May 19, 2022

Report From Recent Harvard Library Strategic Conversation: “Special Collections: Past Meets Future”

This Harvard Library Strategic Conversation took place on November 4, 2014 at Harvard University. The conversation featured talks by:

  • Sarah Thomas, vice president for the Harvard Library and Roy E. Larsen Librarian for the Faculty of Arts and Sciences
  • Alice Schreyer, interim library director, associate university librarian for area studies and special collections and curator of rare books at the University of Chicago Library.

It was moderated by Tom Hyry, the Florence Fearrington Librarian of Houghton Library.

A summary of the event is available on the Harvard Library web site.

From the Summary:

Since special collections today touch almost every area of library development and innovation—digitization, born-digital materials, space management and transformation, discovery systems, outreach, curriculum support—they are often at the figurative center of the library and can be a galvanizing force for innovation throughout the system.

It wasn’t always this way. Thomas delved into the relatively recent reputation of special collections as “Siberia”—an exile for maladroit librarians stewarding musty old materials, made further impenetrable by restrictive and Byzantine access policies. As card catalogs moved online and collections became increasingly available for research, teaching and learning, people began to seek the unique, and the treasure troves of special collections were rediscovered—transforming Siberia, in Thomas’s parlance, into a library’s Shangri-La.


Initial concerns that digital surrogates would diminish interest in original materials are gone; instead, they frequently bring new interest in the original. But digitization has become an expectation. “It’s no longer an add-on or a luxury,” Schreyer explained. She said the changed expectations have altered libraries for the better in some cases, sharing a fantastic story of quick code-cracking of the annotations in a 15th-century Homer text using digital resources. “We need to remember that discoveries are often the result of intangible benefits. Original research depends on rare books and manuscripts that do not divulge their secrets at first glance.”

Direct to Full Text Article

See Also: Sarah Thomas’s Slide Deck

About Gary Price

Gary Price ( is a librarian, writer, consultant, and frequent conference speaker based in the Washington D.C. metro area. Before launching INFOdocket, Price and Shirl Kennedy were the founders and senior editors at ResourceShelf and DocuTicker for 10 years. From 2006-2009 he was Director of Online Information Services at, and is currently a contributing editor at Search Engine Land.