mayor (or President) requests you reserve...”
Lectures and publications about the contents of the collections are both good methods for promoting the program. Occasional carefully planned and monitored “open houses” or tours can bring about greater awareness of contents and activities of the area. Such activities often attract a number of members of the library staff who seldom, if ever, have a chance to visit the area. This in turn gives the staff an opportunity to better learn and recognize special collections items—not only, as mentioned above, to thwart theft, but because there are always a few items in the general collections that probably deserve inclusion in special collections, especially in libraries of a venerable age.
One obvious purpose in promoting special collections is the desire and necessity to raise money. Many libraries have a group of supporters, frequently called “Friends of the Library,” that assists in fund raising. For many such groups special collections is the focal point of interest. In addition to raising money, the group may be a source of volunteer assistance for special collections. The library should limit these volunteers to housekeeping activities; only the must trusted and knowledgeable volunteers should have direct contact with the special collections materials, and then the contact should be limited and with direct supervision.
Special collections staffing requirements are quite distinct, varying considerably from the rest of the library. Clearly the security aspect of special collections work suggests that careful staff selection is necessary. It is not inappropriate to require in-depth background checks and even to require bonding of staff working with the collection(s). Bonding is, in a sense, a form of insurance to protect an organization from an employee’s misuse of resources, usually money or other highly valuable and portable resources. Individuals with a criminal record often cannot qualify for job-related bonding. Bonding requirements may also preclude using volunteers in the area.
While maintaining good employee relations is a goal of any good supervisor, a disgruntled special collections staff member can cause havoc even with a security system in place. The rules for users should apply to staff as well; that is, staff should only take needed supplies into special collections. In general, personal belongings should remain outside. If not, a policy of consistent checking or examination of bags, briefcases, and other personal items should be strictly followed. It is important to maintain records of staff use of materials; the record should list who used what, when, and why. It is standard procedure to require at least the same degree of preservation-mindedness in staff that one expects from users, such as care in handling, prohibition of food and drink, use of pencil rather than ink pen when working with special collections materials, and so forth.
Naturally, the staff, especially new staff members who have had no prior special collections experience, need extra training in security matters. Knowing their own legal rights as well as the users’ rights and obligations can make the staff’s work in maintaining security easier. It will also generate fewer problems because the staff can more effectively relate the rules and regulations to the users before the individuals start using materials.
Special collections areas often have limited staffing. Perhaps the librarian responsible for the area has other duties. In any case, the librarian will be responsible for establishing policies and rules of use. In addition, that person will make decisions about preservation and conservation issues. Support staff often will be in a position of dealing with requests to use the collection. When the request fits into the policy guidelines, support staff can move forward with the vetting process. When there is any question about the appropriateness of the request, the person responsible for special collections should make the decision. Normally the special collections support staff deliver the requested material to the user, monitor usage, and also check the material when the user finishes. All staff members are responsible for the security of the collections and, as noted above, bonding may be a requirement for anyone working in the area.
Ethical and legal considerations
A number of legal and ethical issues affect special collections and its operations. Earlier some legal issues were mentioned without identifying precise areas of interest. One area is knowing the specific state and local laws related to theft and damage of library materials.
Dealing with theft
Some jurisdictions have laws that expressly cover library issues, while others simply treat library materials as general government property. In either case the laws are general in nature and normally cover all materials, not just special collections. Two good articles describing the variations and implications of the difference in how the jurisdiction treats library materials are P. J. Parker’s “Statutory Protection” (Peter J Parker, “Statutory Protection of Library Materials,” Library Trends (Summer 1984): 77-94) and G. Trinkaus-Randall’s “Preserving Special Collections Through ‘Internal Security’.” (Gregor Trinkaus-Randall, “Preserving Special Collections Through ‘Internal Security’,” College & Research Libraries 50 (July 1989): 448-54.) Cooperative anti-theft programs like Bookline Alert: Missing Books and Manuscripts (BAM-BAM), a database of missing items, should be in the arsenal of all those who deal with rare books . See also the ACRL/RBMS Guidelines Regarding Thefts in Libraries
(http://www.ala.org/ala/mgrps/divs/acrl/standards/guidelinesregardingthefts.cfm) for preventative actions to take before any theft occurs, as well as what to do after the fact.
Staff members should also know their own legal rights in stopping a suspected thief. What can staff do; what shouldn’t they do? When is it appropriate to call the police or security officers? May staff members attempt to detain a suspected thief? Should the library try to detain such a person even if it is legal to do so? These are just a few of the questions that need answers. Clearly the issues go beyond special collections staff and are important for all public service personnel. Especially important is knowing if, in your particular state or local jurisdiction, laws about presumption and liability exemption sections dealing with shoplifting including libraries. As of 1999, there were only nine states which had such laws: California, Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin. Naturally, it is essential to check on the current status of the law in your state before deciding the library’s policy in this area. A library should never operate on the basis of unwritten policies, and this is one area where an unwritten policy could lead to legal problems.
While patron use of copyrighted materials is an overall library concern, it takes on extra importance in special collections. In part the issue comes up because of the close monitoring of the readers’ use of every item they handle. Many people think of copyright only in terms of published materials: books, journals, sound recordings, and so forth. One of the previous U.S. copyright laws left the issue of coverage of unpublished works up to each state, but the present U.S. copyright law includes any unpublished work in “tangible form”. Tangible form includes handwritten materials, as well as any other form another person can use. In many special collections, unpublished works represent one of the most frequently used classes of material. Certainly experienced researchers understand the new law, but most inexperienced users are not aware of the copyright coverage on unpublished materials. Thus, it is the library staff’s responsibility to communicate this information to the user. A simple form explaining the copyright facts can be given to anyone asking to use unpublished material.
The creator or author (or author’s heirs) holds the copyright on unpublished works. In the United States, copyright duration for published written materials includes the lifetime of the author plus 50 years; recent legislation, if signed into law, would extend copyright on studio films to 95 years. In the case of unpublished works created before January 1978, statutory coverage lasts up through the year 2002, but by publication before the end of that year it may be extended another 25 years (that is, until 2027). Unpublished works created after January 1978 are protected for the creator’s lifetime plus 50 years. (U.S. Code, Title 17, Chapter 3, § 303. Duration of Copyright: Works Created But Not Published Or Copyrighted Before January 1, 1978). All of these guidelines are subject to constant modification in the courts as well as legislatively. Check this URL for current information: http://www.copyright.gov/title17/
As it might be expected, researchers often ask for help in tracking down the copyright holder to get permission to use the material. Maintaining files on donors of material is a common practice but is not very common to try to maintain current addresses of such donors. Even if the library could maintain such a file it might not always provide the desired information. A donor may not be the author or creator of the material in question and thus not be the copyright holder.
In addition to copyright concerns, donors of unpublished materials often place restrictions on access. Common restrictions include how soon people may see the material and who may see the material. Time restrictions are relatively easy to handle as long as the items have labels clearly indicating when the public may see and use them (for example, “Not to be examined until A.D. 2025” or “Not to be examined until 25 years after the author’s death”). In some instances, donors will allow scholars to examine items for information, but not allow the user to publish or quote from any part of the item. Restricting certain classes of users creates problems for the staff. Keeping track of who may use what material adds to the workload. How much checking should you do to determine if the requester is eligible to handle this material? Two commonly restricted classes are students and journalists. Is a doctoral candidate researching a dissertation topic a student? Is the person claiming to be a researcher really an investigative reporter? Occasionally a worried donor needs someone to test the library’s enforcement of the restrictions. Failure to enforce the restrictions—and the donor decides what failure is—can lead to the withdrawal of the donation.
As noted earlier, many special collections and archives departments are taking on, or are assigned, the duties of managing an organization’s records management program. There are certain similarities between archives and records management (RM) processes. The major difference is that the goal of archives is to preserve records indefinitely, while record management’s purpose is to ensure the required records of an organization’s day-to-day activities remain available as long as legally required. In essence, RM’s concern is retaining materials for finite periods.
Retention schedules identify the legal time frames for various classes of materials. The Federal Records Management Glossary defines a records schedule as a “document providing mandatory instructions for what to do with records (and non-records materials) no longer needed for current government business, with provision of authority for final disposition of recurring and non-recurring records.” (National Archives and Records Administration, Federal Records Management Glossary (Washington, DC: NARA, 1989), 29.) Thus, schedules are the guidelines for what to retain and for how long and what to discard. (Note: There are often federal, state, and even local government requirements to consider.)
The first step in creating a program is to survey existing records and note types of records, how they are currently organized, and where they exist. Two helpful publications for establishing a program are Suzanne Gill’s File Management and Information Retrieval Systems and Schwartz and Hernon’s Records Management and the Library. (Suzanne L. Gill, File Management and Information Retrieval Systems, 3d ed. (Englewood, CO: Libraries Unlimited, 1993); Candy Schwartz and Peter Hernon, Records Management & the Library: Issues and Practices (Greenwich, CT: Ablex Publishing, 1993)
Using the survey data and schedules, one can systematically identify the records that must be retained and the appropriate time period. One can then review the balance to determine which, if any, the organization may wish to retain for its own purposes. Most records management specialists agree that there are five primary reasons to retain materials: administrative, fiscal, legal, historical, and informational value. Generally, retention time increases as one moves through the list. In some cases the form in which one retains the material is also a matter of law (what format will be acceptable in court should it come to that). One class of administrative records deserves mention: “vital records”. The Association of Records Managers and Administrators (ARMA) defines such material as “those records containing information essential to the survival of an organization in the event of a disaster... They contain information necessary to recreate an organization’s legal and financial position and to preserve its rights and those of its employees, customers, and stock-holders.” (The Association of Records Managers and Administrators, International Guidelines for Records and Information Management, Vital Records (Prairie Village, KS: ARMA, 1993.)
Records management activities do require time and effort. Combining them with archives and special collections programs may achieve some economies of scale. But, given the requirements of staff time and space, expecting an existing special collection and/or archive staff to take on RM as an additional duty without additional staff, funding, and space is unrealistic.
Special collections is an interesting area to work in, especially if you have an interest or expertise in history or in the subject areas of the particular collections. Working with special collections materials requires constant attention and a talent for detail. Environmental conditions, users’ and one’s own habits regarding careful handling of materials, and collection security are main concerns in this area.
Evans, G. Edward; Amodeo, Anthony J.; Carter, Thomas L. Introduction to Library Public Services, 6th ed. (Englewood, CO: Libraries Unlimited, 1999, Chapter 8)