Head’s Up: On the 20th Century

To those of us of “a certain age,” the 20th century seems like yesterday. But to Miami students, and increasingly to Miami faculty, it is an era worthy of historical research.

This presents something of a challenge for Special Collections as we try to provide primary resources to scholars and students. It is no accident that the richest concentration of holdings in most academic special collections lies in 19th century materials; partly because that is when many larger academic institutions established libraries and began collecting, partly because 19th century industrialization led to a boom in printed materials, and partly because those materials were being withdrawn from active collections during the past century when most rare book and special collections departments were being organized. Nineteenth century and earlier holdings were the first “pickings” for these new departments.

This content provides rich fodder for such 19th century interests as the Civil War sesquicentennial last year and the Dickens bicentennial this year, and for a wide range of scholarly pursuits. But what of the 20th century? And particularly, the late 20th century?

At Miami we have scattered 20th century holdings of primary resources, some quite rich, but the time period has been largely incidental to the subject. With very few exceptions most are pre-1950. The Libraries in general are very strong in 20th century secondary materials and provide access to many primary materials increasingly available online. But when we in Special Collections receive requests for post-World War II primary resources, we are largely at a loss.

It seems clear now that the 20th century will be seen as the end of the era of print culture, much as the mid-15th century is seen as the beginning, and this will be reflected in what we collect. Just as we have a few scattered examples of pre-Gutenberg documents, we will have a few scattered examples of early 21st century transitional digital documents. Perhaps as the digital age comes into sharper focus we will develop appropriate means to document literary processes and historical events — the Library of Congress famously began archiving Twitter — but if academic libraries are involved in these endeavors the techniques will be very different than our current operations. For now, at least, it seems that the focus of Special Collections will be on documenting human print culture, 1450 – 2000.

So will the 20th century be the last great collecting area for Special Collections libraries? If so, now is the time to be looking for those primary resources — diaries, letters, manuscripts, posters, scrapbooks, photographs – that document the final years of the pre-digital world for scholars in the 21st century and beyond.

Elizabeth Brice
Assistant Dean for Technical Services and
Head, Special Collections & Archives

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