Special collections in libraries are the holdings of rare, early, valuable, unique or manuscript materials, often from the distant past or from geographically distant cultures, to which researchers hitherto needed to travel in person, because no alternative was available elsewhere. Examples might be illuminated medieval European manuscripts; handwritten materials from East Asian cultures seldom found outside their home country; or archives of personal papers in small record offices; or rare printed books from past centuries. Readers of such materials usually had to take notes by pencil (never with ink) or laptop, because other methods of reproduction such as photocopying could have damaged these materials. Photography was sometimes permitted if conducted by specialized staff, at a slow pace, at great cost and often only of single leaves or otherwise of whole collections on microfilms or microfiche, cumbersome, difficult to see or manipulate. But the ability to photograph rare books has recently shifted to individual readers – an apparent re-empowerment of the loan scholar. One prompt is the affordability of high-quality digital cameras and the proliferation of cameras in telephones and tablets; the other is a change in policy, as, over the past seven or eight years, many libraries with special collections have begun to permit readers and researchers to photograph the books and documents for themselves with digital cameras. We call this process DIY digitization.
New technologies merit thoughtful consideration, in this case, for their effect on librarianship and research. There is not yet any sustained reflection on that transformation (beyond one short blogpost on the aesthetics of photographs of manuscripts by Giulio Menna on Medieval Fragments, 13 July 2012, and four posts on the legality of reusing images on Melissa Terrass Blog, over October-November 2014). Our edited collection of short essays will offer the first such reflection, both practical, methodological and theoretical, on user-led digital photography, both for researchers in various humanities disciplines and for librarians and digital content managers. Our collection of essays will consider the effects of DIY digitization both on managing or accessing special collections and on the processes of researching their contents. (The editors are digital content managers, one of them with a background in Tibetan studies, and a medievalist teaching the history of the book.)