The Importance of Rare Book Libraries: Unique Functions and Special Budget Requirements

This post is an essay on the special functions and unique role of rare books and special collections in the context of a large academic library. Let’s imagine that the Dean of Libraries at the University has reviewed the budget and seen the rare books department is the most expensive. The Dean is looking for places where expenditures can be trimmed, and the following memo explains how the rare books department is unique in its functions and required funding.

TO: Dean of Libraries

FROM: Joseph

RE: Rare Books and Special Collections Budget

DATE: May 18, 2012

Since the Rare Books and Special Collections department plays a unique and vital role in the University Library system, it would frankly be very difficult to cut our budget at this time without compromising our fundamental mission to collect and preserve culturally significant items and make them available for use. Such a trimming in expenditure would not only adversely affect our faculty, students and the local community, but also the greater worldwide research community and scholarship in general.


While we share larger goals with the University Library as a whole, such as providing access to information and supporting scholarship, many factors make our functions distinct from other library departments. For one, many of our 245,000 rare books and manuscripts are unique, meaning ours is the only copy in the world. This means that many of these items are exceedingly valuable, but that is not the most important point. We also must consider the immense academic value of these special items in their original physical form. Primary source research is required in order to further the humanities, social sciences and sciences, and without proper care, these items will disappear, never again to benefit scholarship and future research. Thus, the special collections department budget includes many expenses for both preservation of the collection in general as well as the conservation of specific items. For the former goal, we need to have a secure, climate-controlled space for our collection, and our vault currently has a number high-tech measures to control access and protect against natural disasters. We need to protect against earthquakes, water, and fire damage and well as theft and damage resulting from frequent handling. Our security system requires significant maintenance costs and we also need to constantly evaluate new options and weigh costs and benefits, as the field of security is fast changing. Our Security Planning Group regularly meets to discuss these issues and expresses them in our security policy documentation. To give a specific example, we recently needed to invest in a new biometrics entry system for controlled access to the vault after several manuscripts disappeared from our collection over the course of several months. Even though such costs may seem high up front, they lead to a much longer lifespan for our collection, in comparison to a situation where we are not adequately protected and risk losing our invaluable items in one disastrous event.


Similarly, we incur costs relating to the preservation of specific rare items in addition to the conservation of the collection as a whole. These expenses include replacement bindings and corrugated boxes for damaged and books, as well as shelf folders and binders for manuscripts and other documents. With these early printed books and manuscripts, which are now quite fragile and brittle after centuries, many seemingly minor things prove very important to researchers. This can include types of paper and ink used, the typeface, and even marginalia added by a significant reader. The needs of our unit relate primarily to the idea of the book as object, in contrast to the rest of the  library system where the value of books and other information resources is derived primarily from their content. Both are integral parts of our goals as a major university library, but our missions require vastly different functions and levels of expenditure.


In addition to this physical preservation, we assist in the funding of various digitization projects for our culturally significant items in an effort to preserve for the long-term and make them accessible online through our digital collections website. Not only does this require digitization equipment, but also significant staff time in determining the right procedures, workflows, formats and metadata standards in order to ensure that the items will remain interoperable and able to be found by researchers worldwide. Since our unique holdings are vital for scholarship and belong to our university as well as the worldwide academic community, it is our duty to do all we can to ensure they will continue to be available for study.


Our department, however, is not merely a dusty archive filled with valuable books and manuscripts. To truly make our books and special collections worthwhile, we must provide access to them, and this is another area where our unit differs from the rest of the University Library system, in both functions as well as necessary funding. There are two main ways we provide access to our unique items. First, as mentioned in the previous section, our digitization initiatives make our resources available to researchers worldwide, many of whom do not have the means to physically travel to our library. Secondly, we host exhibits, engage in outreach to academic departments, and create online guides and tutorials to make our rare materials more visible to our community. These functions are the product of a relatively recent shift from a collection-centered approach, where simply owning an impressive collection was sufficient, to a user-centered approach, where what we do is intimately tied to the needs of students, faculty, staff, community members and scholars worldwide. In contrast to the rest of the library, our stacks are closed, which means that one cannot simply go into the vault and browse around. Because of this, active promotion of our collections is necessary to ensure that they do not sit unknown on our shelves behind lock and key. We incur costs hosting events for the university community, inviting guest lecturers to campus to speak about particular important items, curating exhibits and displaying them in a way that is educational, interesting, but also safe and secure.

In terms of staff and dedicated functions, there are a number of factors that differentiate our department from the rest of the library system. First, it is a fact that just about all of the library is behind on cataloging and would benefit from additional help in that regard. But rare books cataloging requires a set of more specialized skills, including a close knowledge of descriptive and analytical bibliography as well as multiple foreign languages. Thus, in recruiting part-time and project help, as well as full-time positions, these stricter requirements make it necessary to invest more resources to attract qualified candidates and train them after hiring. We have several parts of our collection sitting in the vault uncatalogued, as do many other library units. But only in our case are some of the items unique, and we feel it is a priority to get them catalogued as soon as possible so that researchers become aware of what even exists in a particular time period.

Our unit also acquires items in a matter wholly distinct from the rest of the library system. Over the years, we have developed particular subject areas where our collection is strongest, and many times an item on the open market fits in perfectly with the rest of our holdings, and thus the best place for it is the university, not a private collection where it will usually be unavailable for use by scholars or the general public. Many times these acquisitions are costly, but they are necessary in enriching our collection and promoting the greater societal good. We also acquire many items through private donations, which requires much labor in both transportation and processing, as well as the contracting of lawyers to draft up policies for storage and ownership concerns.


Libraries are in state of flux today, with many main collections shifting to electronic, subscription-based models. In an era where many library materials are leased, not owned in a physical sense, special collections such as rare books, manuscripts, photographs, maps and artwork, are what sets libraries apart. We collect, preserve, promote and make available fascinating and valuable items where the physical characteristics are just as crucial as the words on the page.