January 29 , 2007
by helen anne richards
Rick Luce, vice provost and director of the university libraries, asks a single question about the future of the libraries, “How do we transform Emory’s libraries into a 21st-century conceptualization of what a library is?”
At first glance, the answers seem to be unrelated — special collections, digital services and focusing on customers.
But Steve Enniss, director of Emory’s Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library, says that special collections are increasingly what differentiate one library from another, and digital access is a means of leveraging a university’s rare and unique resources for the widest possible impact.
“When you begin to digitize your library, what do you choose but your special collections?” Enniss asked. “Emory is a relatively young institution. We’re building collections today that will support teaching and research for generations.”
Enniss made the comment while holding one of Salman Rushdie’s leather-bound journals, part of a recent acquisition of Rushdie’s papers. Emory’s ability to acquire the Rushdie archive was predicated on the University’s reputation for building distinctive special collections in modern literature, African American history and culture, and in Southern history.
The Rushdie archive contains nearly 100 linear feet of Rushdie’s personal and literary papers, as well as four of his computers. Library staff are working to recover and preserve old e-mails and other electronic data from these computers, as well as conserve handwritten materials like the journals.
“We’ve had a radical shift in thinking about what special collections are,” Enniss said. “They are increasingly places of innovation in the digital arena. They’re here for students to cut their teeth on original research and to support scholarly research that simply could not be done elsewhere.”
In order to do that, he said, the university needs more space to house Emory’s growing special collections. It also needs smart classrooms where students can be introduced to electronic tools for archival research and examine original documents not held elsewhere. Planning for a state-of-the-art building currently is under way.
Digital materials, however, are not confined to special collections at Emory. Martin Halbert, director of digital programs and systems at Woodruff Library, and his staff are building online projects on a wide variety of topics. One of the most extensive projects will provide detailed information about the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
“Emory is uniquely situated to show what is possible in digital scholarship,” Halbert said. “We are creating a model for scholars, technologists and librarians.”
The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database project began with a static, but important, collection of information on a CD-ROM. Created in 1999, the disk was expensive and not readily available.
The online project will transfer the original database from the CD to a Web site, and will add information about 8,000 additional voyages to the 27,000 originally catalogued on the disk, will enhance 9,000 other listings and will make the information available for free in a two-tier system for scholars, students and the general public. The data will be updated any time it’s required.
As Emory’s special collections and digital projects move forward, Luce and his staff are also building a customer-centered library. They plan to establish a library branch to house and create e-collections, digitized volumes and digitized special collections, and to create robust digital services. He expects to redesign physical spaces in the libraries to support new methods of instruction and research, and to upgrade the science and business libraries to meet future needs.