Discovery and Special Collections

August 9, 2011

By Mike Mertens, Deputy Director, RLUK

Over the past decade or more, despite or perhaps because of seeming digital preponderance, special collections, how they are constituted and how to frame them, have come back into something now approaching sharp focus[1]. Unique and distinctive collections (UDCs) – traditionally termed ‘special collections’ – have always been a common and prominent feature of collection holders.  Indeed, they have helped to define the identity, as well as patterns of use, of libraries, archives and museums.  UDCs may consist of all types of documentary material: manuscripts and archives, books, pamphlets and periodicals, maps, graphic materials, sound and moving image material, as well as increasingly born-digital collections. A UDC may consist of entirely unique or rare materials; more commonly its uniqueness or distinctiveness derives from the totality of items rather than individual items that may not be special themselves.

Indeed, one might go further.  As the electronic displaces print and the rate of addition to print stocks slows down, many institutions will hold material that may not be considered initially to be ‘special collections’ at all but which could be exploited more closely for research purposes. This would be especially true where large-scale retroconversion or conservation projects are enabling greater access to extant print collections and at the same time bringing into sharper relief the question of how stock, its use and presentation can be shaped by academic choices. The context of the material and the research contour of the institution where it is held mean it can be exploited to create a distinct local base for creating research opportunities, and attracting funding and staff.

Arguably, as non-unique and common research material becomes more accessible online, often without the need for library mediation (e.g. Google Books), the salience of UDCs grows stronger still.  They can attract researchers and research funding, and enhance the institution’s extramural reputation. As well as serving external needs they could just as easily benefit the institution, for example they led to an external impact required by a research council.

UDCs are therefore a valuable asset.  They can also be a liability to the holding institution: they take up space, they require specialist care and servicing, their use may be slight (or by externals only).  They may find it difficult to compete for institutional attention with high-performance computers or stem cell laboratories, especially in a funding environment less friendly to the humanities subjects that gain most benefit from them.

Documentation, discovery, digitisation and promotion

However, new technologies, and especially digitisation, have made UDCs much more visible and accessible, and have opened them up to new methods of exploration by researchers. Digital technologies – digitisation and beyond digitisation – offer UDCs the opportunity to escape far beyond the walls of their physical homes: to reach new audiences, to connect with other, complementary UDCs, to harness the contributions of countless co-operators around the world.  They also help libraries connect with wider digital humanities research and development.

It’s a commonplace but essential to state that to be used effectively UDCs must be visible and their contents discoverable.  Their existence needs to be promoted.  At one time, collection level descriptions would suffice to make them widely known.  Now, however, full item level online cataloguing is usually essential; often more detailed indexing may be necessary in the case of specialist material.  UDCs have been a prime target for digitisation programmes, funded publicly or privately, managed by the owning institution or a partner (commercial or otherwise).

Over the past six months, JISC, RLUK and many other stakeholders, have been sponsors of a concerted set of activities built on the vision of a new metadata infrastructure and discoverability regime for the UK – Discovery. As projects designed to increase the openness and reuse of resource descriptions within this initiative have begun to bear fruit, special collections have emerged across the community as a direct, tangible vector for engagement with the principles and ideals that stand behind and propel Discovery forward.

As Jane Plenderleith and Veronica Adamson established in their recent Discovery advocacy work with research and public libraries, museums and archives, special collections can make sense of open data and aggregation, since it can be difficult to understand the language and concepts of resource discovery, and its applicability to institutions, of whatever size.

Within the Discovery schema, special collections can give profound impetus and shape to the kinds of aggregations that Discovery is intended to produce; whether based around a person, or an event, collations of relevant special collections can concretely foster collaboration between collection holders, and bring apposite collections that are spread across the UK into sharp focus. And we need to attend to such collections, which are widely kept and managed, in order to make sure they do not collect “digital dust”. They are our jewels, meant to adorn research and engagement.

RLUK is working hard on this issue; alongside JISC and Discovery, through which we are part of a collaborative collections management overlay project built on Copac data (, we are also joining up with OCLC Research to conduct a large-scale survey of special collections within the UK and Ireland, the data from which it is hoped will help establish norms within the special collections community, and effectively support decision-making for strategic priorities and collaborative projects. In addition, as part of the RLUK Strategic Plan 2011-2014, we have the Unique and Distinctive Collections strand, which is designed to maximise the value of UDCs, through external engagement, fundraising and promotion, as well as augmenting the now broader staff skills necessary to make them successful. We very much look forward to working further with Discovery, as well as the wider special collections community, to give special collections more of the regard they rightly deserve.

RLUK Unique and Distinctive Collections Group:

Chris Banks, University of Aberdeen

Andrew Green, National Library of Wales

Sarah Thomas, University of Oxford

Mike Mertens, RLUK

[1] See: Special Collections in ARL Libraries: a discussion report from the

ARL Working Group on Special Collections (March 2009);

Jackie M. Dooley and Katherine Luce, Taking our pulse:the OCLC research survey of special collections and archives, OCLC, 2010;

LIBER, Report of the LIBER Working Group on the representation of Special Collections at a European level within the framework of LIBER given by Ivan Boserup (Chairman) at the LIBER Annual General Assembly in Koç University on Friday 4 July 2008.,


2010 RLG Partnership European Meeting: Moving the Past into the Future: Special Collections in a Digital Age, 12-13 October 2010, St Anne’s College, Oxford University.;

Daniel H. Traister, Is there a future for special collections? And should there be? A polemical essay, 2000.

Daniel Traister, ‘Some aspects of the relationships between special collections and academic theory’: a paper presented at the Rare Book and Manuscript Section Annual Preconference, Bloomington, Indiana, 23 June 1995.

Frank M. Turner, ‘Meditations on the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library’, 2008

Barbara M. Jones, ‘Hidden collections, scholarly barriers: creating access to unprocessed special collections materials in North America’s research libraries: a white paper for the Association of Research Libraries Task Force on Special Collections’.