Improving Access and “Unhiding” the Special Collections

Marcella Tam

School of Information, Pratt Institute, New York, NY USA



The purpose of this article is to broadly review the issue of access in special collections and introduce several solutions for improving access to special collections materials. Drawing on literature and specific case studies, this article seeks to argue that special collections have made great progress in making their materials accessible to researchers and users. A variety of access web and digitization technologies are outlined and discussed.

Keywords:  special collections; open web; access; OPACs; digitization; 


     In a recent interview I conducted with Meghan Constantinou, Librarian at The Grolier Club, she discussed the current emphasis on access as playing a key role in the future of special collections. This emphasis on access has been furthered by the rise of new web and digitization technologies available to libraries. The interview with Meghan Constantinou made me
interested in exploring the topic of access in special collections further and I believe it is important for me to understand this issue for my own professional development. When I conducted my research and literature review, I discovered that the focus on access in special collections is not a new issue and it is something that has been developing for a long time. Even a decade ago, when web and digitization technologies were only beginning to be implemented, special collections professionals urged others in the field to take notice of the hidden collections issue before they fail to keep up with the demand for access to special collections materials.  

     In 2003, Barbara M. Jones and a group of special collections professionals presented a White Paper on the findings of the Association of Research Libraries Task Force on Special Collections. The paper titled, “Hidden collections, scholarly barriers: Creating access to unprocessed special collections materials in America's research libraries,” has shaped the discussion of Hidden Collections ever since[1] and is one of the most cited resource on the topic of special collections access. For the purposes of this article, I will use Barbara M. Jones’ definition of “access”, because I believe that her definition of access is the most authoritative and most relevant to my discussion of the topic. Jones defined access as a means of discovery and encompasses the processes followed to make materials of all formats available to users, the tools used to publicize materials to potential users, and the openness with which [special collections material] are made available to the public[2]. And at a basic level, access technologies are tools that facilitate connections between users and artifacts, whether through contact with physical material or its information content[3]. This article will also use Mark Dimunation’s definition of “unhiding” and build upon Jones’ definition of “access.” Although, Dimunation only mentions the term unhiding once in his address to the 2011 Charleston Conference proceedings, I expand upon his definition and explore certain types of “access” technologies that are means of “unhiding” special collections materials. By utilizing these two definitions, this article seeks to thoroughly explore the methods in which special collections can “unhide” their materials.

Image and Perception of Special Collections

     The current literature on the image and perception of special collections reveals that many special collections are working hard to shed their traditional image of being niche and aloof. But this positive conceptualization took a long time to develop. Only about a decade ago, the literature landscape depicted a grim image of special collections as being inaccessible treasure rooms and special collections librarians as haughty gatekeepers that did not like people touching their rare materials4.This negative image was a major issue for special collections professionals who saw that the rise of new technologies like digitization could introduce a wider audience to their collections. To address this negative image and also the glaring backlog problem, in a 2001 Keynote address presented at the “Building on Strength: Developing an ARL Agenda for Special Collections,” symposium, David Stam, University Librarian Emeritus of Syracuse University, boldly demanded that:

Our special collections must be democratized, must overcome their

exclusionary origins in the monastery or aristocratic library, must shed

their image of aloofness and preciosity, must get their precious treasures

and scholarly ephemera into the sometimes dirty hands of potential

users, must place a higher priority on access to unprocessed material,

and must build a wider audience including the traditional scholar

(whom we’ve always tried to serve), the innovator in new uses of old

stuff, and most importantly for survival, the inquiring student.[4] 

     Today, many special collections are indeed shedding their image of aloofness and preciosity and are becoming more willing to offer up their precious treasures[5] to digitization projects. Instead of being “treasure rooms” open only to a few scholars bearing the proper credentials, special collections now are the places from which the cultural treasures of the library are disseminated into the community[6] whether through the web, social media, and exhibition programs. Charlotte Priddle refers to the success of special collections shedding that negative image and declared that special collections did well in establishing exhibition programs, outreach programs, and utilizing social media platforms like Twitter to interact with the public. However, Priddle and other special collections professionals argue that most special collections department are still very much seen as separate from the larger institutions that they exist in. It is not surprising that the special collections finds itself outside the mainstream and fighting for resources with other library departments. Perhaps, the real work for improving access to the special collections is establishing a better relationship with other library professionals in different departments.

The Backlog Problem

     Although special collections have largely made progress in improving their image and perception, the problem of uncatalogued and inaccessible unprocessed materials remains a worrying issue today. Special collections are confronted with the physical backlogs of completely uncataloged materials and “underlogs” of material with inadequate access and are coming up against the limitations of providing intellectual access to material[7].

     In 2011, Mark Dimunation, Chief of Rare Book and Special Collections Division of the Library of Congress, presented at the Charleston Conference on the topic of hidden collections. He argued that special collections have been pushed off course since the establishment of the ARL Special Collections Task Force that investigated the vexing problem of cataloging backlogs and unprocessed collections[8] in the special collections of research libraries. He further argued that the special collections need to develop a national and organized strategy to tackle the backlog and hidden collections problem. Dimunation, like Barbara M. Jones, conceptualized the “hidden collections problem” as essentially being a backlog problem.

     I am no stranger to the special collections backlog problem myself. When I was a Rare Books Assistant at the University of Chicago’s Special Collections four years ago, there were full shelves of unprocessed materials that made up the backlog.  

Improving Access

In this part of the article, I identify four types of access that have the best potential in improving access to special collections materials. As Barbara M. Jones has argued, it is important that special collections librarians consider which tool will provide the most satisfactory patron access[9] and also keep in mind the financial realities of choosing a particular tool. For example, a small-size special collections that lacks a discovery layer in their OPAC, could look into enriching their website and improving their open web visibility.

Rethinking the OPAC

     In 1990, Howard Pasternack, Library Systems/Planning Officer at Brown University, foretold that online catalogs are or soon will be the primary means of access to information about library collections and that most library users will rely increasingly on online catalogs for bibliographic and holdings information[10]. Pasternack’s vision of a library landscape in which online catalogs are resources themselves ultimately came true. The modern online library catalogue has become a true portal in which the mainstream functionality is integrated with many web services to increase the level of interaction for researchers and users[11]. For instsance, in 2011, the Vatican Library launched the Bibliotheae Apostolicae Vaticanae Incunabulorum Catalogus (BAVIC) project. The BAVIC project was the analytical cataloging of 8,600 incunabula (early European printed materials before the 16th century) and transferring all of the newly created MARC 21 records into an electronic Online Public Access Catalogue (OPAC). The creation of this new OPAC was meant to be a first step towards the discovery of the Vatican provenances[12]. Although the BAVIC project is a significant step towards “unhiding” a very important and unique collection of rare materials in the Vatican Library, the Vatican Library’s various OPACs are not the best examples of a dynamic library catalogue. Although it is true that the Vatican Library OPAC connects to different web services, it is difficult for the user to access each catalog and many of the catalog records do not contain links to the other Vatican Library catalogs.      

     Instead, I would point to the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library of Yale University and its OPAC as one of the best examples of a well-designed library catalog that improves access to special collections materials. On the Beinecke Library’s “Library Catalogs & Databases,” website page, each catalog or database has a short description to help the user identify which catalog they should use. One of the best features of the Beinecke Library OPAC is the dynamic links and connections between the various catalogs. For example, when you search for the Library’s famous Cipher (Voynich) Manuscript record on the Orbis catalog (for printed materials), there is a link that directs you to view the digital version of the manuscript on the Digital Collections database. Once a user is viewing the digital image record, users can download the entire scanned manuscript and the corresponding MARC bibliographic record, which could be very useful for researchers and users who cannot access the Voynich Manuscript in-person.  

     As special collections continue to separate their digital collections from their printed collections and essentially create two different catalogs, having an OPAC that functions as a hub with a wide array of information, links, and images[13] is highly beneficial in improving access to all types of special collections material. I would argue that special collections should try to follow the Beinecke Library’s example and allow users and researchers to easily navigate between different collections and allow users to freely download catalog records and corresponding metadata. The library catalog and the catalog record are important resources themselves and special collections should consider making their OPACs as dynamic and openly accessible as possible.

Increasing Open Web Visibility

     With the expansion of access to the World Wide Web and the growth of digitization projects[14], special collections need to optimize their Open Web visibility more than ever. Researchers, scholars, and even the general public are increasingly using the Internet to search for information. And perhaps, the simplest way to increase open web visibility of special collections material is making create brief collection descriptions available online for researchers. These descriptions should be indexed and fully searchable on the open web. Furthermore, releasing collection and item-level metadata for search engines to crawl and index also heightens discovery of special collections material[15].

     But special collections face a major issue in increasing their presence on the open web because of the closed-nature of the library catalog and the rare books catalog record. The OPACs and websites of libraries contain a wealth of information, from bibliographic information to metadata, but that information is stored in MARC records. MARC records are generally contained in a library’s integrated library system (ILS) and their bibliographic data cannot be recognized or accessed by major search engines like Google. And to complicate the issue of open web visibility, special collections material and rare books are usually unique and contain copy-specific information that might be difficult to fully index. Rare books in library collections are valued for many qualities including provenance, binding, manuscript annotations, extra-illustration, local library identification marks, and various imperfection[16]. With the level of description that some special collections materials demand, can special collections truly make their materials fully searchable and indexed for the open web?

     In Anne Welsh’s recently published article titled, “The Rare Books Catalog and the Scholarly Database,” she advocated for the use of linked data practices and the use of Resource Description Framework (RDF) for rare and special collections materials. She argued that even though library catalog data is incredibly useful for researchers and users, libraries are limited by MARC and the high overhead of systems work that MARC requires[17]. Although I agree with Welsh on the limitations of MARC, Welsh only provides examples of large national libraries like the British Library and does not discuss RDF in relations to special collections. Until more literature is published on special collections successfully adopting linked data practices, I remain skeptical. Small special collections with limited budgets should be content with managing MARC records and adopt other inexpensive methods to improve access to their materials.

Providing Access to Uncatalogued Materials

     Although making library OPACs dynamic and increasing Open Web visibility of special collections materials are good ways to increase access to special collections material, they do not address the glaring special collections backlog problem. One of the simplest ways to address the backlog problem is putting the materials out for public view even if they are not cataloged. And, although special collections professionals might balk at releasing materials without cataloging and descriptive bibliography, there are a few examples of special collections doing that successfully. For instance, the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library has a searchable Uncatalged Acquisitions database that provides access to materials not found in their general catalog or in their Finding Aid database. These uncatalogued acquisitions have very brief descriptive records but they can be viewed and used. It is much better to have a brief record of an item rather than not knowing the item exists. While the Uncatalogued Acquisitions database can only be accessed on the Yale campus currently, with the Library working to restore online access for the public, this is an excellent way of improving access to special collections materials that might be hidden in the backlog.

     Another way to provide access to uncatalogued materials, is to employ a standard model of acquisitions procedure of creating acquisitions-level records into the local system. The Special Collections Department at the University of Colorado at Boulder Libraries employed and trained a graduate student to do this. And by working closely with the catalogers of the Special Collections Department, the graduate student was able to bring in 171 bibliographic records into the online catalog and was able to complete her part of the project within two months’ time[18]. In my current position as a Library Assistant at the Brooklyn Museum Libraries and Archives, I also do something similar to what the graduate student at University of Colorado at Boulder Libraries does. I would import a WorldCat record from OCLC Connexion into Millennium Acquisitions and attach necessary acquisitions-level information such as type of acquisition, price, and vendor information. This accessioning process facilitates the cataloging workflow. The real benefit of using this acquisitions method is that users can see the full OCLC bibliographic record on the library OPAC. While the user can’t access the physical copy of the material just yet, they can still access the bibliographic information on the record.

Digitization as “Unhiding” the Special Collections

     Digitization and making digital images and records available online is one of the best methods to improving access to the special collections. Mark Dimunation argued that perhaps special collections should also seriously consider digitization prior to description[19] or cataloging, because digital collections will continue to be separated from the physical print collections and that is very problematic. But Dimunation also argued for a more systems-based approach to the digitization workflow of special collections material because most libraries are only working with digital materials on a case-by-case basis. I doubt that special collections will be able to digitize their materials on a wider scale because of how expensive digitization is. For instance, the Brooklyn Museum Libraries and Archives selects items for digitization based on uniqueness and demand as the process to create a digital surrogate is very detailed and costly in terms of staff resources.

     But there is data to support the fact that if libraries make special collections materials available via the Web with appropriate metadata and software, preferably for free, they will be used[20]. However, the digitization process is expensive and some libraries are digitizing their collections and making them available on the open web for a profit. The University of Cincinnati Library sells digital facsimiles of the library’s archives, manuscripts, and rare books and has no intention of making its digitized collections available for free[21].

     To share the cost of digitization, some special collections are collaborating with commercial publishers or entities like the Internet Archive to provide greater access to rare and fragile materials. For example, the Wilbour Library of Egyptology at Brooklyn Museum Libraries and Archives, has created a few digital copies of unique books from its collection. Notably, one example of a unique work that has been digitized by the Library is is a guest book of a gallery in Cairo that sold Egyptian antiquities[22]. After the digitization process, the digital copies are then cataloged and made available through the Library’s OPAC and then uploaded into the Internet Archive. On the Internet Archive website page, users can easily flip through high-resolution images and also download the entire digitized book in many different formats. The Brooklyn Museum Libraries and Archives have been involved with several collaborations with other institutions to create digital projects that provide greater access to its research collections. Digital access to select collections is also available on the Brooklyn Museum website where users can download images and view brief descriptive records[23].

     There are some that argue against using digitization for special collections because it has a negative impact on the unique value of special collections materials. Peter B. Hirtle, former Director of the Cornell Institute for Digital Collections, argued that while digitization of special collections material is indeed great for improving access, the value of the paper original and special collections librarianship will be changed for the worse. Hirtle was concerned that as availability of electronic materials increases, the preference for electronic surrogates of original material will only increase[24] and special collections might lose the core group of users who are interested in the book as a unique and physical artifact. I would argue that the future of digitization in special collections is not quite as grim as Hirtle is describing. Special collections nowadays are both actively digitizing relevant materials in their collection and are working hard to create exciting outreach and exhibition programs to get users to access special collections materials physically. While I agree with Hirtle’s statement that a bunch of TIFF images is no replacement for a leather-bound book[25], I would also argue that only allowing physical access to special collections materials is a step back into the past of special collections being perceived as chilly and aloof “treasure rooms”.


     Special collections today have rose up to David Stam’s call for special collections need to diminish the barriers and lose the white gloves and the aura of the untouchable[26] that surrounds the image and perception of special collections. Special collections are implementing successful outreach and exhibition programs for the public, and they are openly embracing new web and digitization technologies that improve access to their materials. Special collections are creating dynamic library OPACs with links to digital surrogates that enriches the user’s experience with the materials, and some special collections are tackling the backlog problem by sharing uncataloged materials on the web before description.

     Because of the uniqueness and rarity of special collections materials, I do not think that the “aura of the untouchable” will ever be removed from the profession. But there is great potential for the public and for researchers to have access to both the digital surrogate and the physical object itself. And the uniqueness of special collections provides a value-added service by filling information gaps[27] that main collections cannot give to researchers and users. And as special collections continue to embrace new web and digitization technologies, special collections materials will be more “unhidden” and accessible than ever.


  1. Mark Dimunation, “Everything We See Hides Another: Coping with Hidden Collections in the 21st Century Library.” Something’s Gotta Give, 2012. doi:10.5703/1288284314972.
  2. Barbara M. Jones, "Hidden collections, scholarly barriers: Creating access to unprocessed special collections materials in America's research libraries." RBM: A Journal of Rare Books, Manuscripts and Cultural Heritage 5, no. 2 (2004): 88-105.
  3. Sean Heyliger, Juli McLoone, and Nikki Lynn Thomas, "Moving Toward “Mega-choice”: The Evolution of Access Technologies in Special Collections." RBM: A Journal of Rare Books, Manuscripts and Cultural Heritage 17, no. 1 (2016): 17-31.
  4. David H. Stam "So What’s So Special?." Building on Strength: Developing an ARL Agenda for Special Collections,” June 28 (2001).
  5. Ibid.
  6. Barbara M. Jones, "Hidden collections, scholarly barriers: Creating access to unprocessed special collections materials in America's research libraries,” 93.
  7. Whittaker, Beth M. "“Get It, Catalog It, Promote It”: New Challenges to Providing Access to Special Collections." RBM: A Journal of Rare Books, Manuscripts and Cultural Heritage 7, no. 2 (2006): 121-133.
  8. Mark Dimunation, “Everything We See Hides Another: Coping with Hidden Collections in the 21st Century Library,” 23.
  9. Barbara M. Jones, "Hidden collections, scholarly barriers: Creating access to unprocessed special collections materials in America's research libraries,” 95.
  10. Howard Pasternack, "Online Catalogs and the Retrospective Conversion of Special Collections." Rare Books & Manuscripts Librarianship 5, no. 2 (1990): 71-76.
  11. Laura Lalli, "Rare books in the Vatican Library: reshaping the catalogue." JLIS. it 5, no. 2 (2014): 123.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Mark Dimunation, “Everything We See Hides Another: Coping with Hidden Collections in the 21st Century Library,” 28.
  14. Barbara Lewis and Melanie Griffin, "Special collections and the new web: Using LibGuides to provide meaningful access." Journal of Electronic Resources Librarianship 23, no. 1 (2011): 20-29.
  15. Sunghae Ress, "Special collections: Improving access and usability." The Reference Librarian 56, no. 1 (2015): 52-58.
  16. Henry Raine and Laura Stalker, "Rare Book Records in Online Systems." Rare Books & Manuscripts Librarianship 11, no. 2 (1996): 103-118.
  17. Anne Welsh, "The rare books catalog and the scholarly database." Cataloging and Classification Quarterly 54, no. 5-6 (2016): 317-337.
  18. M. Winslow Lundy, "Providing Access to Uncataloged Special Collections with In-Process Records." Cataloging & Classification Quarterly 45, no. 1 (2007): 39-58.
  19. Mark Dimunation, “Everything We See Hides Another: Coping with Hidden Collections in the 21st Century Library,” 25.
  20. Peter B. Hirtle, "The impact of digitization on special collections in libraries." Libraries & Culture 37, no. 1 (2002): 42-52.
  21. Ron Chepesiuk, "Digitizing rare materials: Special collections go global." American Libraries 32, no. 5 (2001): 54-56.
  22. Brookmuse. “Maurice Nahman, Antiquaire. Visitor book.. 1918-1977 (inclusive).” http://arcade.nyarc.org/record=b1385698~S2 (accessed January 10, 2017).
  23. Brooklyn Musuem. “Libraries and Archives: Fashion and Costume Sketch Collection, 1912-1950.” https://www.brooklynmuseum.org/opencollection/archives/set/198 (accessed January 10, 2017).
  24. Peter B. Hirtle, "The impact of digitization on special collections in libraries," 49.
  25. Peter B. Hirtle, "The impact of digitization on special collections in libraries," 50.
  26. David H. Stam "So What’s So Special?." Building on Strength: Developing an ARL Agenda for Special Collections,” June 28 (2001).
  27. Sunghae Ress, "Special collections: Improving access and usability," 52.


This article was originally written as a paper for LIS 651: Information Professions, taught by Dr. Irene Lopatovska in Fall 2016 at Pratt Institute’s School of Information. The author thanks Professor Lopatovska, Meghan Constantinou of The Grolier Club, and Deirdre Lawrence of Brooklyn Museum Libraries and Archives for their assistance.