Usually when you go to a library, everything in the collection is easily accessible and in plain view. That includes books and audiovisual materials that you may check out. It also includes computers, magazines, newspapers, reference materials, etc. that you must used in the library. But what treasures lie behind a locked door marked “special collections”?
It’s mostly academic libraries that have a special collections department. If they’re very old, then some of their earliest acquisitions have become both old and rare. They’re rare because most other libraries have “weeded” those items out of their collections long ago. After all, as new materials come in to a library, they have to get rid of old things that no one uses any more.
Academic library special collections
Reference librarians who weed an academic collection often send materials to the special collections librarian for evaluation. Those materials may be added to the collection if it meets the criteria for special collections.
Like the library as a whole, the special collections department will have a collection development policy that dictates what the collection will acquire. Here are some basic categories common in special collections:
- Rare books
- Books concerning a particular theme
- Printed music
- Pamphlets and other ephemera
- Papers left by an important person
- Sound recordings
- Films and other audiovisual materials
“Rare” books may not require much explanation. A very few libraries in the world, for example, own an original Gutenberg Bible. Collectively, all books printed before 1501 are called “incunabula,” from the Latin word for cradle. That is, incunabula represent the infancy of book printing. Extant copies are rare indeed and need special protection, which includes strict limitations on who can handle them.
Anything printed before, say, 1800 is likewise rare. These items include not only books, but early newspapers, magazines, and other periodicals; printed music; maps; pamphlets and broadsides; and a variety of other materials. However many copies were printed in the first place, most of them have long since been destroyed. Any library that still owns them probably keeps them in a special rare books room, whether it has a designated special collections department or not.
Anything printed between the early 19th century and the 1950s or so presents special preservation problems. Early paper was made from cloth fiber. Then someone discovered how to make cheap paper from wood pulp.
Unfortunately, that paper is highly acidic. Have you noticed how old newsprint soon turns yellow? And if you have some cherished clippings, after a while they become brittle. That’s because the acid paper is literally eating itself up over time. Not all of these materials automatically go to special collections or even a rare book room, but if steps are not taken to deacidify the paper, they will eventually crumble to dust.
It’s only a matter of time before every surviving copy will have to preserved in a special collection. Fortunately, it is easy to print facsimiles of old materials on good, acid-free paper. Those will be the circulating copies. It is also easy to digitize them and make them available online, so no one has to handle them at all.
Many special collections have digitized at least parts of their collection. That way, no one has to visit the library in person to view what may be unique items. And therefore no one has to submit to all of the procedures that special collections put in place to protect the items unless they have special need to handle them.
Special categories of books and music
Some cities have been the site of a world’s fair or other important exposition. Local libraries would try to acquire and preserve as much material related to these events as possible.
Quite often special collections acquire books and music not so much for their content as for what they represent as objects. One library might collect books that demonstrate various aspects of how book covers were designed. Another might collect books for the various methods of printing (movable type, engraving, lithography, etc.) or for various fonts.
Well-established libraries may have long had collections devoted to, say, astronomy treatises. Such a collection might have manuscripts from antiquity and printed first editions by such famous scientists as Copernicous, Galileo, and Kepler.
Others, coming later to the game, try to identify what no one else is collecting and corner the market on it, so to speak. When the Northwestern University Music Library decided to grow its own special collections department, it set out to collect music composed from 1945 onward, particularly “avant garde” music that most other libraries would reject.
Future music historians will have to go there to study that music. No other library will have such an extensive collection of it. Most of the collection isn’t rare yet, but eventually it will be.
Pamphlets and other ephemeral materials
Whenever you have stayed at a hotel over night, you have probably seen a collection of pamphlets and maps touting local attractions. You may have even picked up a bunch of them. Then, eventually, you have thrown them out.
That road atlas you put in your car 10 years ago is useless now. What used to be a two lane country road may be an expressway now. What used to go through lots of small towns is now a bypass.
New roads exist and old highways have been abandoned to counties or perhaps even torn up completely. Maybe you’ve replaced your obsolete maps with new ones. Or maybe you rely completely on your GPS system.
Have you ever wondered how people traveled through, say, West Virginia before the Interstate highways were built? You need to look at really old maps. And some library, somewhere, has a whole collection of them.
Other libraries have chosen to collect and preserve railroad timetables, baseball box scores, racing forms, recipe cards, and all manner of things. Off hand, I’m not sure if Yale University has the largest collection of railroad timetables, but when I typed “railroad” into its search box, I came up with 315 matches. That’s not 315 items, but that many collections that comprise or have railroad-related items.
Why collect all this stuff? It answers a lot of questions a lot of people have. Historians visit these collections and pore through their contents all the time. By historians, I mean both professional historians who write books and journal articles and amateurs–you perhaps–who have stumbled on to a way to satisfy their curiosity about something.
Realia is a fancy word for objects. A library special collection may have the papers of a local author–and also his typewriter, clothing, and other objects that belonged to him. The University of Carolina at Greensboro, which started out as a woman’s college, collects material on women veterans from the state–including their uniforms.
Special collections departments might accept realia with the rest of a collection it acquires, or it might set out to collect some kinds of realia deliberately. At the very least, they can put these objects in display cases for their patrons to enjoy. Often, they have some kind of historical or archeological significance of their own.
Readers who are 30 or older may remember when libraries had card catalogs. You may have noticed that the cards did not all look the same. Older ones had subject headings typed with red ink. Newer cards had them in capital letters.
That’s because of changes in another antique technology. Once upon a time, manual typewriters had a cloth ribbon, half black and half red. Newer ribbons provided a much crisper impression, but could no longer provide two colors at once.
Librarians used all kinds of other now obsolete technologies that members of the public never saw. Most libraries have simply thrown all that stuff out. No one uses it any more, and it takes up a lot of space.
I would like to assume that at least a few libraries have preserved some of it in their special collections. Anyone who loves libraries and is not old enough to remember life before computers will find it fascinating.
Special collections in public libraries
Big city libraries–New York and Chicago, for example–have special collections departments comparable in every way to those at universities. Small city and county libraries often have special collections of their own, but they tend to be not only smaller in scope, but different in emphasis.
Most special collections at smaller public libraries are concerned only with local history and genealogy. For example, the Wood County District Public Library in Bowling Green, Ohio includes family histories, newspaper microfilms dating back to the middle of the 19th century, a picture/image file, and other primary sources.
Since Bowling Green is the home town of figure skating champion Scott Hamilton, and numerous other professional or Olympic athletes have attended the university there, the county library probably has materials related to them as well.
In poking around the Internet, I have found other small library systems that have digitized census records and other genealogical databases that are accessible in the library only. Some have explicitly mentioned certain local celebrities on their web sites.