Special Collections A to Z

Special Collections A to Z

Rare books and other materials grace the shelves and library vaults of major universities and institutions across the globe. Librarians must give rare materials special consideration, especially security and preservation. Delve into the details of special collections and find out how and what goes into handling precious and rare materials.


What Types of Rare Materials Exist in Special Collections?

Image via Flickr by Kurt S_Special Collections A to Z

Image via Flickr by Kurt:S


Special collections of rare books might dominate the protected, noncirculating shelves in many libraries, but other rare materials exist as well. For example, the Library of Michigan has an extensive Rare Materials Collection that consists of almost 30,000 pieces. The collection includes many rare books, plus newspapers and magazines, maps, posters, and other printed materials.

Special collections and their diverse materials demonstrate why library science professionals must learn about more than rare books. These professionals study handling methods for other printed resources, from recordings to photographs, that visitors or researchers might need to access. As time progresses, new types of materials might become part of rare collections, such as video games or printouts of digital files.


How Do Librarians Handle Rare or Delicate Materials?

Caring for special collections involves more than merely understanding the history and significance of rare books and other printed resources. Special collections librarians must know how to handle these materials to prevent damage. The Library of Congress Preservation Directorate identifies several steps professionals should take to preserve rare materials and to store them safely.

To prevent damage, the Library of Congress recommends handling special materials on a clean surface. The organization also suggests storing rare materials in a cool, dry facility with no direct light exposure. Dusting and cleaning the storage room or facility also serves as an important safety strategy.


Do Rare Materials Need Extra Security?

In addition to proper handling and care, rare volumes and materials may need extra protection from theft and vandalism. Valuable materials might attract thieves’ attentions. The Association of College and Research Libraries, ACRL, suggests that institutions should appoint a Library Security Officer, LSO, to design and carry out security procedures for special collections.

Additionally, the ACRL notes that every organization needs a security policy for rare collections. A security policy might require researchers and visitors to sign a document before they view printed materials or prove their credentials if they want to use materials for specific projects.

Security policies should also involve written instructions for handling and caring for special collections. Library visitors may not know that they need to wash their hands before entering a display area or avoid tugging on a rare book’s spine when removing it from a shelf. Written guidelines help protect collection integrity.

Further, library staff themselves must keep detailed records, according to the ACRL. Cataloging the entire collection and conducting regular inventory will help librarians discover missing items or other problems that could impact the collection’s value or safety.

Special collections serve a valuable purpose in U.S. university and city libraries. Preserving rare and significant documents and printed materials will ensure that future generations can access them.