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African area studies: Library collection management

How are library materials organized? A broad understanding of some principles of organization is helpful to the researcher encountering a large library for the first time. At each stage of their creation and maintenance, area studies collections are "messy" and more difficult to support and work with than disciplinary collections. Scholars and librarians must work closely with each other if the collections they create and use together are to be dynamic, relevant, and useful for ongoing teaching and research. Area studies collections are more diverse than disciplinary collections along as many dimensions as one can imagine: publisher, imprint location, vendor source, physical medium or format, genre, condition, availability/scarcity, branch location, etc.

As with many organizations, libraries may as a matter of institutional style may tend to "lump" or "split" (and may exhibit various degrees of each behavior in different branches or departments). To understand a library's style of organization, ask yourself if there is:

There are advantages and disadvantages for patrons and institutions in each of these cases. Understanding this aspect of institutional style may help you as a patron anticipate how to undertake a search, where to browse, who to ask for what assistance, etc.

Where is it located? Some items are located based on format (books and journals vs. computer disks, microfilm, video and audio recordings, etc.). Published paper materials themselves exist in a great variety of formats: oversized material, monographs, serials, research papers, pamphlets, posters and political broadsides, dissertations, maps. Each of these might be reproduced into other (e.g. microfilm, electronic) formats. Format can determine location, as in some cases the publisher of an item may do the same, e.g. government documents (but note that not all government documents are shelved separately).

Material scarcity, fragility, high value etc. can also determine where an item is located (e.g. newspapers, rare books, antique maps, sheet music, etc.). Utilitarian choices regarding security, physical conservation of an item, its size, accessibility for reference work, etc. may determine where it is housed. Similar issues may determine if items are circulated locally, loaned out on ILL, etc. "Purely" electronic data may have their own considerations.

While libraries specialize in collecting published materials (vs. museums, which generally specialize in collecting and preserving unique artifacts), there is an overlap in collection functions between these institutions. There likely is a continuum from unique items to widely published material in both most large libraries and in most museums. In some cases only a few very rare examples of what were at one time very widely available published materials survive. Cataloging may vary in detail, quality, and usefulness for a given purpose. An item may be cataloged for its value as an artifact versus as a source for intellectual content, for example. We will consider special collections and archives later in the course.

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