“Unhiding” the Hidden Collections

“Hidden collections” are one of the greatest challenges in making the most of unique and distinctive collections: collections which are not catalogued, and which therefore are not visible to people who might wish to use them.  Nowadays, collections which are catalogued but not online are becoming hidden as users expect everything to be online and do not seek out paper or card catalogues.

Rare books on foam supports

Hidden collections used to be called backlogs, but this term  is misleading, as it implies a failure of current systems.  The problem is older and larger than this.  Hidden collections absorb resources, space, and staff energy without benefit.

This project takes particular interest in such collections because unique and distinctive materials are more likely to be hidden.  Lacking scope for pulling down catalogue records from other sources, UDCs require special skills such as archive description or languages to catalogue from scratch.

As part of my work, I have helped prepare for publication the 2010 RLUK and London Library survey of hidden collections.  This survey attracted many responses from all kinds of libraries, who answered almost 100 questions about collections and cataloguing.  The data was not released immediately as it was felt that coverage of archives and manuscripts could be improved, perhaps by a further survey.  However, it was decided to release the data in an interim publication as part of this project, so that it could be used in the final report and made available to the library and archive community.  It makes fascinating reading.  The survey data should be available later this year.

Librarians overwhelmed by hidden collections should not despair (I have been in that situation!  You are not alone!).  There are ways forward; I’ll be discussing these further in the project report.  I was interested this morning to read about Lighting the Past, a new initiative at St Andrews University Library, which will catalogue 150,000 rare books: University students will produce basic records to be upgraded by specialist staff.  It will be intriguing to see how this develops as a model for the many other universities who have large hidden collections of rare books.

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