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Special Collections, Special Delivery

Special Collections, Special Delivery


 What do the two researchers have in common? One is a professor from a Finnish university working on his fifth book, this one about the Cold War and the rise of the Christian right. The other is a University of Arkansas undergraduate who has never worked with primary source materials and hasn’t chosen a topic for an assigned paper. The short answer to their commonality: Special Collections.

Although the researchers bring different skills and needs, both end up sitting at oak tables in the basement of Mullins Library, wearing white cotton gloves to open acid-free folders, under the watchful eye of Special Collections Reading Room supervisor Geoffrey Stark.

The Finnish researcher knows what he is looking for and has corresponded with Stark before arriving in Fayetteville. The boxes of files he needs have been recalled from storage and are waiting for him.  To get the student started, Andrea Cantrell, who headed research services at the time, has talked with him about his interests, helped him select a subject and introduced him to research methods in a repository.

Special Collections was created in 1967 to promote research in the history and culture of Arkansas and the surrounding regions. Today, more than 2,000 manuscript collections fill well over two miles of shelf space. Contents range from public documents like legislative bills to the personal diaries and letters of private individuals. Besides ink on paper documents, the archive also holds maps, a large collection of photographs, and sound and video recordings in all formats, from old analog tape to digital.

Some collections are clearly about Arkansas. Others, like the papers of Sen. J. William Fulbright, have an important Arkansas connection but much of the content is of national and international origin. It is the most-used collection, Stark says, and scholars from many countries have used it to research international relations in the 20th century.

Special Collections is evolving. “A big movement in the library world is to open special collections to make holdings more readily available to educators and the general research public,” says Special Collections director Tom Dillard. And, he adds, “Digitization is the main strategy.”

To assist schoolteachers as well as researchers, Special Collections staff is in the process of digitizing selected sections of the papers of Arkansas congressman Brooks Hays and plans an educational component with instructional materials and lesson plans.

Index Arkansas is a searchable, online index to Arkansas-related publications from the 1930s through 1986 and offers over 100,000 entries today, with plans to extend the index to 2007. A researcher interested in the World War II Japanese relocation camps in Arkansas, for example, could use Index Arkansas to quickly uncover 28 citations.

“The digital revolution changes every conceivable aspect of archiving our collective record,” Dillard says.

For example, much information is “born digital” and never sees print. That information may simply be erased and never make it to an archive. When it has been stored, there are daunting technical demands to migrate files to current technology. Special Collections maintains obsolete equipment, such as a reel-to-reel tape recorder, to play oral histories and recordings of Ozark music from the 1940s. It also keeps one old computer that can read five-and-a-quarter-inch floppy disks from the early 1980s.

More and more over time, researchers who never see the Reading Room and the boxes will be able to sit at home with a cup of coffee – in Fayetteville or Helsinki – and conduct research by consulting a detailed online index or digital records delivered electronically. Their success and the richness of the books, articles and documentaries they produce will depend on a cadre of skilled staff digitizing and organizing information and offering thoughtful assistance.

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