Special Collections Reading List

What defines a librarian working in the field of special collections?

This is a question that is not easily answered, nor is there a single source that answers this question. Perhaps the most obvious determinant of a practitioner in our field is the collections one works with. However, I suspect many would agree that librarians in our field are defined by more than our collections. To wit, we share similar — but different — ethical norms and skills with the wider professions of librarianship and archivy. Broadly shared are committments to access, confidentiality, and preservation of collections; but the nature of our work demands that we apply these norms in ways that differ from the wider profession. These special norms are clearer to many of us already inside the field — but these norms are far more opaque to those looking at our field from the outside. I was once one of these outsiders — and the profession can be, at first blush, intimidating, cliquish, and mysterious — things that we strive to avoid. This list arose out of the desire by myself — shared with many of my colleagues — to demystify ourselves and become more welcoming to those interested in learning more about what makes special collections librarians different from our larger profession.

More immediately, this list grew out of the desire of individuals associated with Special Collections at Southwestern University to learn more about the field. The list is used as the foundation for a regularly held reading seminar made up of librarians, undergraduates, and library school students. The order of the list is intentional, but by intention, this list is not a static document — but will change depending upon new publications, as well as the needs of the users of this document. I invite your suggestions about this list, and I am intensely curious to know if — and how — you use this list.

Note: as of this writing — January 28, 2017 — the list lacks truly skill based resources, like descriptive bibliography or archival arrangement and description. The list is intended to outline shared professional norms, and not to supplant the hands-on learning done on the job or in the institutions teaching those skills.


Manguel, Alberto. The Library at Night. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006. Chapters : The Library as Order (36–63), The Library as Shadow (106–127), The Library as Survival (234–250).
This has been the touchstone of my career in Special Collections. Manguel frames libraries in many different ways, and as a non practitioner frames librarianship in ways not typically presented to professionals. Though the entire book is strongly recommended, these three chapters help begin our examination of libraries and librarians as the protectors of our collective memory.

Overholt, John, “Five Theses on the Future of Special Collections.” RBM: A Journal of Rare Books, Manuscripts, and Cultural Heritage 14, no. 1 (2013): 15–20. 
John’s essay is perhaps the best distillation of who we are and who we should be as professionals. He demonstrates how, and why, we must disassociate ourselves from a treasure house mentality and embrace philosophies and policies that make our special collections open and welcoming places, with only the most fundamental barriers to access.

Dimunation, Mark, “Red Wine and White Carpets: What We Didn’t Learn in Library School, or when the Dog and Pony Show Goes Bad.” RBM: A Journal of Rare Books, Manuscripts, and Cultural Heritage 7, no. 1 (2006): 73–84.

Joyce, William L., “The Evolution of the Concept of Special Collections in American Research Libraries.” RBM: A Journal of Rare Books, Manuscripts, and Cultural Heritage 3, no. 1 (1988): 19–29.

Schreyer, Alice D., “What’s so Special about Special Collections Librarians?” RBM: A Journal of Rare Books, Manuscripts, and Cultural Heritage 7, no. 1 (2006): 49–54.

Suarez, Michael “Historical Scholarship 2.0: The Way We (Could) Live Now.” Presentation at the Rare Books and Manuscripts Section Conference, Oakland, CA, June 23–26, 2015.

Werner, Sarah, “Looking for a Radically Open Digital Landscape.” Presentation at the Rare Books and Manuscripts Section Conference, Coral Gables, FL, June 21–24, 2016.

Carter, Lisa R., “Articulating Value: Building a Culture of Assessment in Special Collections.” RBM: A Journal of Rare Books, Manuscripts, and Cultural Heritage 13, no. 2 (2012): 89–99.

Bahde, Anne, “Taking the Show on the Road: Special Collections Instruction in the Campus Classroom.” RBM: A Journal of Rare Books, Manuscripts, and Cultural Heritage 12, no. 2 (2011): 75–88.

Werner, Sarah, “How to Destroy Special Collections with Social Media in 3 Easy Steps: A Guide for Researchers and Librarians.” Lecture at Rare Book School, Charlottesville, VA, July 29, 2015.

Schnapp, Jeffrey and Matthew Battles, “Cold Storage.”