Special collections in libraries represent historical significance, cultural relevance, and immense value to the communities they serve. These collections often include rare books, manuscripts, photographs, maps, and other unique materials that require special care and attention to ensure their long-term preservation.
Special collections are, as the name implies, special. This means that they are not treated in the same way as regular library items in reference collections. In other words, they are not normal documents that any person may just borrow and take away.
The reason for their “special” status may depend on their rarity, state of conservation or specific historical importance. Special collections will be housed in separate areas of the library storage space, sometimes with dedicated environmental monitoring requirements. Access to them is also likely to be more restricted, requiring special appointments, advance requests, and sometimes even staff supervision or handling.
So how can we protect special collections to make sure that they will still remain accessible to the populations librarians are meant to serve? How do we minimize deterioration of the items when they are not in use so that they may remain usable?
Understanding the vulnerabilities of special collections in libraries
If we start by addressing the ten agents of deterioration as set out by the Canadian Conservation Institute, we can focus on the five main sources of accelerated deterioration for special collections:
- Environmental conditions: Incorrect temperature and humidity levels can cause damage to fragile materials. Extreme and continuous fluctuations in temperature and high humidity can lead to mold growth, chemical deterioration, and warping of paper. Contaminated air can also lead to red rot in leather and darkening and corrosion of any metal clasps or hinges.
- Light exposure: Exposure to light, particularly ultraviolet (UV) light, can fade inks, dyes, and pigments, leading to the irreversible loss of valuable content. In particular in the case of special maps or sensitive photographic materials, light exposure must be carefully controlled.
- Physical handling: Frequent handling, improper handling techniques, and the use of damaging materials, such as acidic folders or adhesives, can cause tears, creases, and stains on delicate items. Pulling items on and off shelves without protecting covers can also cause abrasion and spine damage over time.
- Pests and mold: Insects, rodents, and mold can cause irreparable damage to special collections if not detected and treated promptly. They will be much more likely to proliferate if there isn’t a constant cleaning schedule and a monitoring program to detect early signs of pest infestation or mold growth.
- Dissociation: When dealing with a large number of items that have been collected over a long period of time, it is easy to lose track of some objects, misplace them, or miss associated documentation for them. Special collections, by their very nature, do not circulate as much as normal reference collections, so it may be easier to lose track of an item that is not asked for very often by library patrons and researchers.
Best Practices for Preserving Special Collections
Implementing proactive preservation measures can significantly extend the lifespan of special collections. Consider the following best practices:
- Implement environmental monitoring and controls: Proper temperature and relative humidity levels will vary depending on the materials contained in special collections, so it will be essential to understand library storage spaces. Environmental monitoring systems should be tracking unusual changes and alert staff of any potential dangers. Good environmental monitoring systems will be able to pick up on slight differences that could lead to mold growth or pest proliferation.
- Control light exposure: Limit exposure to light by installing UV-filtering window films, using low-intensity lighting in display areas, and storing materials in light-resistant enclosures. If appropriate, consider rotating displayed items to minimize light exposure. Special collections may be stored in complete darkness unless they are being consulted.
- Implement security measures: Due to the heightened importance of special collections in libraries, safeguard them by implementing security systems, surveillance cameras, and access controls if necessary. Train staff to follow strict security protocols to prevent theft, mishandling, or unauthorized access. Here are some guidelines.
- Regular inspection and cleaning: Conduct routine inspections to identify signs of pest infestation, mold growth, or deterioration. Dust and clean special collection items regularly using appropriate techniques and materials to prevent dust accumulation and damage. If you are interested in starting an Integrated Pest Management program, check out our free webinar courses on IPM to start you off with some basics.
Handling and Storage Techniques for Special Collections
Proper handling and storage techniques are essential for minimizing physical damage to special collection items. Consider the following practices:
- Use archival-quality storage materials: Utilize acid-free folders, boxes, and enclosures made of archival-quality materials. Avoid plastic sleeves or containers that can release harmful gasses or trap moisture. When it comes to special collections in libraries, avoid any type of lamination, clips, adhesive tapes, staples or any other material that can corrode or acidify your objects.
- Supportive storage furniture: Choose storage furniture that provides adequate support and protection for delicate items. Utilize book cradles, acid-free tissue, and other supports to prevent stress on bindings or delicate pages.
- Digitization: Digitize fragile or rare materials to reduce handling and increase accessibility. Digitization is expensive and time-consuming, so make sure you prioritize digitization efforts based on your collection’s value, demand, and condition.
- Staff training: Train library staff (and volunteers!) on proper handling and preservation techniques. Provide guidelines on how to handle fragile materials, when to use gloves (and when not to use them!), so they can avoid damaging items during the retrieval and re-shelving process.
Preserving special collections in libraries requires a proactive approach, thinking outside the box and a working knowledge of best practices. By understanding the main vulnerabilities of each collection, implementing environmental monitoring and control, following proper handling and storage techniques, and training staff, libraries can effectively protect their valuable collections.
Remember, every preservation action counts, no matter how small. Are you still unsure on where to start? Check out the online resources at the end of this article for some courses and guides to get you started and don’t forget that the Conserv Community is full of collections care professionals working in the field who can discuss your challenges with you and share solutions
If you have any questions about environmental monitoring, integrated pest management, or just want to talk about preventative conservation, please reach out to us! Don’t forget to check out our blog or join our community of collections care professionals where you can discuss hot topics, connect with other conservators or even take a course to get familiar with the Conserv platform.
- “Preservation Guidelines for Digitizing Library Materials” – Library of Congress
- Caring for rare books by National Library of Scotland
- Free resources and publications by the Canadian Council of Archives (CCA)
- A library how-to-do-it manual for disaster planning, response and recovery by the American Library Association (ALA)
- Various preservation guides by The British Library that include care for damaged books, building preservation policies, care for bookbindings, cleaning books and documents, environmental monitoring and integrated pest management for libraries, among others.
- Digital preservation Challenges and Solutions by the Smithsonian Institution Archives
- International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA)
- Opportunities for Preservation Training at the Northeast Document Conservation Center (NEDCC)
- Fundamentals of preservation online course by Core Leadership Infrastructure Futures, a division of the American Library Association