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Present Policies for Future Special/Archival Collections

If you have a brand-new library for a brand-new organization, how would  you build special collections for the organization?  Ironically, it is easier to work on special collections when you already somehow have some stuff under the category of special collections. This is the case whether there existed any concrete plan and guidelines for collecting items for the special collections or not in the past. Most old libraries and archives have lots of backlogs that they need to work on. There is not much time to spare on collecting items for the future special/archival collections.

On the other hand, if you are a new library for a new organization, it is hard to think of ways to build and preserve special collections for the future. Special collections mean literally items with special values, and those values are often determined by their enduring historic value and also their rarity.  So how can you claim documents that are one month old as an item for special collections? And what can a new library do for the not-yet-existing future special collections?

There is a unique opportunity for a new library that belongs to an equally new organization. The library can systemically plan and collect important items from the beginning of the organization’s history.

The challenge is, however, how to identify the materials that will have a historic importance in the future. Some of the materials are easier to identify. For example, today, I have deposited the first three items for the space given to the medical library inside the university’s institutional repository.  Those items were the program, the invitation, and the ticket for the new medical school’s white coat ceremony for its inaugural class. Yes, these items are right now only one and a half month old. However, not many people would dispute the fact that many years later, these items will attest to the significant moment of the school’s official opening. However, the historic value and importance of some other items may well be much more difficult to determine.

How do you selectively collect items when their values are not yet tested by time? You may end up with junk. On the other hand, if you wait too long, you may find that important items have been already lost because no one was planning to systemically collect them for future reference.

So, what policies can guide a new library, so that the library can build a rich special/archival collections for the organization it serves? Collect first then weed later? Or collect items only after a certain amount of time? Add to these difficulties the fact that most of the items that will be collected for the future special/archival collection will be in a digital format. In what system are you going to store them in a way that the future library staff can go through later on to determine which to keep and which to discard?

Being a new library planning a rich future special/archival collection doesn’t seem so easy.

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