Should Libraries Still Be Charged with Collecting in a Digital Environment? (2)

Thus far, I used the notion of “collecting” in the pragmatic sense of a librarian, that is, by referring to the acquisition of publications that may be selected and added to the book collection by following certain criteria. Librarians establish a large reservoir of materials in order to meet a known demand and to somehow foresee the needs of future researchers. I would like to address three questions in particular, followed by considerations pertinent to each of these questions: First, Historical library collections often include specific sub-collections, such as special collections or private estates. How can these sub-collections be made productive for research purposes? Second, Is it possible to assign digital data that is stored on library servers in the form of attributes of a collection itself (that is, not on the level of metadata similar to those in library catalogs)? Third, What does the future of collecting in libraries look like?

Lesesaal der SLUB Dresden
Im Lesesaal der SLUB Dresden. Foto: Michael Knoche CC-BY-SA 4.0

1. Collections within Collections

Some of the oldest European libraries already include autonomous subcollections that are often merged with library collections and catalogs today. In the early modern period, for example, very few books were acquired by regular purchases from bookstores. Instead, it was typical to integrate entire estates, special collections, or private libraries into public libraries. “Like a set of matryoshka stacking dolls, a library houses a number of collections nested inside each other,” as Wulf D. von Lucius puts it. Only in a few cases, such as medieval autographs or incunabula, were the libraries able to answer questions about the historical context from which individual books originated and then place them within a library collection accordingly—when it came to particularly valuable objects, it was considered standard knowledge and widely shared among librarians. Librarians were, however, usually unable to answer questions about the sources of the majority of their holdings. For centuries, librarians were primarily engaged in presenting their holdings according to factual parameters and not provenance. To give just one example: as the director of the Weimar library, Johann Wolfgang Goethe had the private book estate of Duchess Anna Amalia divided up according to preexisting subject areas. As a result, the Duchess’s collection was incorporated into the massive library holdings. Nevertheless, the cultural-historical context of each library’s holdings became a more established area of self-reflection and even research. Consequently, Jürgen Weber recognizes a rediscovery of sub-collections within libraries. Provenance data is now frequently available as part of electronic catalogs. The next step would be to make the affiliations of widely strewn objects to their original sub-collections apparent. There are currently some very promising approaches to describing these collections, but there are not yet any generally recognized and comprehensively applied regulations.

2. What Are the Benefits of a Library that Makes Its Affiliated Collection Information Transparent?

First, collections connect certain objects with a particular historical context and location. As collections are developed according to specific criteria, they represent a cultural-historical body that can be investigated by researchers in regard to their genesis and their significance. Second, thematic collections usually consist of a series of similar objects (for example, eighteenth-century English novels). The density of materials enables the differentiation between typical and atypical objects, allowing for comparative studies. Third, collections separate objects from the outside world by means of selection and thus help to better manage the overwhelming diversity of printed materials and media that is published every year.

Here is an example to illustrate why knowledge about the affiliations of objects within a collection is of great benefit. Having been published by the thousands, a Reclam booklet with four missing pages made its way from Friedrich Nietzsche’s private library to the Herzogin Anna Amalia Library. This booklet is significant for a variety of reasons. Nietzsche purchased the narrative poem “The Prisoner of the Caucasus” by Aleksandr Pushkin from 1875 and marked up the text while reading it. This specific booklet not only offers Pushkin researchers insights into Pushkin’s reception in Germany, but it also offers the Nietzsche researcher, to no lesser degree, insights into Nietzsche’s interest in Pushkin. At the same time researchers interested in the process of reading per se gain an understanding of an individual reading practice, namely Nietzsche’s method of reading with a pencil in hand, while book historians may retrieve information about the production methods and durability of inexpensive book editions and their circulation and use. But the booklet also simply offers the literature lover the opportunity to read Pushkin’s poem and the Nietzsche admirer a chance to hold a work in their hand that was once in the possession of the philosopher himself.

For good reasons, this specific case could be considered what Susan Leigh Star calls a “boundary object.” Such objects can be meaningful in various contexts and be interpreted differently by various individuals. Just imagine the loss of information had the Herzogin Anna Amalia Bibliothek not highlighted the provenance of this otherwise quite unspectacular little book in its catalog. Otherwise library patrons might have questioned why the library had kept such a defective and cheaply produced copy of Pushkin’s poem in its collection.

In short: libraries have recognized that collections may increase the dimension of significance of individual objects by providing additional information pertaining to their provenance and history of acquisition. This contextual information not only enriches the library’s holdings but offers library patrons a plethora of ways to interpret and “read” books. This raises the question of whether electronic collections are either useful or even exist without physical objects to begin with. Libraries enjoy showing how many electronic resources can be found in their catalogs. But strictly speaking, the many licensed e-books, journals and data banks cannot be included in their collections. Libraries do not purchase electronic media but can only offer their users access to them for a limited period of time. Collections, on the other hand, require a permanent location and must be in the possession of an owner. As seen above, collections of physical objects can be seen as “polycentric,” that is, they do not serve a single purpose but can be approached from different directions and with diverse intentions.

If they focus on the humanities, libraries should continue to invest in printed materials. They will continue to be hybrid collections for a long time to come.

This limitation does not hinder libraries from simultaneously establishing digital collections in hopes of fulfilling the very same requirements. These collections consist of copies of real objects, such as digitized old prints or files that were digitally produced, such as movies. Research data that was generated during the course of scientific study plays an increasingly important role, too. In the humanities, research data may include personal letters by an author that a researcher has transcribed for their project, to name just one example of the use of additional electronically reproduced material. Digital text editions along with their sources and research data make up another growing subfield of digitized material that could constitute its own collection over a period of time. The added value of such library collections beyond their accessibility through the Internet lies in the fact that libraries create a networked research space in which the various digital resources are intelligently linked, quality assurance and long-term availability are guaranteed, links remain stable, and the provenance of information is transparent.

The fact that objects in digital collections are easily copied and coexist in other contexts does not speak against collecting them. In principle, this also holds true for books. It is more important for the library to guarantee the authenticity of its objects. This can only be achieved by granting libraries curatorial control and ownership over the data that they collect and provide. Following best practices with the greater public in mind, libraries are the institutions that possess the necessary expertise and neutrality and are independent and trustworthy enough to take responsibility for the integrity of the data and the stability of the knowledge they gather.

It must be stated that the term “collection” cannot be limited exclusively to real objects. Electronic files can also grow into collections. Nowadays there are libraries that almost exclusively acquire electronic resources. If they focus on the humanities, however, I believe that they should continue to invest in printed materials. Such libraries will continue to be hybrid collections for a long time to come.

3. The Future of Collecting in Libraries

Collecting in the twenty-first century. From museums to the web
Der Beitrag erschien 2022 in diesem Buch: Collecting in the twenty-first century. From museums to the web. (Rochester, NY: Camden House, ISBN 9781571139702), S. 67-78.

Libraries that remain committed to their mandate to collect and are willing to continue to expand both their analog and digital holdings are confronted with tremendous logistical challenges. At the same time, expenditures grow while budgetary restrictions limit financial latitude. Such libraries can only fulfill their mandate for the benefit of research if they begin to focus on special types of objects or collecting practices, if they have not already done so. All library tasks from collection development to bibliography, physical storage, storage of digital data, and the transfer of information, to name a few, can only be organized in concerted cooperation that includes internal and other research networks at the city, regional, and national levels, but ideally at an international level as well.

An example might illustrate the necessity of this cooperation: In order to cover one collection field—let’s say: the history of Hungary—e-books, data banks, and other electronic resources need to be purchased along with printed literature. As they can usually only be licensed for a limited time, it must be determined how libraries intend to organize long-term access (hosting via Portico or Clockss would be two, albeit in my opinion insufficient, options). They must also store the available documents on Open Access and make them accessible. In addition, all media require qualified metadata that is discoverable in catalogs and search engines. Furthermore, there should be fast interlibrary exchanges so that printed material may quickly reach the hands of as many readers as possible. This example demonstrates that even for a seemingly small collection field the task of collecting and the assurance of all its adjacent responsibilities is enormous. This is why collecting must be divided into sub-tasks, which can then be solved by different cooperation partners. Each individual library may then decide whether it will “intensively” collect and archive its objects accordingly, or whether it will only collect, but not archive, or whether it will only offer access to digital publications. Each library’s acquisition activity can be understood as part of a network. Consequently, libraries collect by utilizing the intelligent division of responsibilities. Collecting, then, can be seen as a “collective” enterprise and libraries as actors within a wide network that best functions as a system.

Ende. (Der Beitrag ist gegenüber der Buchversion leicht gekürzt.)  

Diesen Blogbeitrag zitieren
Michael Knoche (2022, 22. August). Should Libraries Still Be Charged with Collecting in a Digital Environment? (2). Aus der Forschungs­bibliothek Krekelborn. Abgerufen am 26. Mai 2024, von

Michael Knoche

Michael Knoche war von 1991 bis 2016 Direktor der Herzogin Anna Amalia Bibliothek in Weimar. Zu den Buchveröffentlichungen gehört: Die Idee der Bibliothek und ihre Zukunft (Göttingen: Wallstein 2018). Persönliche Website:

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