I've been reading some of the essays in the recently-published collection Book Talk: essays on books, booksellers, collecting, and special collections (Oak Knoll Books, 2006). While some of the sentiments expressed therein seem rather high-flown for a small repository like ours, two of the pieces struck me as particularly relevant to not only our repository, but to many special collections.
In his essay "Books that everyone has forgotten: some preliminary notes on low spots in literature," Garrett Scott reminds us that there are more books than appear on lists of classics, and that history (and the whims of fashion) may have been unkind to a majority of these. He concludes by reflecting that "Perhaps the scarcity of a given individual book becomes less important than the context in which one places the work." This is certainly true of a collection such as ours, filled with relatively unremarkable texts which are nevertheless remarkable for their provenance (almost all having been donated by individuals affiliated with the university) and their significance in the history of medical education and research. It is that value which is so hard to measure quantitatively, but which makes our collection so important to the history of our schools.
Similarly, Geoffrey D. Smith makes a plug for unprocessed or underprocessed collections in his essay "I didn't know you had that!--resuscitating special collections." Every institution has a backlog of materials awaiting processing, and every institution is required to prioritize which collections will receive attention. Collections deemed of lower research value often receive minimal processing; when scholarly trends change and scholars begin to focus their efforts on new areas of research, these underprocessed collections may continue to languish, effectively hiding information of potentially great value to academics. Giving a nod to such grandiose schemes as Google Print, Smith nevertheless concludes that "Electronic access tools are improving and making research easier in many ways, but myriad unidentified, undocumented, or minimally cataloged collections of books and manuscripts will guarantee, for a long time ahead, the need for old-fashioned, hands-on examination of texts."
I feel positively inspired to go back and upgrade some catalog records right now!