When Your Archives and Special Collections Aren’t Special

Rachael Cristine Woody

Rachael Cristine Woody

June 20, 2018
As discussed in a previous Library, Archives, and Museum (LAM) post, archives and special collections are often found within museums. While “special” is indicated in the name, the specialness can cause heartache and extra work for staff members who aren’t used to working with Archives and Special Collections (ASCs). This post will help define what ASCs are and identify common areas where ASCs aren’t special.

First, let’s start with a definition of special collections and archives:

Purdue University has an excellent definition of Special Collections:

A special collection is a group of items, such as rare books or documents, that are either irreplaceable or unusually rare and valuable. For this reason, special collections are stored separately from the regular library collections in a secure location with environmental controls to preserve the items for posterity. Special collections also include rare items that are focused on a single topic, such as aviation or women’s history. Special collections are created to benefit scholars by grouping related materials together in one repository. Often a repository will specialize in a limited number of subject areas for their special collections, to distinguish the institution from other libraries.

Sometimes archival collections are included within special collections; other times they stand separate. This separation or inclusion is up to the organization, though as discussed in our recent LAM post, the future of LAMs is moving towards collection integration. For a refresher on what archives are, here’s the definition as provided by the Society of American Archivists:

(also archive), n. ~ 1. Materials created or received by a person, family, or organization, public or private, in the conduct of their affairs and preserved because of the enduring value contained in the information they contain or as evidence of the functions and responsibilities of their creator, especially those materials maintained using the principles of provenance, original order, and collective control; permanent records.

When put together, ASCs are unique, rare, irreplaceable, and provide valuable historical insight both in their form and content. Whether an ASC is housed within a museum, or stands as an independent organization, it can be easy to get caught up in the “specialness” of the collections. This is particularly true for staff who aren’t immersed in ASCs work on a daily basis.

Here are the 3 most common areas in which ASCs are treated as too special:

  1. Archives and Special Collections Need a Preservation Environment – Just Like a Museum
    Too many times I’ve seen museums separate their ASCs from the museum collection. Unfortunately, almost just as often, this means the ASCs are relegated to unstable temperature and humidity situations common within office environments. This also indicates a lack of security for the collections as it would be too easy to access and damage collections in an office environment. Sometimes museums try and pair the ASC with their Library collection. However, Library books used for reference and circulation do not require a preservation environment. In this case, ASCs aren’t special or different from museum object collections. All should be in a preservation environment with temperature, humidity, and light control.
  2. Archives and Special Collections Don’t Need Item-level Treatment
    Item-level organization and cataloging is so tempting when working with ASCs because everything is unique. This is especially true if museum professionals are guiding the cataloging because museum objects are treated individually as opposed to belonging to a larger collection. While there are always a set of circumstances where item-level treatment can be supported, it shouldn’t be the go-to standard for organizing and cataloging these collections.

    • Organizing and Storage: A rookie mistake in this area is treating each ASC item as independent from the rest of the collection. This breaks a major tenet of archival theory and destroys historical context. These types of collections are related to each other and that relationship needs to be respected when organizing the collection. Don’t break them up! ASCs are not special enough to break this cardinal rule. Similarly, don’t feel compelled to separate every item, book, and document in its own box. There’s not enough money in the world to afford that for every ASC item.
    • Cataloging: First of all, the ASCs aren’t special enough to require a granular level of cataloging. Second, it would be impossible from a staff and time perspective to achieve an item-level catalog of most ASCs. I recommend starting out with collection-level records to capture the content. It’s far more sustainable to begin from the top-level of the collection and capture all ASCs content. Once a higher-level catalog is achieved a more granular approach can be considered. In this case, ASCs aren’t like museums. ASCs don’t require item-level cataloging as part of their professional standard. Eventually this can be the goal, but I caution museums not to embark on item-level cataloging at the onset or they will quickly be overwhelmed.
  3. Archives and Special Collections Don’t Need Special Subject Terms
    Creating specialized (in-house) Subject Terms within a catalog is a slippery slope. Yes, there will always be a few instances where the usual Taxonomies don’t cut it. However, 95% of the time catalogers should use the available Taxonomies from Library of Congress, Getty Thesaurus, and others for their pre-defined Subject Terms. This is especially important if the collections will interact with any other collections or hope to in future. If the same Subject Term language isn’t being followed, these cataloged collections will have no way to reliably relate to one another. Often, I’ve seen museum professionals get hung up on the search for a perfect, very specialized term, forgetting that it’s the combination of general Subject Terms that can capture those same specialized elements. And don’t forget, catalog searches include Title, Scope and Contents, and other fields as part of the search – it’s not solely reliant on Subject Terms.

Last, don’t leave catalogers unsupervised when it comes to cataloging the ASCs. It’s far too easy for non-archival staff to freely create their own Subject Terms and not be consistent with structure or language. Pre-determined Taxonomies are freely available for use in most catalog systems and should be implemented with few exceptions. The ASCs aren’t special enough to break this rule.

In conclusion, please encourage museum and historical staff to familiarize themselves with ASCs theory and standards when it comes to their care, storage, management, organization, and cataloging. Keep these 3 key instances in mind when you’re tempted to give an ASC special treatment.

Rachael Cristine Woody

Rachael Cristine Woody

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