and Scholarly Culture
The session on "Collectors, Collections, and Scholarly Culture"
was presented on May 6, 2000, in Washington, DC as part of the ACLS Annual Meeting.
© Deanna Marcum
The Library and the Scholar:
A New Imperative for Partnership
Council on Library and Information Resources
Great libraries and great collections are synonymous. Last night,
we dined in the Library of Congress, the largest library in the world.
The titles that find their way to the stacks of the Library of Congress
are selected from the thousands of works that are submitted annually
for copyright deposit, and thereby represent a cultural snapshot of
a record that is accumulated year after year. The special collections
of the Library of Congress and those of every major university
library in the country contain materials that have moved from the hands
of private collectors to a more public repository, manuscript
materials of important individuals that have been solicited by curators
and librarians, and literary works of important authors who have
formed a bond with a particular institution. These, plus the special
formats of informationphotographs, moving images, recorded
soundform the rich tapestry of primary sources we have come to
expect from our great libraries. Institutions such as the American
Philosophical Society and the American Antiquarian Society have
collected comprehensively in certain subjects and time periods, and
they have built those collections without regard to research fads
or political pressures. They have simply gone about their
important work on behalf of society, and for this, the scholars who use
their collections are deeply grateful.
Collections, traditionally, have been built in two ways:
- Zealous collectors build comprehensive collections in a
specialized field or document an era by collecting all known knowedge related to that period. In either case, when they can
no longer manage the size of the collection, or when they
cannot exercise reasonable control over the collection, they turn it
over to a repository for safekeeping.
- Librarians and bibliographers assume responsibility for
different subject areas and studiously collect the current literature
in those fields, with an eye toward having collections available
to subsequent generations.
Many of the great collections we find at the Library of
Congress, the University of Michigan, or the Newberry Library were born
of the zeal of an individual collector. Consider the Peter Force
collections at the Library of Congress. Like the Jefferson Library, the
Peter Force Library was purchased for $100,000 by an act of
Congress after the Jefferson collection was partially destroyed in 1851.
Peter Force, a Washington printer and publisher, had assembled what
was surely the largest private collection of printed and manuscript
sources on American history in the United States. Force acquired
incunabula, manuscripts, pamphlets, personal papers, and
mapsall documenting early American history. When Congress purchased
the library in 1867, the Library of Congress became the owner of
a comprehensive, well-documented collection that had been
A more limited example is the complete set of McGuffey
Readers, assembled by Maude Blair, a Detroit school teacher. Miss
Blair donated the 195 separate editions of the readers, primers, and
spellers to the Library of Congress in 1937. She had diligently sought
each of these editions and bought them in varying conditions, but
they constitute a complete set.
Many university and independent research libraries have
similar stories to tell. Their most prized historical collections have
been given or sold by individuals who cared deeply about a particular
body of knowledge. Often, the descriptions of the materials are as
valuable to the archival institution as the materials themselves. More
often than not, the descriptions prepared by the donors are the only
finding aids for these rare and special materials.
Today, libraries and archives typically acquire special
collections by purchasing them, and the asking prices have escalated dramatically. Two high-profile collections offered to the Library of
Congressthe Martin Luther King papers and the Leonard
Bernstein collectionillustrate this point. Both families view the
collections as financial assets and the conditions set for deposit are
closely connected to how the families expect to continue to derive
income from the collections. Increasingly, libraries find that
significant numbers of families and private collectors view collections in
a similar way, and few libraries have budgets to accommodate
Even when the collections are "free," they are not
without problems. The University of Michigan recently accessioned
the papers of its last president, James Duderstadt. Dr. Duderstadt is
an engineer and a technology enthusiast. Not surprisingly, his
papers came to the archives in the form of multiple hard drives. Since a
hard drive contains only an alphabetical list of software applications
and files, it is very difficult for the archivists at Michigan to appraise
the contents of the collection. Many trivial e-mail reminders sit next
to files documenting policy decisionsall as undifferentiated bits.
These examples illustrate two types of challenges that libraries
and archives face today in building special collections. Both
challengesthe trend toward information as a commodity and the explosion
of research material in digital formhave important (and not
unrelated) implications for scholarly access in the future. This
presentation will focus on the second challengethe development of
digital collectionsand some of the fundamental issues that managers
of those collections are facing. In considering these issues, it
will become clear that the survival of the digital scholarly record
will depend on new forms of partnership between scholars and
the librarians who have traditionally served as the custodians of
Digital collections take several forms:
collections. Many research libraries have converted important portions of their special collections to
digital form. This reformatting has increased access to materials
that previously were not readily available. The digital
collections have extended the reach of libraries to profoundly
different audiences. Instead of making collections available only to their students and faculty, research institutions have made
their materials accessible to the K-12 audience, liberal arts
colleges, and international educational institutions, as well as to
independent scholars and the inquisitive public. Research
institutions have had an opportunity to take their materials out
from their locked cases and present them to much wider
audiences. But in so doing, they have had to find ways to fund
the digitizing and to place special collections in context for
- New scholarly
resources. An excellent example of what I mean by new scholarly resources is ACLS's new program
to stimulate the production of electronic texts in history
[the ACLS History E-Book Project]. The project encourages
well-known historians to take advantage of technology to create
a new type of monographone that allows the author
to combine different kinds of materials to create an
educational experience for the reader. The possibilities for bringing
many types of historical evidence to bear on a single topic are
exciting indeed, but we have not yet determined how these
"experiences" will be preserved and made available to
subsequent generations of students and scholars. Whose responsibility
will it be to manage these electronic resources and maintain
them over time?
materials. Many faculty members are creating
their own resources for use by their students. They are, in
essence, publishing "books" for a particular group. The library may
not even know of the existence of these materials if they have
not been acquired or processed. Do we care if they pass
into oblivion more quickly than they were created?
To answer these questions, we must understand the evolving
role of the library. Libraries have traditionally been physical
placesmassive limestone or brick structures with commanding arches
and windows. They have inspired a great many students to
pursue scholarly careers. They have been the site of significant scientific
and humanistic discoveries. This is not simply a nostalgic
viewread any number of scholars' biographies and find references to the influence of the library as a symbol of open access to knowledge.
It is a powerful story. But, how does digital technology, with its
ability to transcend time and place, change the role of the library, and
by implication, the relationship of the library to the scholar?
Perhaps the single most important fact is that in the
electronic world, libraries do not own collections, especially journal
collections. Access to the content of journals is provided to
authorized users for finite periods by legal contracts. This arrangement
raises serious questions about how journals will be retained for access
over time. Libraries cannot preserve what they do not own, and
publishers have traditionally not been in the preservation business. In
some disciplines, scholars themselves have taken control of the
scholarly output in their fields. They have created repositories into
which authors deposit both their refereed and non-refereed works,
but there are usually no plans for long-term retention of such
collections. Typically, libraries make decisions about preservation after
they acquire published materials. In the dynamic digital world, in
which the very notion of "publishing" is in flux, who is responsible
for preservation of these materials? Much work has yet to be done
to establish the conditions and responsibilities for preservation in
the digital environment. In this new world, we must think about
access and preservation separately. While we have lauded the
possibilities for extending access, we are much less certain what it takes to
ensure that digital information will be accessible five, ten, or twenty
years from now.
Separating access and preservation is difficult after we worked
so hard to combine these activities. When the National
Endowment for the Humanities announced its Brittle Books program, there
was much fanfare among both scholars and librarians alike, and there
was great excitement about joining in the cause of preservation
and access. NEH recognized that millions of nineteenth-century
books were crumbling on library shelves. Under this new program,
though, materials that could no longer be used because of their poor
physical condition were microfilmed and given new life for scholarly
use while also being preserved.
To be sure, not everyone was thrilled by microfilm.
Digital technology was just emerging, and the futurists were telling us that soon anything could be digitized, that there would be universal
access to everything. Wasn't it a waste of money to settle for
microform, especially since we knew that scholars intensely disliked
using microfilm, and students avoided it all together?
Even those who showed little enthusiasm for microfilm
recognized that the brittle books problem was so urgent that it
demanded immediate attention, and that the best available
technologymicrofilmwould have to do. We took comfort in the
connection between preservation and access while we waited for other
technologies to develop. Now digital technology is very much with us.
NEH as well as other funding agencies are bombarded with proposals
to digitize important collections. The reason: to provide access.
Indeed, the greatest advantage of digital technology is that it
has dramatically increased access to information. Libraries, archives,
historical societies, and museums are all digitizing collections to make
them widely available on the World Wide Web. And so is everyone
elsefrom faculty in today's most prestigious institutions to
elementary school children. In a society that praises "new voices," the Internet is
a wonderful forum for all who have a contribution to make.
Still, the challenge of preservation in this new context is
even greater than it was for brittle books, because unless the
preservation of digital information is considered at the point of creation, there
is little chance that such information will remain available in
the future. Microfilming promised a life span of at least an
additional 100 years for books and journals printed on acidic paper. Today,
no such promise exists for preserving digital information.
Moreover, the storage media for digital information present their own
preservation problems. Much digital information is housed on
magnetic tapes and disks, and we know from experience that magnetic
media are short-lived. A whole generation of folklorists is now
agonizing about ethnographic tapes collected in the 1960s and 1970s that
are disintegrating on the shelves of library and folklore institutes
around the country. As the faculty who recorded the voices and music
of distinct cultures approach retirement age, they realize that
the information they gathered may never be used for the creation
of future knowledge, but will instead turn to flakes of celluloid if
action is not taken to rescue this information soon.
The challenges posed by analog audiovisual materials
presage some of the challenges presented by digital technology. With
each evolution in media, from print to analog audiovisual to digital,
we have had less time to decide what to save and to implement
effective preservation. Establishing common systems of cataloging,
searching, and retrieval has become more complex and urgent, as has
addressing copyright issues. Librarians alone cannot resolve the issues of
preservation and access in the digital realm. Cooperation between
librarians and scholars will become increasingly necessary in managing
the collections upon which future research depends.
Scholars could make valuable contributions in the
- Selection for
preservation. Although printed materials remain important in our libraries and archives, the
documentation of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries exists in
many different formats. Television broadcasts, recorded sound,
film, and photographic images hold increasing importance for
scholars, but libraries have not perfected procedures for
incorporating these materials into their collections. Moreover, the cost
of acquiring and maintaining research materials in
numerous storage formats has become prohibitive for many
institutions. Even more important, many Web-based resources are
fundamentally different from regular published materials.
They cannot be "acquired" by libraries, but faculty creating
or identifying these materials can help alert the librarians to
Web resources that should be preserved for future research
and instructional purposes.
- Collection building.
Scholars and librarians have become too isolated from one another. Librarians, trying heroically to
tame new technology so that it can be applied to scholarly
and instructional purposes, need to turn their attention to the
truly important question of what constitutes a research collection
in the twenty-first century. They can answer that question only
in consultation with faculty. Scholars must realize that they
also have responsibilities for defining and nurturing collections
for subsequent students and scholars. Imagine, fifty years from now, trying to explain the development of the World
Wide Web or the history of changes in scholarly communication
in the twentieth century. Where will our students go to find
the source materials for such subjects?
- Establishment of electronic
archives. Librarians have carried the responsibility for preserving the intellectual record.
Such preservation will be enormously difficult in the
future unless librarians, scholars, and publishers work together to
create trustworthy archival repositories of digital information.
The collaboration I have called for is urgently needed.
Digital information resources are short-lived. Creators of the material
and scholars in the field are best qualified to identify important
materials, and librarians are the best hope for the long-term survival of
such materials. I hope my remarks will stimulate this desperately