Originally posted 4/9/2007
My introduction to Charles Bukowski occurred via the display cases inside the Boston University library lobby, and I was drawn to them because I happened to be working in the library's special collections department at the time. The special collections department at BU is quite renowned and was established by Dr. Howard Gotlieb who recently died. (Gotlieb actually wrote one of my recommendations for business school). My job was less intellectual than hired muscle since the library was becoming so overwhelmed with boxed submissions they needed someone to unload the stuff and place the materials in uniform boxes on shelves. I didn't have too much time to peruse the material in some of these boxes but I do recall a wealth of material from Herbert Swope and Fletcher Knebel, who's boxes were filled with photos of JFK and his family while they were all in the White House.
Some of the material deposited wasn't quite so moving or important (at least to my eyes) and in many cases it was clear that entire desk draws had been upended into a box and sent off to BU. These boxes often included things like gum, blank paper, pens, pennies, paper clips and other detritus which had minimal residual value to scholars. BU did have several archivists responsible for cataloging the vast amount of stuff that was deposited. They seemed to work fairly methodically (slowly) to identify the important material and provide tables of content for scholars. Increasingly, the material in formal special collections libraries like BU and in local libraries is being digitized and there is little doubt that this will accelerate. Books constitute some of this material and are included in scanning projects but the bulk of material in these collections would be non-book format material such as documents, letters, posters, art work, banners, etc.
Displaying this material is regarded as an important activity at libraries. After all, they have expended the effort to collect and catalog the material and they want people to know they have it. Hence the display cases at BU and in the lobbies of many other libraries. On a sales call to a small public library in Redlands CA a number of years ago, our meeting was held in the special collections room which contained their collection of local southern Californian historical material. Much of this material probably doesn't exist anywhere else and sadly patrons had to ask for permission to enter the room. With the glacial progression towards digitization of this material it does mean that patrons will eventually have more access to this material online but it will take some time.
Digitization will enable more opportunities for the library to benefit commercially from this material and I am curious why more libraries are not recognising these opportunities. Two of these include the electronic version of the traditional display case and traditional publishing. Both of these require the touch of the archivist/curator to prioritize, explain and make relevant the chosen material. Not everything in a collection will be important or interesting enough for the average patron and the editing function remains important to ensure that the interest of the patron is held through the presentation. The electronic version of the display cases are computer terminals and/or online access that enable some self-directed exploration of the material and these are showing up in some libraries. In an electronic collection, this material should be available to other institutions that want to access it where the material could add to or enhance material they may be also be featuring. The network aspects of intermingling collections and expertise is nascent in the library world but could become a very exciting area of study. Increasingly, much like museums, libraries will be able to develop programs and special events that feature their special collections content not only at a reasonable cost but also as a revenue generator.
Traditional publishing can also support and enhance the display and exploitation of library special collections. Many of us are familiar with the Museum shop experience which can be irritating because it often appears overly commercial; however, the reason these shops exist is basic economics. The products sold are a material support to the institutions. In the case of virtually all museums the institutions retain extensive publishing programs for everything from books and exhibition catalogs, to greeting cards, post cards and posters. Digitization will allow even small libraries to leverage their content in revenue producing ways. Ideally, the most savvy library administrators are going to realize that the opportunity for revenue could actually pay for the the digitization. After I graduated from BU, I became the book buyer at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and that experience showed me the intense focus on leveraging their collection in all commercial aspects is critical to retail revenues, special events and shows and donor participation. Obviously, the correlation with your typical local library and the MFA is tenuous but the lessons are there to be learned in how to build new and recurring revenue streams that can be channelled back into the library.
Once in digital (leverageable) format it is no slam dunk that your typical librarian is going to be able to produce a printed book but today there are more readily available options for print production. All of the 'photo book' providers such as Blurb.com, picaboo.com etc. offer templates and functionality that could provide that basis for a publishing program. At least something they could test without too much downside. The downside of these providers is that the retail price point for these products would probably be too high to create much demand. On the other hand, the self-publishing programs offered by lulu.com, exlibris and iUniverse may be the answer especially as they become more sophisticated about format and color. Even now, quality from these vendors is high enough that patrons would pay for the books. As any Museum publisher will tell you, the popularity of their in-house titles published to support both specific events and to show case their collection would amaze in the number of annual units sold. I am convinced that there is a business opportunity or consulting practice here for someone to help libraries build publishing programs or digital collections that will enhance their revenue base.
Not every library is going to have a collection worthy of digitization, but those that do will increasingly see revenue opportunities from catalogs or a publishing program. Who knows perhaps BU will get around to publishing their Charles Bukowski collection.