I’m delighted to share the news that the report of the 2010 RLUK/London Library Hidden Collections survey is now available online. Helping to prepare the report for publication has been part of my work on this project. Looking at the detailed replies from librarians has given me a real sense of the scale of the problem. I hope the report will help raise awareness of the concerns and help us jointly find ways forward.
I’m now busily writing up the Project Report. Not alas in a Library as magnificent as the one in this lovely image from the Wellcome. My final version is due with the Project Board on 22 August.
A woman is sitting at a desk in a library, writing a letter.
Credit: Wellcome Library, London.
Obviously there is so much that could be included in the Report, but making it too long and complicated makes it less likely to be useful. The Board therefore are asking me for a short and strategic report aimed at the primary audience for this work: RLUK library directors. It will make the case to them for investment and innovation in UDCs and therefore help them make their case to chief executives etc. We’ll include compelling case studies and lots of examples and quotes to keep things interesting.
Useful evidence not included in the Report will be made available online e.g. extra case studies, full literature review. We hope that the Report and the accompanying work will help librarians, archivists, their managers and of course collection users outside RLUK too. As I can confirm, we face the same challenges and opportunities.
The Report is not an end, but a beginning. It’s part of a wider strand of RLUK interest in making UDCs available which includes the forthcoming publication of the Hidden Collections and OCLC/RLUK surveys (I will let you know dates as soon as I have them). Most importantly, the Report will include recommendations for further action by RLUK, such as creating toolkits on key topics.
“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.
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.
Just returned from a very productive RLUK conference in sunny (yes, really!) Aberdeen. The Thursday afternoon featured a session about the Unique and Distinctive strand. I discussed progress so far; the OCLC and UK folks working on the Survey outlined some possible recommendations to be made in the Survey report. We then had fun with stickers, choosing the recommendations that we thought most important and discussing them. This led to lots of thought-provoking debate.
I’ll try to blog about some of the issues that cropped up over the coming weeks. I also had many conversations with other delegates which helped inform this project.
Very grateful to all who took part and to Chris Banks, Siobhan Convery and their colleagues for wonderful hospitality and tours of their stunning new library.
On 21 March I presented a Quickfire Poster Session about the Project to the Archives Discovery Forum at the National Archives. The Forum enables archivists to catch up on exciting new projects and developments in online access to archives and archival data and is always well attended, so it was a great way to bring the Project to lots of archivists.
The important work of the UK Archives Discovery Network is of course a key area for the Project to consider. Archives are by definition unique and (usually) distinctive and discovery is about making more of them by exploiting new technologies, for the benefit of users and parent organisations.
Yes, for my own interest: I always like to know about special collections that are new to me. It never ceases to amaze and delight me that, after twenty-odd years of working with special collections, I keep hearing about new ones. Also, of course, the more I know about the sector, the better the work I do on the project will be.
However, this project is not aiming to map or list everybody’s collections in any formal way. This would be an IMMENSE task and would not actually take us nearer to the aims of this project.
We are less interested in the exact details of collections held by particular libraries and much more interested in helping libraries tackle the issues they face in making the most of those collections.
I hope this makes sense!
A report full of fascinating information about archives services in Scotland was published this week: The Nation’s Catalogue: Scotland online, by Caroline Williams, published by the Scottish Council on Archives. The report was produced to explore technological and funding options in furthering the Scottish Archive Network (SCAN), but is of much wider interest and well worth a read by anyone interested in archives.
The report looks at the findings of a survey on catalogues and resource discovery, including hidden collections. These are key parts of this project and this survey will offer useful evidence. I was particularly interested in the sections on changes in approach and practice since a previous survey in 2009: recent, but in this fast-moving sector the changes are striking. I also liked an attempt to bring the sheer scale of collections to life by comparing the linear distance of the archives concerned to the distance between Edinburgh and Stirling or five miles of end-to-end Eddie Stobart lorries!
We’re aiming to publish the final report of this project next September. This will outline what’s been learned and make recommendations.
From now until next Spring, I will be gathering evidence from curators of collections, other interested people plus published and unpublished sources: desk research, meetings, social media conversations, mailing lists … I’m developing a communications plan to work out who we need to contact and how to get conversations started. This blog, and readers’ responses to it, will be vital in establishing these links.
Fortunately I have a bit of a head start. I did masses of desk research and other info gathering while working on the Special Collections Handbook (due from Facet Publishing in November), far more than made it into the finished work. This work will be a useful base for the new project.
Next Summer, I’ll be writing the report. After publication, I’ll be working with the Project Board to market the report, so that its recommendations help curators, parent organisations, and current and future users of collections.
Not at all.
The project is funded by Research Libraries UK, so its members must benefit from our work. However, to ensure this happens, the final report will need to be based on as much knowledge, innovation, experience as possible. So we will look beyond the RLUK member libraries to Special Collections held by other organisations. As I said in my forthcoming book, Special Collections are everywhere, held by cathedrals, museums, learned societies, historic houses and so many more. This project is a wonderful opportunity to bring all these organisations together to celebrate collections and find new ways to work together.
It is also worth emphasising that the project will not be limited to the study of issues and activities in UK libraries. We will be making links and researching collections worldwide.
Aren’t these just Special Collections?
Well, yes, mostly. But RLUK wanted to emphasise that universities often hold collections which fall outside the standard Special Collections remit e.g. other library collections, data sets, research outputs, or objects. These too may have qualities which mean that their parent organisations and wider society should value and support them. Not to mention that in some organisations, Special Collections includes archives, in others not, and sometimes they are the collections which are neither old books nor archives.
U & D (I find) are useful terms when discussing collections held in universities, whether traditional “Special Collections” or not. We’re not suggesting that universities start using them instead of “Special Collections”: too long for everyday use, U & D Collections would become UDCs and then we have UDC Librarians and the like, UDC Reading Room etc, not helpful for users!
I’ll be interested to find out what librarians, archivists, and all the other people who will be involved with this project make of the name.