Conventional wisdom (or, What We Are Taught In Library School) about special collections includes a cardinal rule: the stacks (i.e. shelves) are NOT browseable.
This idea is reinforced with every report of rare book theft and at every conference which touches on security.
What bothers me is that, of all the places in a library, special collections is the place where browsing can generate the MOST inspiration. Especially when you are dealing with the sort of patrons who are using my collections the most: ARTISTS.
An artist, unlike a scholar, does not generally welcome the idea of searching, be it through an online or card catalog. Artists need to SEE what they are looking at, and often need to touch it as well.
What I want is a way to let the patrons browse the books without worrying about security. The few times I have let this happen, controlling it as much as possible, there have been fabulous results–very excited people who revere the materials and respect them for what they are, and use them to further or even engender their creative or intellectual projects.
THAT is the great function of special collections.