Increasing Knowledge of and Access to Special Collections
Bridget Burke joined the BC Libraries as Associate University Librarian for Special Collections in October 2011. Bridget has held curatorial positions at Yale University and the Colorado Historical Society, and has directed special collections at George Mason University and the University of Alaska Fairbanks. She holds a BA (English) and MLS from the University of Wisconsin Madison, and an MA in liberal studies / history from Wesleyan University. She has published on the history of labor in the printing trades, labor journalism, and the education of women for librarianship.
What's so special about special collections? As a member of the Association of Research Libraries (ARL), Boston College Libraries is one of over one hundred peer institutions committed to building research-quality collections, and one of dozens such libraries in the Boston area. Within the ARL community a consensus about the role of special collections in a research library has emerged: special collections are in fact what distinguish any library – this library -- from its peers. As noted in a 2009 ARL report: "in an environment where mass digitization of books and periodicals ... is accelerating ... it is their accumulated special collections that increasingly define the uniqueness and character of individual research libraries.” And it is the character of the institution that shapes the collections that become defined as "special.” The strengths of special collections in the Burns Library at BC reflect its history as a school founded to educate the children of Irish immigrants, a Jesuit college, and a Boston institution. At the same time, our collections change and grow as new areas of interest and opportunity emerge. Examples include popular culture (the Kane collection of over 13,000 comic books), urban planning (the Jane Jacobs collection), and Northern Ireland (pamphlets secured from Belfast’s Linen Hall Library). What next? Our engagement with the BC community (you!) guarantees that our collections will continue to grow, reflecting the interest and support of faculty, staff, students, alumni, and our international partners.
What now? The BC Libraries and Burns Library staff are engaged in a number of new initiatives to increase knowledge of and access to special collections:
1. Increasing discovery — both mechanistic (type it, find it) and experiential (exposing students to materials that prompt "aha!” moments). The Burns Library hosted 18 classes and almost 300 students this fall, sharing with undergraduates materials ranging from 19th century correspondence between an Irish immigrant and his sweetheart, to contemporary comic books and early scientific books. A "processing blitz” begins this spring, with funding for one year and the goal of organizing and describing unprocessed manuscript collections. To promote use, a working group of subject liaisons is creating models to integrate special collections into library instruction across the curriculum. We will continue to work collaboratively with faculty to support their teaching and promote student discovery of our collections.
2. Integrating content – instruction, exhibits, and digital projects all generate content from Burns collections. How can this content be better integrated so that it exists in multiple platforms, digital and physical, performed and archived? Can we promote a distributed model of content generation that involves library staff but also taps students, faculty, and others in creating blog postings, curating exhibits, and helping queue collections for digitization? As one example, the Burns library blog is broad in its scope and authorship; is this a model for exhibits? This spring, watch for new cases in the O’Neill Library that will feature Burns Library material and will serve as a laboratory for different models of curation and content integration.
3. Celebrating BC’s Sesquicentennial - University Archives are at the core of BC’s special collections; after all, the responsibility to collect and preserve BC’s history is ours and ours alone. BC Libraries will celebrate BC’s sesquicentennial in a number of ways: we are creating physical and online exhibits that draw on special collections, and populating a digital archive of BC publications (Sub Turri and The Heights). In addition, Burns collections will support programs and publications generated by many campus departments.
Special is as special does, and the year ahead offers ample opportunity to build on our traditional strengths while experimenting with new models of description, delivery, and curation. I look forward to getting to know the BC community and to sharing with you all the passion of the Burns Library staff for the collections we hold and the history we keep.
Bridget J. Burke
Associate University Librarian for Special Collections