RBMS at 30: Growing Along With the Profession


Reformatted into XHTML from "RBMS at 30: Growing Along with the Profession," Rare Books & Manuscripts Librarianship, III (1988), 3-7.

In 1988, the Rare Books and Manuscripts Section (ACRLIALA) marks its thirtieth year as a separate Section within the Association of College and Research Libraries. The origins of a professional organization devoted to the concerns of rare book, manuscript, and special collections librarians go back at least a decade earlier. In 1948, an ACRL University Libraries Section meeting was devoted to rare books in the university library. John Cook Wyllie, speaking on "Why a Rare Book Room?" named "some of the best known curators of rare books in this country," and asked his audience to guess how many belonged to ALA. The answer was none.(1) The situation began to change rapidly, however. By 1954, a Committee on Rare Books, Manuscripts, and Special Collections had been formed within ACRL, charged to "promote wider understanding of the value of rare books to scholarly research and to cultural growth, bring improvement to the care, use and recognition of rare books in all Hbraries, and encourage librarians of these collections to become active members of ALA.(2)

The Committee, whose successive chairs were Gerald McDonald, Colton Storm, Georgia Haugh, and Marjorie Wynne, undertook immediately several projects and programs; and it was soon apparent that a more permanent, autonomous, and flexible structure within the parent organization was necessary to fulfill the Committee's mission. An ALA reorganization, completed in 1957, defined ACRL as a division representing the interests of libraries of higher education, independent research libraries and specialized libraries, with the ability to organize Sections representing fields of activity distinct from those represented by existing Sections.(3) At its 1958 Midwinter meeting in Chicago, the ACRL Board of Directors voted to establish the ACRL Rare Books Section. Formation of a Section to succeed the existing Committee had been requested jointly by Robert Vosper, in his capacity as chairman, Special Committee to Study Section Status for ACRL Rare Books Committee; and by Marjorie Wynne, then chair of the standing Committee. Vosper's Committee noted that Section status would afford "greater continuity, wider membership participation in worthwhile projects, and full control by the group itself over its officers, committee appointments, and the like."(4)Among other advantages offered by a Section were an ongoing forum for continuing education and recruitment, and a mechanism (through ALA) for locating and keeping in touch with interested persons.

The formation of a professional membership organization to meet education and communication needs reflects the dramatic rise in the number of rare book, manuscript, and special collections departments in university libraries during the 1940s and 1950s.(5)The principal locus of growth university libraries determined both the professional identity of those charged with responsibility for administering the new operations, and the natural home for their professional organization. Coming to their posts with training or experience as librarians; members of the book trade; bibliographical, literary or historical scholars; rare book, manuscript, and special collections librarians identified themselves increasingly as specialist librarians. Membership in the principal professional organization for American academic librarians, the Association of College & Research Libraries of the American Library Association, recognizes shared goals and the need to cooperate and communicate with colleagues throughout the library. Stephen Ferguson charted a leadership trend in rare book librarians over the past thirty years: "the leadership is now coming from within the profession, not from outside it."(6) Ferguson notes several factors contributing to this change; an additional and central one is the role played by RBMS itself in shaping the profession of rare book, manuscript, and special collections librarianship in these three decades.

From the beginning, programs and publications were identified as the primary means of meeting the information, education, and communication needs of this emerging professional community. The ACRL Committee offered an annual program each year of its existence; beginning in 1959 (with the exception of 1960), the Section has sponsored a preconference (preceding-usually-the Annual Conference of the American Library Association) lasting two to three days, comprising formal talks and topical panels. Marjorie Wynne described the first conference in Charlottesville, attended by over 200 librarians, booksellers, authors, and collectors, as follows: "there were eight panel discussions, three addresses, and any number of unscheduled cocktail parties.(7) Charlottesville. would seem, set a high standard for conviviality and substance, and all subsequent preconferences have been notable for this attractive blend. The Section also offers an annual program session at the ALA Annual Conference, on a topic of interest to a general library audience.

Appendix I, compiled by Stephen Ferguson, provides a valuable record of preconference dates, venues, and themes. The meetings have ranged widely over subjects, issues, and trends of theoretical or practical interest to members of the profession and those with whom we interact. Preconferences have become an annual rite-a town meeting for the community of rare book, manuscript, and special collections librarians representing different types of institutions, levels of responsibility, and specialties within the field; scholars; booksellers; collectors; and other members of the library and book worlds.

Appendix II, also compiled by Stephen Ferguson, illustrates the important contributions made by RBMS preconferences to the literature of rare books, manuscripts, and special collections librarianship. Beginning with Rare Book Collections, edited by H. Richard Archer (Chicago: American Library Association, 1965), a project undertaken by the ACRL Committee on Rare Books, Manuscripts, and Special Collections, and completed under the auspices of the Section, professional publications have played an important role in Section activities. For example, professional practices and procedures relating to access to original materials, borrowing material for exhibitions, ethical standards, machine-readable cataloguing records, security, and transfer of materials from general to special collections have each formed the focus for RBMS committee consideration, and the basis for a published brochure, article, guideline, or standard.(8) Several are currently being revised; ALA has just published a brochure by Peter VanWingen, Your Old Books; RBMS ad hoc committees are working on new documents covering gifts and appraisals and literary rights.

Through its endowed Katharine Kyes Leab and Daniel J. Leab American Book Prices Current Exhibition Catalogue Awards, administered by the RBMS Exhibition Catalogue Awards Committee, the Section recognizes and encourages excellence in this publishing area, of increasing importance within the profession.(9)

RBMS publishes a twice-yearly Newsletter and, thanks to the efforts and energy of many RBMS members who worked for its founding, the profession now has, under ACRL auspices, its own journal. The existence of Rare Books & Manuscripts Librarianship as a vehicle for publishing will stimulate research and writing. The journal affords a mechanism for disseminating the results of such studies to the profession, for publishing suitable preconference papers, and for building a permanent record of literature in the field.

Membership in the Rare Books and Manuscripts Section, which was 300 in 1962, now stands at over 1,800 members, a relatively constant level for the past decade. Section activity continues to expand: there are now ten standing and ten ad hoc committees, and three discussion groups. RBMS has liaisons to five other library or scholarly groups, and is a joint member of an interdivisional ALA committee concerned with government documents.(10) Among the ad hoc committees formed at the 1988 Midwinter meeting is one charged to study the feasibility of a statistical survey of rare book, manuscript, and special collections libraries, in order to tell us more about our collections and our operations. A membership directory, a long-standing desideratum first proposed by Herbert Cahoon, is again under active discussion. The Continuing Education Committee, which has had responsibility for organizing preconference seminars and panels, is investigating additional ways of meeting the profession's continuing education needs and broadening the scope of the Committee's charge to include professional education.

Under three decades of dedicated leaders (see Appendix III for a list of officers), the Rare Books and Manuscripts Section has responded and contributed to the growth and development of American rare book, manuscript, and special collec.tions librarianship. The organization has represented the concerns of librarians and specialists charged with the care, custody, and use of rare books, manuscripts, and otherspecial collections within ALA and to other professional and scholarly groups. The thirty years since the founding of RBMS coincide precisely with the period between the 1957 issue of Library Trends devoted to rare book libraries and collections and the 1987 issue on "Recent Trends in Rare Book Librarianship." During this time, the profession has been affected by library-wide developments such as automation and preservation, economic factors, trends in scholarly research, changing patterns of private book collecting, and altered conditions within the antiquarian book trade. The response to these forces has been vigorous and effective: new and expanded library school training programs; grant projects for preservation and cataloguing; successful private and corporate fund-raising; sophisticated publications, public and exhibition programs; applications of technology to bring together automated records for rare books, manuscripts, and other special formats, often in a library's online catalogue, and to create new access points; imaginative, new collecting areas that reflect research needs and available material; expanded interest in promoting use of collections; cooperation among rare book, manuscript, and special collections librarians to share resources and records and promote common goals. The profession of rare book, manuscripts, and special collections librarianship is flourishing; the Rare Books and Manuscripts Section is flourishing-Happy Birthday to us!


1. College and Research Libraries 10 (1949): 291. All three papers delivered at the meetinl were published together as a supplement to this issue of College and Research Libraries. others were: Lawrence Clark Powell, "Policy and Administration," and John Alden, "Organization and Service." The "Rare Book Code" written by Powell for UCLA's rare book department is also included.

2. Robert Adelsberger, "Outline History of ACRL Rare Book and Manuscript Section," unpublished typescript (1974), p. 1. Quoted with permission of the author. Although no comprehensive history of the Rare Books and Manuscripts Section exists, three additional, unpublished surveys have been written. They are: Frances J. Brewer, "A Short History of the Rare Book Section" (Detroit Public Library, 1964); Georgia C. Haugh, "A Brief Review of the Committee on Rare Books and Events Leading to the Rare Books Section of ACRL, 1955-1958." (Ann Arbor, 1976); and Barbara Paulson, "History of the Rare Books and Manuscripts Section, Association of College and Research Libraries, American Library Association" (1986).

3. "ACRL Constitution and Bylaws," College and Research Libraries 18 (1957): 405-409.

4. "Rare Books Section," College and Research Libraries 19 (1958): 150.

5. See William L. Joyce, "The Evolution of the Concept of Special Collections in American Research Libraries," pp. 19-29, in this issue.

6. "Rare Books in University Libraries," in "Recent Trends in Rare Book Librarianship," Michele Valerie Cloonan, ed., Library Trends 36 (1987): 158.

7. "The First ACRL Rare Books Conference," College and Research Libraries 20 (1959): 320.

8. See John B. Thomas III, "Standards and Guidelines Prepared by the Rare Books and Manuscripts Section of the Association of College and Research Libraries," Rare Books & Manuscripts Librarianship 2 (1987): 109-112, for an annotated bibliography of published standards and guidelines prepared by the Section.

9. See Sally Leach, "How the RBMS Exhibition Catalogue Awards Got from There to Here, from Then to Now," Rare Books & Manuscripts Librarianship 1 (1986): 127-39; and John N. Hoover, "Two Paths: Books as History, Books as Art, and the 1987 Exhibition Catalogue Awards," Rare Books & Manuscripts Librarianship 2 (1987): 113-24.

10. See ALA Handbook of Organization 1987/1988 (Chicago: American Library Association, 1987), 65-67, for a list of committees, their charges, and members.


Appendix I-III (see pdf)