how do you use digital special collections?

detail of armorial stamp (Folger 269- 362f)
detail of armorial stamp (Folger 269- 362f)

I’ve been thinking about the digital landscape of special collections recently (hi, RBMS16!) and while I have lots of thoughts on how I come across and use the digital incarnations of rare books and manuscript libraries, I’m curious about what other people do.

When I think of the digital landscape of these libraries, I’m thinking of everything from social media (institutional and personal accounts) to digital collections and exhibitions to user-generated websites and projects. How do you encounter and interact with that landscape? Are you looking for specific images? Are you browsing for pretty pictures? Are you following social media feeds for entertainment? Are you researching specific topics? Are you bored? Are you inspired to create your own work from it? Does it never, ever occur to you to look for or look at special collections online?

I’d love it if you wanted to share your thoughts in the comments below, whether anonymously or not.

20 thoughts on “how do you use digital special collections?

  1. Oh gosh. I’m always on the lookout for digital medieval manuscripts. I want 1) high quality digital images that are 2) easy to download IN BATCH and 3) licensed for reuse. I know of exactly two collections that answer these criteria, and one of them is mine (well, University of Pennsylvania’s, but I think of it as mine), the other is the Digital Walters. So I do a lot of experimenting with methods to batch download from other openly-licensed collections (I’ve hacked Harvard’s digitized manuscripts, for example, and the Getty, and I’ve figured out how to use IIIF manifests to batch download manuscripts from e-codices). And I publicly complain about manuscript collections that copyright their images (lame, and questionably legal) or that don’t make it easy to batch download (most of them). And once I have them, I build things with them. I’m developing a system for visualizing physical collation, and it’s nice to have images to incorporate in that. I’ve made ebooks and page turners, and I’ve just started a new endeavor to generate PDFs and post them on Google Docs. I’m an aggregator – I’m interested in manuscripts in general, I’m not really looking for specific ones.

    I also do social media but I consider that to be quite separate from this other stuff, unless I’m using social media to talk about my development work.

    I’ll see you at RBMS then??

  2. I wish I could claim to be more organized and thoughtful in my approach, but the truth is I browse digital collections for entertainment often, and for inspiration–when I’m stuck on a chapter or an idea, I like to search for a particular thing (“stomach” or “disease” or whatever) and see what comes up. The results almost always start a productive sideline and jump-start me.

    1. I love this, thanks! I’m pretty sure a lot of users aren’t being organized in their explorations—I know I’m often haphazard in how I browse, both because that’s what browsing is and often because lots of interfaces aren’t designed for particularly directed searching…

  3. This is pretty timely for me because I am sitting in my office writing labels for an Emily Dickinson exhibition and I’m mainly working from the images in Amherst College Digital Collections ( even though the originals are about 25 feet from my desk. But I do use our own digital special collections to do things like browse thumbnails of our Dickinson manuscripts when I’m trying to find that one that’s on a funny shaped piece of paper that I can’t quite remember the name of, for instance. Of course, I know exactly what is and isn’t in ACDC because I’m part of the team that decides what gets added next. As far as other people’s digital special collections go, I often dig into the American Antiquarian Society’s digital collections when I’m hoping to find a scan of something I know they hold. Same with the Folger digital collections — in most cases it’s a known item search rather than a browse.

    My main motivation for seeking out digital special collections stuff is when I’m preparing slides for a talk or when I’m writing a blog post. We also try to use our blog to call attention to the contents of ACDC and to collections we are in the process of digitizing.

    One of the greatest uses of our digital special collections is when we have to answer reference questions. I wish we got more feedback from users when they ask a question and we can send them a link to the appropriate sources in ACDC. We just don’t get good data on that yet.

    1. ahh, I used to do the same thing when I worked at the Folger—looking through digital images of stuff that was right downstairs! But for all the reasons you say, sometimes it was easier and more productive.

  4. Lots of ways:
    1) Cooking in the Archives would be almost impossible to maintain if Alyssa and I could only access the recipe books in person. This was the case when we were working on the blog on two coasts (PA/CA) and even more so now that we both have different jobs that make this project our side-gig. We can choose recipes, transcribe, research, cook, and write at home without having to make time to go to the rare book room for each post. (
    2) I use digital images regularly in my literature and book history courses. There are also no early modern rare books on my campus.
    3) I follow lots of special collections libraries on social media and I read their blogs on my feed-reader. Truthfully, I swipe past lots of these posts, but I’ve also learned a lot about specific holdings and new acquisitions this way. I know that I’ve found out about the work of specific scholars or learned new terminology this way. I also like to look at pretty pictures of books.

    1. Marissa, can I ask a follow-up? How do you find recipe books or images for teaching? Are you look for pictures of known texts in known locations, browsing, where do you browse, etc.?

      1. Sure!

        Recipe Books – We stick to known repositories. Since we launched the project at UPenn, Alyssa and I have worked almost exclusively in their collection of manuscripts (which were completely digitized as part of a 2009 NEH grant). Part of our goal from the beginning has been to draw attention to those digital images and how they might be used. We’re just starting to work on stuff from the Folger and that generally means flipping through LUNA (or transcribing for EMROC in Dromio and then going from there).

        Teaching – I usually have a text/item/scene in mind and, to be honest, I’m usually in a rush. I google image search, pull the best images I can find from a major library digital collection or exhibition, make a note on the source of the image in my powerpoint, and keep prepping. I haven’t taught a book history course at my new institution and I assume that I’d have to approach this more thoughtfully. (The other institutions I’ve taught at had lots of rare books.)

        In writing this I’ve realized that I rely most heavily on UPenn and Folger resources because I trust the sites and know the interfaces well.

  5. Medievalist here 🙂 I’m a pretty boring type: my need is to read texts from medieval manuscripts, not random ones but the ones I’m working on. So basically, I know what I’m looking for and pray all the gods available on duty that the ms(s) I’m looking for are available online. Often it’s not. My typical practice is not to browse randomly a special collection, and I don’t care a fig for pretty images: my type of mss are usually pretty boring (just like me), with only hastily scribbled text and no illuminations.
    If / when I’ve found a digitised resource, I unleash my inner boringness to the full: my typical use is to read and sometimes transcribe the resources.
    I warned you: boring. 🙂

    1. Thanks for this–it’s a really handy guide to what research has been done on this!

  6. As a once-and-future special collections librarian, I primarily use digital images for continuing education. I left my job when my husband’s moved us cross-country, and therefore I lost unfettered access to a great collection. Ironically, I gained a lot of time to do the deeper research you can’t always manage as a jobbing librarian. I visit special collections departments when I can, but, oddly enough, they get nervous when you have a toddler in tow!

    Because I’m trying to fill gaps in my educational background and I don’t know what sort of materials I will care for in future, I tend to seek broad material types/genres/eras as opposed to specific items. I have a fondness for bibliography and cataloging, so I pick items and practice creating bib records and descriptions. Or I will look for particular material features to illustrate bookbinding/typography/paper/provenance concepts I’m studying. This can be a relief when I don’t know if local libraries have related materials (and cannot determine from 655-less catalog records). Or, if I’m feeling up to it, I practice reading and transcribing early modern manuscripts or inscriptions.

    One subset of items I especially miss from my former institution are woodblock-printed East Asian materials. Like ours were, they can be incredibly hard to find outside of major repositories (physically, because they’re not widely collected; intellectually, because they are often so badly cataloged), so digital collections are essential for my continuing research. Chinese and Japanese items that have been digitized are often (though not always) connected to a robust bib record, so they’re a little easier to locate.

    That last is mostly for joy, as I’m unlikely to steward the sort of East-West collection with which I used to work. But that’s another big reason I peruse digital collections. Beyond the “sexy” items, like Shakespeare and Books of Hours, there is so much related to materials and marginalia and provenance to study. You never know what you’ll find, and online repositories are as easy to get lost in as Wikipedia is.

  7. Hello!

    I use digital special collections in all kinds of ways.

    The most valuable are collections that have been entirely digitized, so I can read manuscripts, books, or other materials that I’d otherwise have to travel to see.

    I also appreciate really good, comprehensive databases of images. The images can be used for so many things — as research sources, as bits of visual culture to analyze with students in class, as illustrations for conference Power Points, etc. I tend to try and find high-res pictures from repositories that I am familiar with (rather than a random person’s Tumblr).

    Sometimes interesting, but less helpful, are digital exhibitions. It’s nice to come across a well-written, well-illustrated essay on a source I know very little about. But sometimes digital exhibitions can be a little lackluster. Maybe, as a researcher, I’m not the right audience for them. I would prefer a comprehensive database to a curated selection (though I know that is not always feasible).

    I follow a number of archives and special collections on social media. I like to hear about what new stuff is coming in, to see how the staff works behind-the-scenes, to hear about lesser-known resources, etc.

  8. I mainly use digital repositories for my research into the production of early modern printers and publishers. To create a decent bibliography, you usually need more information than what is listed in library catalogues or even specialized bibliographies – e.g. a full quote of the imprint, including address of the printer; or details from the approbation or licence.

    My first step is usually to create a list of all the editions printed by a certain printer, using brute force – entering the printer’s name into any database and catalogue I can think of.

    The second step, usually mostly set at the same time, is listing as many copies as I can find of those editions.

    The third step is finding digital copies that I can use; often, I will again use the ‘brute force’ approach using the title and other metadata to locate a digital copy. Google books is surprisingly helpful this way, as are a few other repositories. Most of the time though it means locating the website of the library that holds a copy, and hoping they have a digital repository which includes the edition I need. If they don’t, I sometimes order a digital copy if it’s not too expensive (fortunately my publishers mainly printed small pamphlets); otherwise, I’ll mark that copy in my bibliography as ‘not seen’ and try to work around it.

    It would be useful to have something like a (non-commercial) worldcat for digital copies.

    1. It would be so useful to have something like an OA catalog for digital copies! I’m currently stretching my skills by trying to find digitizations of various things and it’s frustrating, to say the least. And if it’s frustrating for researchers and librarians, imagine what it must be like for students or other non-specialists!

  9. Thanks for asking these questions, Sarah. I have enjoyed reading the responses so far and will be interested to hear more about your findings in due course. Here are some responses based on my experience:

    RESEARCH: At the moment, I’m using digital special collections as I write my book to cross-check/confirm details about items I’ve previously consulted in person. I’ve also recently used digital special collections to consult items that I couldn’t see in person because they were on loan or in an exhibition (mostly related to #shakespeare400—surprise!). I sometimes use images from digital special collections on slides for conference presentations. When I do, I always indicate not just the library and shelfmark but also the name of the online repository. I have been frustrated by some sites that don’t allow downloads. In these cases, I sometimes use screenshots (not ideal) with full credit to the collection and website. (Let me know if you want specifics on the sites that have caused the most frustration.)

    TEACHING: I probably use digital special collections the most in my teaching. Like some of the commenters above, I use images from LUNA/Penn/BL Quartos/Digital Bodleian/&c when designing slides for lectures and discussions. I have also designed assignments that ask students to explore and use these collections themselves. See, for example, #3 in this assignment on Macbeth illustrations ( While assignments like this one are no substitute for getting students into a special collections library and using items from that library, they offer avenues for teaching with book history that would otherwise be foreclosed at an institution without many pre-modern books (and, where access to special collections has been limited recently due to construction).

    SOCIAL MEDIA: The majority of the accounts I follow on Twitter belong to individuals or special collections posting interesting images and information about rare books. I have learned a lot about book history, conservation, and the ways knowledge circulates from these accounts. Obviously, accounts that provide citations for the images they post are the ones I take most seriously (even if posts are humorous, which they oftentimes are)—#biblionerd twitter ftw. I particularly like tweets that lead me to more detailed information and analysis (such as a blog post or article). I also post a lot of images on Twitter myself. The majority of these are photos I’ve taken during the course of my research, but occasionally I’ll post something from a digital repository, always making sure to cite the online source so followers can find it.

  10. For pleasure: I just like clicking on all the pretty things on Twitter, and then scanning through them when I have time.

    For work: I just like clicking on all the pretty things on Twitter, and then scanning through them when I have time.

    AND I also get thick into digitized books when doing comparative bibliography work, establishing variant states, looking for a title page to confirm someone else’s transcription when my copy is wanting, point academics to an existing resource when they come asking if I could digitize our VERY CLEAN copy, &c. &c.

    But, really, I just love clicking on the thumbnails of the pretty things, the gnarly things, the well-used things, and seeing what other people have in their vaults.

  11. Great discussion! I have a slightly different point of view here, having worked on the other end of the digital landscape, creating the images used for scholars. Last year, I worked on a British Library Imaging Studio research project which considered how larger institutions could actually make use of their photographic studios to open collections (please see: As I was digitising British Library manuscripts, I thought of using social media (Twitter–@kaphelps09) to share an image a day which digital scholars might not see during their usual online scholarship. Since I had the privilege of having the manuscript/3-D object in my presence I tried to look at it from their perspective, thinking about what would be visible in the digital record and what would not and sharing with scholars and other audiences these images of specific manuscripts. It may be slightly outside the scope of traditional digital manuscript scholarship, but I think it’s a value-add when a manuscript has more of a digital life outside it’s text and bindings alone.

  12. Great question! 90% of the time, I’m looking for manuscript images to teach from. (I teach Latin paleography.) I have a mental inventory of scripts and periods I want to illustrate and I’m looking for good teachable examples. So I tend to go to known repositories or multi-repository projects that I know a) are strong in the periods I’m covering, b) allow me to search by date at a minimum, and c) allow me to download high-res images. Ideally, searching by script would be enormously helpful, but the terminology of scripts is such a mess and the likelihood that script will be correctly identified in legacy cataloguing is slim, so I pretty much rely on narrowing date and sometimes place of origin and then browse visually to find the script I’m looking for. Once I’ve narrowed down likely specimens, I tend to browse screensful of thumbnails of all the images in a MS to get a sense of the range of what’s in it visually and to pull out what look like fairly clear pages of text – good images, not too damaged, not too much fancy stuff if what I’m really aiming for is an extended chunk of text for students to work with.

    Sometimes I want to show students the same part of a book of a certain type, like a psalter or a gospel book, in different MSS, and browsing all the thumbnails to quickly select the Beatus page or canon tables or whatever is the most efficient way to do that if the repository allows that kind of browsing. In that case, I’m applying what I know about the physical organization of the book to navigating an array of little rectangular images, but it works. And it’s something I explicitly teach my students to do, too.

    For research purposes, I’m almost invariably looking to see if a known MS of a text I’m working on for some reason has been digitized. Often these are MSS for which a footnote once alerted me to the existence of glosses, and in some cases I know what texts are likely to carry the kind of glosses I’m interested in, so I check MSS with those texts for signs of glossing. I’m just beginning to think about ways in which comparing glossed MSS of the same text digitally will make new things possible.

  13. Like Kristin, I’m also active on ‘the other end’, helping to shape a digitization policy. It might be useful for researchers to understand how digitization projects work, so as to be able to critically assess them.

    At our library (Hendrik Conscience Library = Antwerp City Library) we will soon start digitizing 16th century books, with a preference to those that are unique/very rare/not yet digitized elsewhere. I’m still looking for input from scholars there as to what our priorities should be (one suggestion has been 16th century schoolbooks). Until recently, we had no real digitization policy: we would scan what was requested by others, either internal (eg. for preservation or public outreach reasons) or external (researchers, exhibition catalogues, publications, …).

    Another project is (currently only available in Dutch) which is a cooperation between major heritage libraries in Flanders. This is a kind of virtual showcase of our collections, with a short text about each piece but no general ‘theme’. Our aim was to show the diversity of heritage libraries collections. This means that, which currently hosts over 600 digitized works, has a bit of everything; this is a good thing for public outreach (and government support) but a bad thing for a research audience since there’s no unity.

    I would love to see suggestions from researchers on what kind of digital collections they need – not just interface and copyright issues, but also content. Should we strive for a Google books-like approach, i.e. scan it all and let the public figure it out, or should we be more specific and mirror the commercial providers (TEMPO, ECCO, …)?

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