Hi there! Congratulations on starting your MLIS degree!
Working in special collections is a very unique and interesting experience. I’ve been working here as a graduate assistant for about four months and what I’ve discovered is that working here is halfway between working in a museum and a typical library. On the one hand, we really work hard to preserve these materials as artifacts, which is why we have rules about handling the materials and close our stacks. On the other hand, we preserve them in order for the public to have access to them, so we really want people to come and use the material. Every decision we make is about balancing these two ideas and trying provide access as broadly as possible while preserving them for future generations.
Because our collection is smaller and more focused than most libraries, we end up having a pretty thorough knowledge of what exactly is in our collections. Special collections librarians themselves are often great resources for patrons with questions. I’ve also found that reference is a lot more intensive here than it is for other libraries. Every patron who comes to us goes through a reference interview. As a closed stacks library, patrons are not able to just browse and find what they want – we have to bring it to them, meaning we need to talk to them and see what their needs are. It’s actually really neat, because you get to hear about a lot of really interesting research projects.
The most important thing about working in special collections is that there is no such thing as a typical day – expect the unexpected!
As for what technology we use, I’ve found that what you work with in special collections really depends on what kinds of materials are being collected and preserved. There is a lot of basic computer software that we use; Microsoft Office Suite and Adobe Photoshop are the most heavily used. More specialized software includes Adobe Dreamweaver and WordPress for building and editing websites, and Voyager for cataloging. Starting this fall, we’re going to be using Omeka for digital exhibits. While we are fortunate to have a digitization department at UWM Libraries that takes care of intensive digitization projects, we keep a flatbed scanner up here for interlibrary loan scans, online outreach, and other quick projects. If you are interested in going into special collections, I would recommend learning how to use a photo-manipulation program, learning basic web design and coding skills, and having an understanding of content management systems. These are all great skills to learn for working in any library, but we use them very frequently in special collections, especially since we put on a lot of exhibits. There are lots of arts and crafts projects - who knew being able to use paper-cutters was a life skill?
Now our sister department, uwmarchives, uses some other technologies that you might be interested in learning about. Archives and special collections generally work closely together; most universities actually house them in the same department. (We’re a little strange that way.) Downstairs, they use software including ContentDM, Oxygen, Archivematica, and HistoryPin for content management, coding finding aids, and digital preservation. These are all highly useful tools as well.
I hope this information is useful for you! Good luck with your degree, and let us know if you have any further questions!