The Eternal Conundrum for Special Collections Stewards

One of my many conundrums, and a conundrum inherent within the cultural heritage field, is how to provide appropriate access to materials while simultaneously providing appropriate stewardship for ensuring that those materials will still exist and be useable 100 years from now.

There are no hard and fast rules for how the competing issues should balance over time. Indeed, there are no hard and fast rules for how the competing issues should balance over the course of an hour.

Sometimes, I feel like I'm making things up as I go. Sometimes, I have no doubt, BDC customers think that I'm favoring one person or request over another person's request more or less on how I feel that day. [Please note: They are wrong because the goal of my professional life is to treat everyone equally badly regardless of race, color, national origin, socio-economic status, gender, height, breadth, religious affilition, political party, etc.!]

Take for example the question of digital photography of rare materials. Approximately 50% of the special collections in SC allow it; about 50% don't. Digital manipulation is just so easy these days that I don't want to imply encouragement of others to commit copyright infringement. Therefore, I tend to lean more to the "don't" side of the issue, particularly when images of photographs or artwork created after 1923 are involved. I tend to be a cautious person about other folks's property (which probably has a good bit to do with why I am a special collections field worker in the first place).

Being a reader in rare book libraries is a thought-provoking blog entry from Sarah Werner about the relative responsibilities of special collections librarians, special collections customers, and the eternal conundrum of access vs. preservation. I caution you that the blog entry is fairly long and comments are pretty intense.

Rick Ring's comment that "Access policies are often the result of two things in an archive/special collections: the institution's traditions and the personalities of the staff" rings (bad pun intended) true. Perhaps more than in any other part of library land, the personality of the Special Collections head holds more sway in daily operations and tenor of access than any other factor. And while I don't think access strictly depends upon the personality of the steward in charge of special collections, his/her personality does most definitely influence the terms under which materials can be manipulated. Please note: No one has ever accused me of having a blase personality!

Let me hear what you think.

About the Author

Grace Cordial has been responsible for the day-to-day operation of the Beaufort District Collection at the Beaufort County Library since 1999.  The Beaufort District Collection exists to acquire, preserve, maintain and make accessible a research collection of permanent value which records the history, culture, and environment of our part of the South Carolina lowcountry.  Besides the research room, Cordial manages the “Virtual BDC:” the BDC web pages, the Online Obituary Index, two digital collections, a new BDC.BCL Facebook page, and the Connections blog.  
Among her duties is to coordinate or present programs about local history, Gullah culture, and our coastal environment, including occasional instructional sessions about how to perform historical and/or genealogical research.