Digital, not dusty – the role of digitised primary sources in our special collections

By Hugh Murphy, Head of Collections.

One of the questions that curators often have to ask themselves is “what is a special collection?”. This question is next to impossible to answer definitively, as what is special to one group may not resonate with another.  So, while this was always a challenge, the rise of licensed digital primary sources adds an extra level of complexity – albeit in many ways a welcome one.

These resources are licensed, digital collections, typically consisting of text, image and audio-visual content.  Typically, they represent a digital version of an original analogue primary source, such as an archival collection.  Thus, although the original resource may well have been unique, the digital version is not – it can be subscribed to by any library. 

In some ways the great benefit of these collections is that they are far more accessible than the original, which may require a researcher to travel to a repository to view it.  Of course, being digital, there is powerful functionality available to help you search at scale and right down to the full text for example.

Given our longstanding traditions in the humanities, the library has worked to complement its print collections with access to as broad an array of digital sources as possible.  We offer access to a wealth of these resources such as State Papers Online, Eighteenth Century Collections Online, Early English Books Online, the Irish Newspaper Archive and much more.

But the question remains – are these special collections?  If the original archival item was housed in our library, we would unquestionably consider it to be part of our special collections. However, what it is often argued with these collections is that they are simply surrogates and, in that sense they are no different from a microfilm of an archive for example.   Perhaps the key issue is not to impose a categorisation on them, but to appreciate that these digital primary sources have clear relationships to their physical equivalents in our care.  So, for example a resource such as UK Parliamentary Papers has strong links and provides additional primary context to many of our archives, such as the Littlehales Archive, the Marquis of Sligo Archive, the Sadlier Archive and more. With rare book databases such as Eighteenth Century Collections Online we can see other printings and editions of books which are held in our collections.  The ability to compare and contrast printings and editions is of inestimable value to bibliographic scholars and in some cases the digital surrogate will more than suffice.

These resources have continued to be available and used during the various lockdowns, when access to our special collections has been heavily curtailed.   But even beyond simple matters of access, they will continue to represent a critical part of our collections and an invaluable adjunct to our physical special collections – if not part of our special collections themselves.


Image from Parliamentary Paper showing record of John Sadlier’s attendance at committee.
Screenshot of the 1762 edition of Hume’s History of England which is an earlier edition to a copy residing in Special Collections.

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