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RARE BOOK, MANUSCRIPT, AND SPECIAL COLLECTIONS libraries remain both more difficult and more forbidding to use than any other parts of most libraries. A shift from an ethos that emphasized acquisition, cataloging, and preservation has brought into new prominence issues generally grouped together under the rubric of "promotion." This essay considers some of the ways in which this addition to the ethos of special collections has the potential to change for the better the ways such libraries are perceived and used.
Many of the people who might otherwise use them, and even some who do, find rare book, manuscript, and special collections libraries both more difficult and more forbidding than any other part of a library. Long efforts to alter that unhappily persistent truth have met with only limited success.
First, the closed- or limited-access stacks and storage facilities inherent in the nature of rare book collections (my shorthand for "rare book, manuscript, and special collections") prohibit would-be readers from browsing shelves to locate materials of interest. (1) The larger the collection, the more troublesome this prohibition becomes. For all of the improvements, at least as librarians see them, of online access and online browsing, such restrictions on physical browsing pose problems. Our readers tend to remain astonishingly less skilled than we like to imagine them at using tools that represent books rather than books themselves. (2)
Second, the generally persistent formidability characteristic of rare book collections and their staffs does not make them seem any easier to use than their closed stacks suggest. (3) Students in particular may find them off-putting. A conversation with a bright and caustic sophomore who uses medieval manuscripts at several American rare book libraries, about which she has strong--and apparently reasonable--opinions, recently reminded me of this ongoing truth in no uncertain terms. But faculty may have similar opinions. I even know some who find it easier to travel to great national of research libraries, where they expect tight restrictions and rules, rather than making an effort to use similar, perhaps the same, materials at home. At any rate, so they tell me, they will undertake such travel when conditions at home seem to them inappropriately out of phase with the ways they feel able to use other parts of their own institution's library. (4)
Many librarians suppose, of hope, that a major shift in staff attitudes has produced rare book collections and librarians far more welcoming to early twenty-first-century readers than their old, out-of-date reputation implies. Anyone who works in this field must be aware that readers have long regarded staff as major constituents of the formidability and repulsiveness of many rare book collections large and small. Nonetheless, staff nowadays prefer to believe that their own attitudes are welcoming and that readers have noticed and approve of this change. Indeed, some attitudes have changed. Whether they have in fact undergone a wholesale change in this pleasing way is, however, not always easy to believe--not if one actually listens to readers, at least when they talk about other collections. My own impressions, based on the anecdotal evidence provided by readers with whom I speak--faculty as well as sophomores, antiquarian booksellers as well as independent readers and researchers--are surprisingly dispiriting.
One basic attitudinal change is noticeable, however. It seems to me to have the potential to prove in practice more than merely rhetorical and able to act as a prod to genuine change, although it is still in its early days and such a judgment may be premature. Within university research libraries, the setting from and about which I write, (5) the old, tried-and-true belief was that one's job was to get it, catalog it, and preserve it. This approach has been slightly but significantly modified. We are now expected to get it, catalog it, and promote it. At least in some environments, preserving it is a desideratum, too, if possible. But in some very real sense, promotion outranks preservation. A greatly escalated sense of the need for promotion is a major new element affecting rare book librarians' attitudes.
Of course, one could emphasize other factors conducive to changes of various kinds. Among them, surely, is the impact on librarians' attitudes of the persistent need for funds at a time when the amount of needed funds seems greater, and the amount of available funds smaller, than in the past. But this need represents an exacerbation of an old condition. It is not new in the way that an emphasis on promotion seems to be.
My paper, then, aims to raise some of the possibilities for positive changes that attentiveness to promotion may produce.
THE ECONOMIC BASIS OF PROMOTION
If I am right about it, promotion on the scale implicit in the current climate is a relatively new element for rare book libraries and their staffs. Of course, library promotion is by no means something new under the sun. The public library sector has a long history of trying out varieties of promotional techniques. Moreover, many rare book collections already have a history, often a notable history, of self-promotion as well. Its current imperatives, however, have yet to be dealt with adequately. (6) At present, I suggest, promotional goals derive less than used to be the case from administrative and staff desires to draw attention to materials that beg to be used, to present their institution as a desirable repository for collections, or to attract donors who appear to be separable from surplus dollars. Those traditional goals have not been abandoned, obviously. But the newer emphasis on promotion tends, first, to descend as a mandate from higher administrative levels, and it reflects rather different underpinnings.
When it comes down, this mandate is clearly driven by a climate of economic scarcity. The continued existence of library departments and provision of library services seems justifiable to cost-conscious institutional administrators, to whom library administrators report, only on the basis of user statistics. Directors fear, not entirely without reason, that institutional administrators may feel that a resource not used or clearly underused in relation to the costs required to maintain it really is unnecessary. (7)
In this context, promotion involves imperatives other than publicizing new acquisitions, attracting new donations, and giving an attractive airing now and again to old holdings through exhibitions. Readers must feel invited and welcome to, and comfortable in, the rare book department. (Does this imperative suggest that senior library administrators are more aware than rare book staff themselves of the field's failure to achieve real change in this respect?) Invitations must be active, not passive--readers, that is, need to be sought. They also need to know that the resources are truly theirs for use: the welcome must be real. Materials cannot be kept from them, whether through shoddy or slow cataloging of through deliberate lack of information (in order, for instance, to "protect" an unusual acquisition from the vicissitudes of use or to reserve a cache of letters for use only by Professor Big).
Relatedly, once readers arrive and have what they need in hand, they need a reading room situation that functions for them. Pare book librarians used to think about amenities that would be nice, if one could have them, in some vaguely imagined future. They have now to plan for and find ways to fund their acquisition and addition. Retrofitting reading rooms to provide outlets for laptops or a wireless environment; functional workstations as well as reading facilities; scanning as well as reprographic facilities; speedy turnaround for all forms of copying; onsite meeting and classroom space; provision of materials and technology for instructional and student use in those non-reading room spaces--including rare books and manuscripts as well as online capabilities; quiet and pleasant surroundings: these are no longer "amenities" but necessities of doing business in a customer service-oriented environment. Rare book librarians must also perform services such as ordering materials--again, including rare books and manuscripts where they are available and affordable--for the use of specific classes and readers, a species of tailored reader services applied to a part of the library where such service has rarely been traditional.
An additional complication is that such tailored services--especially if performed on behalf of entire classes and not individuals only--may by-pass or completely ignore the general circulation/restricted circulation binary. For example, by acquiring and making available rare materials for use as (in effect) classroom reserve reading, staff may expect to find in the materials so used signs of the stresses normally associated with overuse, even though such stresses are precisely what sequestration of rare materials into a separate, supervised department was originally intended to avoid. (8) The administrative boundary between general and restricted circulation may serve librarians' needs, as well as what we perceive to be the needs of the materials themselves. But it does not necessarily serve needs--which may increasingly take precedence over the others--that readers perceive themselves as having. Many other reader needs have also made themselves felt and elicited positive responses at a variety of libraries. (9)
The underlying assumption of the institutional structures within which rare book collections increasingly find themselves is, as a now somewhat creaky saying has it, "use it of lose it." A better mousetrap is a good thing to build--but it had better be advertised well, and then it had better live up to its advertising. A lot of competing mousetraps out there are just as good. If enough people don't need yours, then the parent institution doesn't need it, either. Or you.
Traditionally, librarians used exhibitions and associated events to promote their collections. Normally mounted by library staff, they were based on materials already in the collections or drew upon collections an institution hoped to attract. A pedagogical purpose might be one of the benefits of such an exercise, but it was not always clear that the beneficiary of whatever pedagogy resulted was supposed to be a student. (10) Catalogues might be published in conjunction with an exhibition, but their audience too was never entirely clear. In any event, libraries, far more poorly funded than art museums, produced very few catalogues of book or manuscript exhibitions with the scholar]y stature and lasting value for which art museums seem routinely to strive in producing their exhibition catalogues.
More recently, however, some librarians have found it increasingly desirable, possible, and productive to promote collections and their sponsoring institutions through exhibitions in the organization of which students or faculty are invited to participate as a form of public service and outreach. Involvement in the …