Research Libraries UK (RLUK) has published a report examining the landscape for unique and distinctive collections (UDCs) in the UK and Ireland.
The past 5-10 years has seen the coming together of fundamental changes within the environment: large-scale digitisation; the explosion in Internet access beyond the academy; fundamental changes to UK Higher Education (HE) funding; the emergence of the Digital Humanities; massively increasing amounts of Born Digital materials; the paradigm of student as researcher, and the emergence of ‘impact’ in the research agenda and the increased focus on institutional fundraising and the contribution that items unique to the institution can make to those efforts. This ‘perfect storm’ has led to a major difference in institutional expectations that such collections have the opportunity to make a clear and compelling case for themselves, especially in a period of unprecedented economic pressure.
Unique and Distinctive Collections: opportunities for research libraries looks at issues associated with the promotion, accessibility and curation of UDCs and considers where investment and innovation have the potential to enhance the role that UDCs play in research libraries.
The report represents the culmination of the work RLUK has carried out in order to understand how the definition, scope and rationale for what have been traditionally been termed ‘special collections’ are changing, and what the drivers and consequences of these changes are likely to be.
Chris Banks, Chair of RLUK’s UDC Strategic Working Group and Director of Library Services at Imperial College London, said: ‘Research libraries in the UK hold collections containing the most remarkable material; spanning medieval manuscripts, modern archives, printed books, pamphlets, periodicals and maps. They increasingly also include non-print formats such as audio, film and digital files as well as print collections which are remarkable as a result of their breadth and comprehensiveness. Together, these materials have the potential to contribute to the institutional goals for research, learning and public engagement. The report highlights some key exemplars of excellent and innovative work being undertaken across the UK, something that can be built on through the opportunity to contribute further case studies to the forthcoming UDC Hub as part of a collective approach to maximising the potential of UDCs’.
Key points from the report include:
- UDCs encompass, but are broader than traditional special collections, potentially covering collections in all formats and at all locations.
- Significance assessments have greater currency in the cultural heritage sector where they have been used to understand the relationships between collections and their holding institutions, collections and communities, and to unite distributed collections in terms of common values or levels of significance.
- A coordinated approach to digitisation activity could minimise duplication in the creation of content, achieve economies of scale in terms of process, and enhance the discoverability of UDCs.
- Technology not only brings opportunities for expanding the ways of interacting with UDCs: by students, researchers and the wider public (for example, through incorporation into VLEs, through crowd-sourcing activities, or as a focus for local community engagement), but also for innovation in research based on UDCs (for example through digital humanities programmes).
- The growing use of resources such as datasets for research prompts questions about the UDCs of the future and the status of resources such as electronic theses, datasets and the UDCs of the 21st century.
- RLUK’s UDC Hub will offer the potential for UDC managers to share resources and experiences from research libraries of all type and size, to draw on expertise and practice from beyond the research library community (particularly from museums and archives), and to develop a peer-to-peer support network.
- Research libraries vary in their capacity to manage born-digital material. Many of the larger, university-based, libraries have well-developed processes and facilities but the smaller organisations tend to have much less advanced plans for dealing with born-digital materials.
- Uncatalogued collections and improvable metadata are issues that must be addressed in order to increase the visibility of UDCs, enable connections between collections, and increase access to digitised content.