Dr Jessie Lymn
There’s an oft-cited question that gets asked when delving into the bowels of academic library special collections – “just what is so special about special collections?“. For university libraries especially, the special collections (or rare books, or manuscripts, or many other titles) are where some of the most socially, culturally and economically valuable parts of the library’s collection are held, and also some of the most diverse and controversial.
These challenges of collecting, preserving and managing the diversity of values in special collections is both demanding and productive, and can be considered reflective of the same challenges faced during the ‘first life’ of these publications and objects.
Take for example, student newspapers held in university library special collections across Australia.
Student newspapers have been part of university life on campus since the early 20th century, with sandstone universities such as the Universities of Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide first publishing Farrago, Honi Soit and On Dit. Usually published by student unions or associations, these newspapers have produced controversial moments in Australian history, including Tharunka’s 1970 ‘Literary Supplement of Works that Cannot be Published’, Rabelais‘s 1995 ‘The Art of Shoplifting’ and Honi Soit‘s ‘vulvagate‘ issue in 2013. Student newspapers have also featured in the careers of now esteemed members of Australia journalism and politics, and have been the site of much contention around funding during the introduction of Voluntary Student Unionism in the early 2000s in Australia.
But are these significant records of life on campus in Australia being collected and preserved, and how accessible are they? In 2019 we evaluated a selection of collections of these student published newspapers and magazines across a range of universities. We found that across the sample of universities we looked at, all had collections of their student newspapers, mostly held in the university library, and sometimes in both the library and archives. Of the 20 universities, just over half had digitised their collections and they were publicly accessible, but not all issues and not a clear run of issues. But while they may be there, we found that university collections of student newspapers are hard to find. Only half had descriptive metadata in the catalogue that indicated the publication was a student newspaper from that university, and we mapped a number of complex pathways to find both physical and digital copies of the publications. And given the often controversial, offensive and triggering content featured in the uncensored publications, the digital collections didn’t feature any warnings of what content might be encountered.
Lymn, J., & Jones, T. (2020). Radical Holdings? Student Newspaper Collections in Australian University Libraries and Archives. Journal of the Australian Library and Information Association, 69(3), 330-344. https://doi.org/10.1080/24750158.2020.1760529