There are people who need a unique item to do research, but those people won't save your library. The same is true of your special collections, your unique items.
Here's how this will go down: The far majority of researchers who use your special collections are going to publish in their niche subjects, read by a handful of their peers, mostly likely in closed access journals. No fame. No fortune. The same old, same old.
All libraries, regardless of who they serve, have to prioritize. No doubt every patron is valuable. Are the above patrons the most valuable in an academic library? I'm skeptical.
Why is this the case? Because those collections are special for a variety of reasons, which cut both ways. There are reasons an item you have is the only copy; often the demand isn't there for more of them. Can we librarians and archivists drive demand? To some extent, yes. To the extent that special collections are what makes an specific academic library desirable for large segments of the communities we serve? Again, I'm skeptical. But hey, try it, because the following scenario might happen.
Special collections moved to an area of prominence, no longer behind closed doors. Unique books and manuscripts were of immense interest, a catalyst for research, integration into the curriculum, student internships, and user-driven content. (Source)Yes, a modern-day Alexanderia, where people come from miles around to use your special collections and your expertise. Except there's this thing called satisficing, where researchers find items and sources that are "good enough," (pdf) as opposed to the perfect item, which may be tucked away in an archive or special collection. And yes, even tenured faculty practice this behavior at times. And because those special collections are special to us, but maybe not to our communities.
At my place of work (MPOW), we're using Omeka to help us digitize some of our unique collections. We're not doing it because we think doing so will boost our dwindling circulation or use of the library's physical items. We're doing it because we want to preserve our past, our heritage, who we are, for the future. That is part of our mission within our community. We have these resources, and we want to make them discoverable. However, it has never been our top priority, nor do I foresee a time or situation in which that will be the case. We spend far more time, more productive time, "buying love," as Rick Anderson might say.
What I'm particularly concerned about here is that, per usual, discussions of what R1 institutions should do are driving discourse in academic librarianship. Why is this? The far majority of academic librarians don't work at an institution with multiple Associate University Librarians, yet those places seem to dominate the conversation around what academic libraries should be doing. Much of this is because R1 libraries have the staff and budgets that, in theory, allow them to not only have these conversations, but to implement them. The money is necessary, but not sufficient, perhaps. And yes, I'm jealous of those staffs and budgets.
I'm not saying special collections are worthless. I'm saying they're worth less than you think they are and less than the current literature says they are. I'm saying that this probably isn't the hill you want to die on. Go look someplace else. At MPOW, we'll be looking to aquariums and zoos for inspiration.
My favorite response to Rick Anderson's "Can't Buy Us Love" is from Steven Harris.