The Special Collections Handbook, Third Edition. By Alison Cullingford. London: Facet, 2022. 430 p. $93.99 paperback (ISBN 978-1-78330-537-7).

Considering how many materials and formats can fall under the rubric of “special collections,” it seems like a daunting endeavor to compile a single handbook which covers all their management and care, but Alison Cullingford has done so with great finesse. The book is patently a product of its time: in the introduction the author addresses the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and how “the rapid digital pivot or shift meant remote access to collections and metadata became more important than ever, for staff and users” (xix). In addition, the “voices for Black Lives Matter” have made the special collections community reexamine practices where “Special Collections have been shaped by legacies of empire, colonialism and slavery” (xix). Throughout the text the impact of this zeitgeist can be seen.

The author has arranged the book into four parts: “Discovering Collections,” “Collection Management,” “Managing Public Access,” and “Governance and Resources for Special Collections.” Of all the parts, the first part is most likely the weakest. It is essentially a lightning-quick introduction to the history of the book and book making and then an enumeration of the kind of materials you might also find in a special collection (artists’ books, ephemera, audio/visual/digital media, music, maps, and realia). The reader comes away feeling that so little was said about so much. The chapters in other parts are much stronger, but the part division itself seems a bit arbitrary at times with some overlap of the parts (for example, the marketing chapter in part 3 could easily have gone into part 4 instead).

Nevertheless, the content of each chapter is quite good for the most part with each chapter defining terminology, introducing the major topics of the subject, presenting best practices, and offering up further readings and useful websites at the end of the chapter. In terms of the quality of the content, some chapters are better than others. The chapters on emergency planning, user services, and marketing were very strong. In fact, chapter 9 (“Marketing and Communications in Special Collections”) was quite brilliant and offered up insights that can only be garnered through years of experience using social media to effectively promote one’s collection. The author rightly and eloquently stresses marketing’s importance:

Librarians sometimes worry that marketing will lead to an increase in use, which is a concern if services struggle with existing demand. However, good quality communication means better informed Special Collections users who need less individual attention. Increased use helps librarians acquire funding and resources; diminishing use and hidden collections leads only to stagnation and threat (225).

Less strong was the chapter dealing with resource descriptions, chapter 5 (“Cataloguing, Description and Metadata in Special Collections”), which does not mention the new RDA Toolkit and what effect that will have on rare book cataloging. Also lacking mention is OCLC’s CONTENTdm. CONTENTdm is used in creating metadata for digital collections—it is mentioned in passing later in chapter 6—but its predominant use in the community warrants more explanation of its application. The small section on music cataloging might as well not have been included. In addition, this chapter’s further reading and useful websites section was inadequate in comparison, say, to the Rare Book School’s Rare Book Cataloging Advance Reading List.1

The first two editions of this book were published in 2011 and 2016, respectively, and were critiqued by contemporary reviewers as being too United Kingdom centric. This third edition seems for the most part to have amended that bias in regard to references to international and American resources, websites, institutions, and tools. To be fair, there is only so much the author can include in the text about other countries’ standards and practices without making the book too lengthy and thereby unwieldy. For example, chapter 7 (“Legal and Ethical Issues in Special Collections”) is almost exclusively focused on UK and US law and this limited focus seems to be the more practical approach since every country is going to have their own laws and practices in terms of copyright, privacy, and freedom of information.

It is a shame, though, that the book was completed while COVID-19 made physical attendance at many research libraries impossible. The gaps in the chapter bibliographies make this handbook a bit less useful than it could be. It is appreciated that the author admitted as much in the text, stating “I was unable to access some relevant titles due to COVID-19 restrictions. I will share information about them once read via the accompanying website” (23). This is not a fatal flaw, since so much information can be found online nowadays. It is also most likely that there will be room for another edition within five years with the ever-changing world of technology—sections on digitizing, metadata, linked data, etc. will require updating.

To this reviewer, the book will best serve those who are already working in special collections within a specialization, such as a rare book cataloger or reference librarian, who need to broaden their knowledge to other arenas in special collections. The author seems to lean a bit towards thinking that beginners would find it more useful: “The Handbook is written for library practitioners who work with Special Collections, or those aspiring to do so, especially library school students and new professionals” (xviii). Yet one might suspect that a new librarian would be overwhelmed by the depth of the content overall. For small special collection libraries or collections where there is limited staffing and therefore less experts to consult, however, this book will certainly be a welcome resource.—Tamara Fultz (tamara.fultz@metmuseum.org), Thomas J. Watson Library, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York


  1. “L-30. Rare Book Cataloging—Advance Reading List,” Rare Book School, https://rarebookschool.org/courses/library/l30/reading-list/.


  • There are currently no refbacks.

ALA Privacy Policy

© 2023 Core