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2010-06, 365, 366, Book Reviews, Colin Steele

‘Celebrating Research. Rare and Special Collections from the Membership of the Association of Research Libraries.’ Edited by Philip N Cronenwett, Kevin Osborn, Samuel A Streit.

(Washington DC: Association of Research Libraries.) 2007. 312 pages $135 (US)

CELEBRATING RESEARCH is a large sumptuously illustrated paperback profiling selected rare and special collections in the major research libraries of North America.  The volume “celebrates” the Association’s 75th anniversary in 2007.  The editors are Philip N Cronenwett, Special Collections Librarian Emeritus, Dartmouth College Library, Kevin Osborn, Research & Design Ltd and Samuel A Streit, Director for Special Collections, Brown University Library. A long introductory essay by Nicolas Barker, noted bibliophile, author and editor of The Book Collector provides a personal overview of the developments in the special collections and rare book libraries of American research libraries. This essay is available online (www.celebratingresearch.org).

Barker contrasts his early impressions of the US university rare book scene, with the changes in more recent times: “If some of the books were, so to speak, an odd lot, so too were some of the librarians . . . But what united them all was a love of books, above all those in their care. It was impossible not to be moved by the passion that burst out on any provocation, and I did not find it hard to provoke or fail to be moved by its expression. I quickly grasped that one immediate cause of complaint was that they had few visitors of any kind, let alone one prepared to share their enthusiasms or woes.

“The last 30 years have seen many changes that have altered such directly contradictory impulses as preservation and access. Far from lonely, the librarians and curators of today have put in place programs of exhibitions and seminars that have encouraged visitors to come to libraries with no fear that they will be subjected to some alarming questionnaire or test before they are allowed in. Outreach takes librarians and curators to meet schoolchildren, laying down a relationship of mutual trust and interest for the future. Writers and artists in residence have come to work within the library, and thus are encouraged to add creatively to the library’s resources. Closer links between library and faculty or community have encouraged both sides to interpret a mutual sense of shared purpose. Acquisitions have come to follow a much more specific pattern, reflecting the same shared purpose. More than anything else, the use of the Internet as an extension of all the library’s activities in every field, has increased its scope, and with it many more ways of engaging with different kinds of users, as likely to be remote as present.

“. . . I also remember the booksellers, often vital intermediaries in the gift as well as purchase of collections, like bees carrying pollen: at Seven Gables, Mike Papantonio, friend to many; and John Kohn, co-architect of Waller Barrett’s collection; Dave Magee, a notable builder at Brigham Young; and Jake Zeitlin, all in all to the libraries of Southern California and beyond.”

The content of Celebrating Research is also freely available on the Web (www.celebratingresearch.org). An appendix provides a broad description of each library’s special collection holdings and pertinent contact information.

Celebrating Research includes 118 collection profiles, arranged alphabetically, each from a different ARL member library. Each profile, illustrated with colour photographs, tells a story of a single collection, recounting its acquisition and growth. Special collections are “broadly construed to encompass the distinctive, the rare and unique, emerging media, born-digital, digitized materials, uncommon, non-standard, primary, and heritage materials”.

The collections, as Barker indicates, range over a multiplicity of subjects and formats, from the Baldwin Library of historical children’s literature at the University of Florida to the George Washington University Library’s collection of Westwood one radio network audio cassettes and reel-to-reel tapes, the audio tapes from 1955 to 1999 alone totalling 40,000 items. The University of Michigan papyrus collection is juxtaposed with the Alwin Nikolais and Murray Louis Dance Collection at Ohio University Libraries. The Syracuse University Library has a special collection on cartoons and cartoonists and the Tulane University Library has the William Ransom Hogan archive of New Orleans jazz. Diversity is the name of the game.

Just browsing the multiplicity of collections, with their superb colour illustrations, makes one want to explore many of the collections online or personally. This book, and the associated website, reaffirm the depth of research collections in American libraries and long may they continue to grow. An essential purchase for all libraries and serious book collectors.

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