Is a Special Collection so Special?

What is the definition of a special collection?  For some librarians, it is anything they want it to be. To be more technical there are two general types:

  1. A collection of rare and unique items, thus requiring proper preservation techniques, tools, and skills: These being things like an archivist, climate controlled environment, or monitored use of the items.

  3. A collection of items or books built around a topic. This would be a highly developed collection used for scholarly purposes.  It is usually set off, separate from the general collection, specially cataloged, and even has its own set of lending rules.1

Those libraries that do not feel bound by the technical definition of special collection and lack an exacting approach to creating and developing a special collection can be creating more confusion than alleviation.  The dangers of an ill-thought-out special collection are as follows:


1) Locating materials becomes unnecessarily confusing and difficult.

Take Dewey as an example.  It is a well defined classification system that has been in existence for 140 years and is globally used by over a quarter-million libraries.2 Every American who uses a public library has (knowingly or unknowingly) used this system.

In a library using Dewey, special collections are made of items removed from the 000-900 schema and placed somewhere else in the library.  Now the user (remember, most have a very basic understanding of Dewey) has to figure out if an item is in the general collection or in a special collection, and if she can figure this out, the patron then has to find where that other place is.  The more special collections a library has the more confusing this becomes.  If there is a local history special collection, an African-American special collection, and then the general collection, the user has three different locations to keep track of and locate. At times, even librarians can become confused.

Special collections isolate materials thereby making collections harder to use. A special collection should be for the benefit of the user, but often we burden the user with confining loan rules that limit these materials to use within the library or a shortened checkout period.


2) The special collection can becomes unfocused and suffer from content creep.

Without well written policies on what goes in a special collection, over time, the collection risks becoming unwieldy and unfocused. Whether it is a local collection or an African-American collection, the library needs to define what is meant by the terms it is using to describe its special collection. A poorly defined and managed collection will lack consistency in its content and usage. Items that belong in a special collection may start to be found in the general circulating collection, or items that have limited or no relevance to the special collection may be added to it over time.

While a special collection has the potential to be of added value and usefulness to library patrons and researchers, a library needs to carefully consider the creation of a special collection. It first needs to determine if it has sufficient content on a subject and researcher interest in that subject to warrant the creation of a special collection.  If the answer is yes, then the library needs to decide if the usefulness of a special collection compensates for the isolation of that content.  If the answer is yes again, the library must develop a policy to properly manage the collection. This policy should include:

  • A definition of what the special collection is and what constitutes it.
  • The location of the collection.
  • A designated authority for managing the collection.
  • A statement on duplicates.
  • What formats are included or excluded.
  • What the funding source of the collection is.
  • The collection development policy for the special collection.

When considering the coverage of a topic, a library needs to carefully determine if it requires the creation of a special collection or the creation of a collection emphasis. Does the library need to create a special collection for its state, which is pulled out of the normal flow of the classification system and separated from the general collection, or should it have a collection development emphasis on materials related to the state is resides within.  (In Dewey, the tables allow for the creation of a geographic/historical state section in the 900’s, which seamlessly fits into the existing “flow” of the system.) If you already have a special collection, or are contemplating creating one, ask yourself if your special collection is helping or hindering your patrons?

  1. Selection: Defining and Managing Special Collections. (n.d.). Arizona State Library, Archives and Public Records. Retrieved July 5, 2011, from
  2. Dewey Services at a Glance. (n.d.). OCLC. Retrieved June 24, 2011, from