Thinking About the “Special” in a Library

I just got done reading “Even Small Libraries Can Have Special Collections” by Wynn and Crittenden (2007). The article is ultra-short and is all about the implementation of a (quite literal here) special collection in a small library. I really like this introductory quote: “Special collections can be one of the crowning jewels of a small library,” and I really like this other quote, too: “The theme for a special collection is determined from the majority of the material received” (4).

When you think of a special collection, what do you think? The term is fairly denotative, and has come to mean a collection outside of the main collection, usually with particular access requirements, and with special staff in charge of its development and management. This traditional meaning is all well and good, and serves a purpose in library conversations, certainly, but I’ve been thinking about how we can take the word “special” and bring it into a new light.

Let’s take a look at the Audubon Center. The Center itself is unique and special, providing a physical space within one of the most gorgeous parks in Seattle, a space for congregation, education, and knowledge sharing. The services the center provides are, I would argue, quite special for not only the neighborhood community but for the city as a whole. Seward Park is one of the two old growth forests in Seattle proper. The Audubon Center sits smack dab in the middle, ready to provide information to the many, many, many guests that visit. Plus, the Audubon Center has Lumpy (pictures forthcoming).

Now let’s jump back to the library stuff. The other day, when Anna and I first walked into the library, various folks old and young walked and talked throughout the center, utilizing the space for countless reasons. The thing I couldn’t get out of my head was: “This is special. This library is special.” And yet why, and how?

There are special libraries and there are small libraries and there are collections and special collections. But then there is that magic feeling you get when you establish a bond with your library, be it the local branch of the public system in your area, or that school library you study in for countless hours, or, in the case of grad students working on their independent, that library you’ve been tasked with improving. That bond with the library at the Audubon Center was established, for me anyway, last Saturday. I think that the bond will only strengthen over time as we catalog the collection and catalog it completely. And I think that both Anna and I are going to discover just how special the collection is.

As we started exploring OPALS and perusing its functionality, one of the wise things Anna said was (and I paraphrase): “This is one of my favorite parts, looking at all the cool books in the collection.” Of course the quote on its own may seem fairly straightforward, but Anna’s on-point and reaches one of the fundamental elements of librarianship and the library ethos in general: libraries are really built upon the resources and services they provide. When it comes to the library at the Audubon Center, there are so many amazing resources sitting right on those shelves, waiting to be explored. Whether they’re critical studies of society and urban development, or hilariously fun books for kids, or age-old reports on the Audubon Center, the resources have a history and contribute to the spirit of the library.

There are two things I can’t wait for. First is discovery. I can’t wait to be on the edge of my seat as Anna and I discover all these wonderful new books for the first time, and explore them, see how they relate to one another, and see how the collection as a whole makes up the physical elements of the library. Second? The catalog. I can’t wait to get these books in the catalog and have the catalog up and running for guests to visit (either remotely or locally). It’s one thing to realize the special qualities of the library on your own and establish that bond and fall in love with the collection. It’s another thing entirely, an amplified thing, when you go above and beyond to bring what you consider special into the lives of people who can potentially visit the library and experience the collection as well.

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