Broad access is critical to an institution like Southwestern University, which houses one of the largest special collections for a university of its size. Located in The A. Frank Smith, Jr. Library on Southwestern’s Georgetown, Texas campus, Special Collections holds over 20,000 rare books and more than 1,500 linear feet of archival material. The collection includes Texana, United States Senator John Tower’s personal and Senate papers, manuscripts, and printed items by or about Southwestern alumnus J. Frank Dobie, fine press books, including handmade books and those from Arion Press and Russell Maret, and more.
Megan Firestone, Head of Special Collections and Archives at Southwestern, is enthusiastic about inviting students, faculty, researchers, and high school students to explore the special collections. “We have a very active collection and large usage, and push the mission that we are here for exploration. We really encourage students and the wider community to connect to the materials in a very hands-on way.”
As much as she loves the portal that houses several of Southwestern’s special digital collections, it has limitations that create barriers to access. Sometimes it takes a year or more for a collection to go up. “And another thing, with that model, students were doing research in one area, then would have to leave and go to the separate portal site to look for primary sources,” Megan said.
Megan saw the value in moving the library’s special collections to JSTOR, where most students do research and find primary sources. To make Southwestern’s digital collections openly accessible, the library — along with hundreds of institutions — signed on as charter members of JSTOR Open Community Collections (now ITHAKA’s infrastructure services). She said, “When we saw an opportunity to partner with JSTOR and take part in the charter period, we saw lots of benefits. Our goal is to make the collections available where the students and researchers are, and because we’re an undergraduate institution, our students heavily use JSTOR and are familiar with that research model. We knew that taking part in the charter period would put the collections on a wider platform, that students would pick it up in their searches, and the wider community could access it, as well. It gave us this space to reach those who maybe can’t come to campus, but also reach students who, through their own research, can find an item and come to us and ask if we have any more in their area of interest since we don’t digitize everything that’s in our collections.”
The new collection loader
Southwestern was the first to share collections using JSTOR’s new collection loader, which helps users easily add, share, update, and evaluate items on JSTOR. With the help of the new collection loader, Southwestern shared a collection of aerial photographs on JSTOR. The collection received 1,980 total item requests in the first few days after its launch. Megan said, “The aerials were such a nice collection to use for the beta because they had been scanned for a long time. Previously, the only way people could use them was to come here to the reading room and access them online. Using the collection loader, we were able to put them on JSTOR and the community has been very receptive to being able to see these images without a trip to the Special Collections & Archives.”
As a charter participant, Megan enjoyed working with JSTOR and felt the nonprofit was receptive to comments from the participating members. “I appreciate that JSTOR has been open to receiving and implementing feedback during the charter period, and I’m excited to see this grow and develop. Making digital collections available in this way connects us to people who can’t get to us physically,” she said. She also appreciated how easy it was to set up and get started. She said, “The setup was really easy on our part. Once we talked to JSTOR and agreed to take part in the charter period, we shared the location of our digital collections, and they went and harvested the portal and pulled the collections for us. So really, JSTOR did all the work. Of course we had done the work to get the collections up on the portal, but setting up the JSTOR stuff was all JSTOR. The whole process was pretty streamlined. It’s really nice to have a service that matches our particular workflow like this one does.”
JSTOR shared collections features a dashboard that provides usage statistics. Megan finds the dashboard to be a critical tool that she uses to make a range of decisions. She said, “I can go in and see how much usage the collections are getting per item, and that’s been fabulous. I can see each collection, see where the user is located, and see exactly what people are pulling. I am able to say, ‘Oh, we’re getting a lot of use in this area, so maybe we start scanning more of these collections,’ or ‘This collection is getting zero use. Why? Do we need to promote it differently?’ It gives us a number of ways to look at the data and assess where we are putting our time and energy. We really want to make sure we are providing collections that are going to be useful to people, and this helps us so much.”
The dashboard revealed a few surprises, too. Megan said, “Looking at the stats, I’m noticing that we are getting a number of international users, especially for the Senator Tower collection. It’s interesting to see people from Great Britain and Germany accessing these collections, and knowing which university they are accessing them from.” The dashboard also shows a pie chart illustrating user demographics. “The chart shows me that academic users are actually a very small percentage of people using our collection. The larger percentage is coming to JSTOR, likely from Google! That’s great. That means the collection is widely accessible and interesting to a range of people,” she said.
Making the case for funding
Southwestern discovered the value of the shared collections and easy collection loader as a charter member. With the charter period transitioning to paid infrastructure services in July 2023, Megan plans to use dashboard-generated statistics to make a compelling case for funding. The ability to share the university’s special collections on JSTOR, where students, researchers, and the wider community can easily access them, aligns perfectly with the library’s mission. She said, “Being able to show the statistics, the items we were able to upload and share, how it works in our workflow, how this allows the students to access a broad range of materials faster, it makes a solid case for funding. Just laying it out and saying, ‘This initiative will allow the university to meet the needs of our students’ pretty much says it all.”
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