CRL in a Nutshell 1: The Power of Negative Thinking

Monday, March 2, 2015

The “CRL in a Nutshell” posts were originally written to give participants in the April 2015 Council of Voting Members meeting the basics about CRL, in a series of small doses.


Back in 2001, when I first came to CRL, I was struck by the tendency of people to describe the Center in terms of what it was not, rather than what it was. “CRL is a repository of materials that are infrequently used.” Or “CRL is a repository of materials that are not widely held.” Or even “CRL acquires and preserves things that are not affordable by any but the largest libraries.”

That curiously negative identity worried me in 2001, but I have since come to see it as a virtue rather than a fault. It’s true that over the years CRL has tailored its collecting to focus on difficult-to-acquire and difficult-to-manage materials: ephemera from developing regions and newspapers in foreign languages, for example. That tactic enabled member libraries to do a better job of covering the ever-expanding waterfront of scholarly and scientific publishing, and to devote more resources to supporting the specialized interests of local scholars. It also shifted to CRL the burden of storing and managing certain types of voluminous and bulky materials, like newspapers, JSTOR print journals and foreign government documents.

Today CRL still plays this role. We intentionally avoid doing things that are better done by others: by individual libraries and local consortia or state systems. And we still do things that individual libraries cannot. Like bringing to bear on building collections the kinds of concentrated area and language expertise that most libraries can no longer afford to maintain locally. And negotiating licenses with major content providers and publishers like The New York Times, for whom academic libraries are a secondary market. 

All of this helps expand possibilities for college, university, and independent research libraries, increasing their ability to support original research and  do more than local resources allow. A positive thing, we think.  

This entry is part of the "CRL in a nutshell" series. Additional entries from this series are available here.

Bernard F. Reilly
Center for Research Libraries