The Importance of Special Collections and Archives

Special libraries and archives serve an extremely important function in today’s society.   In the last several years there have been numerous studies about the importance of special libraries and archives.   Dooley and Luce (2010) state that special collections and archives may be defined as library and archival materials in any format that possess some value, uniqueness, and rarity.  Paaviainen (2007) states that special collections offer professional expertise in particular fields.  Without getting into a debate of Lexicon and meaning, special libraries and archives can simply be defined for debate’s sake as a library or archive that holds a unique collection of information and provides further expertise.  Special collections constitute a major portion of most libraries operations and are critical to scholarship (See Panitch  2001).

In proposing an app called Stack Tracks to explore unique libraries around the world, special collections and archives in particular may benefit from such an app.  As many institutions have, at some point, undergone some form of digitization project.  However, a majority of these digitization projects are limited in scope and funding according to Dooley and Luce (2010).  As the Association of Research Libraries has pointed out, “Digitization is a tool used now in virtually all special collections libraries (See ARL 2009).”

For my portion of the literature review, I sought to highlight the value and importance of special libraries and archives.  How I approached this issue was to first examine some of the major surveys and studies already performed on the subject and then I sought to examine their references to pull out relevant and pertinent resources.  I found it rather peculiar that there are many online resources for the scholarly study of special collections yet, special libraries and archives are limited in their online digitization due to the resources necessary to digitally publish and maintain such resources (Again, see ARL 2009).  Three resources in particular offered exceptional background on the value of special collections and archives, and vast amounts of data on the subject; The Association of Research Libraries has published several studies on Special Collections in ARL Libraries and the OCLC has also published an extremely helpful and interesting survey titled, Taking Our Pulse.


Dooley, Jackie M, and Katherine Luce. (2010). Taking Our Pulse: The OCLC Research Survey of Special Collections and Archives. Dublin, Ohio: OCLC Research. Internet resource. Retrieved from

This is essentially OCLC’s follow up survey to the ARL’s 1998 landmark survey and attempts to examine how far special collections have come since the 1998 survey.  This survey also discusses library size and budget, collections, user services, cataloging and metadata, challenges, staffing issues, and departing from ARL’s study, a more significant contribution to the subject of digitalization and the issues that special collections and archives are facing in this regard.


Paavilainen, Elisa. (2007). The Role of Special Libraries in the Finnish Library Network.    Internet resource.  Retrieved from

This is a useful power point that highlights the importance of special collections.  Bulleted points provide useful references for discussion points.  The power point also highlights strategies for special collections as well as evaluating special collections.  The survey really served to highlight the importance of special collections as well as examining the significance of special collections.


Panitch, Judith M. (2001).  Special Collections in ARL Libraries: Results of the 1998 Survey Sponsored by the Arl Research Collections Committee. Washington, D.C: Association of Research Libraries. Internet Resource.  Retrieved from

This survey is a landmark survey, which, at the time, surveyed 99 ARL special collections and examined a wide variety of issues ranging from access use, preservation, structure, budgets, and was one of the first major studies to examine digitization.


Special Collections in ARL Libraries: A Discussion Report from the ARL Working Group on Special Collections. Washington, D.C: Association of Research Libraries (2009). Internet resource. Retrieved from

This is another survey put forth by the ARL that deals with collections policy, discovery of hidden collections and access, cross-institutional collaborations, digitization, and the challenge of born-digital collections.  This serves as a fantastic, policy level survey and a great follow-up to the ARL’s landmark 1998 study.


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