October 2009 | Fine Books Editors

Whither Special Collections?

The Fine Books & Collections Compendium is mailing in about 10 days, and following a practice we began some time ago, I contacted the American Library Association in an effort to include special collections librarians who may not be subscribing to our magazine.

In 2007, when we first began doing this, the special collections librarian list totaled 875 names.  You could certainly argue that this list doesn't represent all special collections librarians, but it certainly represents a benchmark.

When I received the counts for the current special collections list from the ALA, the total had fallen 620 names -- down by 155 librarians in two years.  Where did they go?

A primary responsibility of a special collections librarian is to catalog new works.  With an increase in technology and reduced budgets over the past two years, it is easy to see that the need to catalog new works is declining.  In a digital age, access to collections located "somewhere else" are readily available.  And one might argue that, in a digital age, the effort required to catalog a work is somewhat less challenging.

That said, I certainly believe that new collections are forming at an accelerated pace.  There isn't less to do, there's more.  So why the decline in librarians?

I think it comes down to budgets.  Nothing hurts like a crummy economy, and nearly every year, colleges, universities, private libraries, and other repositories of books fret over the state of things.  Truly, it's not just this past year, it is seemingly every year.  There's never enough money.

What will be the result of all this?  I think one day we'll wake up and realize that there's a lot of work to be done in special collections.  I'd like to think re-hiring will take place.  I certainly hope it's soon.