Sharing Special Collections


Rare and unique research collections are distributed system-wide, and any given institution's scholars and students may discover collections in other libraries and archives that are essential for their work. Fewer people are able to travel to use collections, while research using primary resources has steadily increased.

  • The move from print to digital draws special collections and archives into the spotlight, as the signature of the institution.
  • In the future, libraries and archives will need to devote fewer resources to acquiring rare and unique materials.
  • Librarians and archivists advocate strongly for use of "the real thing," or the "book as artifact."
  • Finding the correct division of labor between special collections staff and ILL staff when handling external requests for rare and unique materials is key to streamlining processes and ensuring security.
  • Building trust between institutions and within the institution is essential for the physical sharing of special materials.




Sharing the rare and unique items in library collections has long been a controversial topic. In 2002, RLG organized a forum in Washington, D.C., called Sharing the Wealth that brought together teams of special collections curators and interlibrary lending staff to discuss how best to share special collections and archival material more widely.  The focus was on lending original materials, but scan-on-demand initiatives and other provision of surrogates was also explored. This event spawned a working group that surveyed research libraries on current attitudes and practices, gathered superior examples of procedures and forms used in the lending of special collections, and developed a model policy for lending the rare and unique. In the end, the working group concluded that opinions about lending special collections was divided into two camps: those who already loaned such materials successfully, and those who were unwilling to even discuss the possibility of lending their rare and unique items.

In 2009, an RLG Programs steering committee on the delivery of special collections was formed. This group revisited the idea of physically lending rare and unique materials and initially concluded that the topic was still too controversial for reasoned discussion.  However, group members reconsidered and decided that, given the many changes in the economic, technical and cultural environments since 2002, it was worth having such discussions again, in spite of the fact that the topic makes many in libraries, archives and museums distinctly uncomfortable.

At the same time, a working group on sharing expertise among RLG Programs partner institutions within the SHARES resource sharing consortium proposed streamlining the process for handling external requests for special collections materials, as the volume of such requests is dramatically on the rise. The impulses of the steering committee and the working group were joined together, resulting in the creation of the Sharing Special Collections Advisory Group.




Streamlining procedures for successful delivery of rare and unique materials to users will maximize use of increasingly limited staff and financial resources. By following best practices, minimizing risk, and trusting community standards, librarians and archivists can deliver their collections to far-flung users while making the collections more visible and useful.

This project encourages good practices for lending special collections and archival materials by working with institutions that actively engage in lending. This project builds on experience gained since the 2002 RLG Forum, Sharing the Wealth, such as how to build trust in each others' reading room and exhibition practices, judicious evaluation of requested materials requested, fulfillment rates, and the staff time necessary for negotiating loans.



The conversation about sharing special collections began with a Web seminar, "Treasures on Trucks and Others Taboos," on 28 May, 2009. The seminar featured a panel discussion with two pairs of SHARES experts and heads of special collection, one pair speaking from experience and the other just starting to consider the possibility of more widely sharing the physical items. Are there factors that inhibit use? Has digitization lessened the demand for lending? Can we recommend system-wide strategies to encourage more active lending?

The Sharing Special Collections Advisory Group is made up of special collections specialists and interlibrary lending staff, in several cases teams from the same institution.

Two main tasks were identified during preliminary discussions: streamlining work flows when handling ILL requests for rare and unique materials, and exploring how best to go about building trust between two institutions sufficient to allow the physical lending of special collections materials.

A subset of the interlibrary loan practitioners drafted recommended work flows for handling external requests for special collections items, which were submitted for review to the entire group.

Another subset of the group explored the idea of creating a checklist for facility, staffing, policy and procedural standards that must be met to ensure “trustworthy” handling of another library's special materials on loan.

This work was done in consultation with the ACRL/RBMS Guidelines for Borrowing and Lending Special Collections Materials Task Force.





This activity is a part of the Mobilizing Unique Materials theme.