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Problem of Hidden Collections

Page history last edited by Lisa Spiro 14 years ago

2. The Problem of Hidden Collections


According to a 1998 Association of Research Libraries (ARL) survey of special collections libraries, about 28 percent of manuscript collections are unprocessed, while 36 percent of graphic materials and 37 percent of audio materials have not been processed (Pantich 2001). Furthermore, the survey found that "the most frequent type of available access is through card catalog records or manual finding aids," which suggests that researchers often must be physically present at special collections and archives to know what they hold (Pantich 2001, 8). As the ARL Task Force on Special Collections argues, the failure to process collections holds back research, leads to duplicates being purchased, and makes them more vulnerable to being stolen or lost because libraries and archives don't know what they have. Studies have shown that between 25 percent and 30 percent of researchers have not been able to use collections because they have not been processed (Greene and Meissner 2005, 211). As a result, stakeholders such as researchers and donors become frustrated. Indeed, in a much-discussed article, Greene and Meissner report that "at 51% of repositories, researchers, donors, and/or resource allocators had become upset because of backlogs" (2005, 212).


To confront the problem of unprocessed collections, Greene and Meissner promote "a new set of arrangement, preservation, and description guidelines that (1) expedites getting collection materials into the hands of users; (2) assures arrangement of materials adequate to user needs; (3) takes the minimal steps necessary to physically preserve collection materials; and (4) describes materials sufficient to promote use" (2005, 212-213). Meeting researchers' needs for access to materials trumps achieving perfection in archival description and arrangement. Likewise, the ARL Task Force proposes minimal processing, suggesting that "it is better to provide some level of access to all materials, than to provide comprehensive access to some materials and no access at all to others" (Jones 2003, 5). This access can be provided through the Online Public Access Catalog (OPAC) EAD finding aids, digital collections, or databases. Indeed, providing electronic access is crucial to making hidden collections more visible, since "increasingly, materials that are electronically inaccessible are simply not used" (Jones 2003, 5). Thus, the Library of Congress Working Group on the Future of Bibliographic Control recommends that archives "make finding aids accessible via online catalogs and available on the Internet," streamline cataloging, and "encourage inter-institutional collaboration for sharing metadata records and authority records for rare and unique materials" (2008, 23-24).


Among the criteria that archives and special collections should consider in determining how to process each collection are size, condition, significance, and, perhaps most important, the needs of researchers. Archives should keep in mind that archival descriptions may be part of distributed, federated catalogs, so they should adhere to best practices to ensure consistency of data. The ARL Task Force recognizes that some collections may require more detailed description than others and that any decision will involve trade-offs. As one drafter of the ARL Task Force Report observed, "Collection-level cataloging is potentially dangerous because if not done right, it will merely convert materials from 'unprocessed' to 'hidden'"(Jones 2003, 9-10).


Institutions have devised different approaches to hidden collections based on the nature of their collections and the resources available. Through the University of Chicago's Andrew W. Mellon Foundation-funded "Uncovering New Chicago Archives Project" (UNCAP), graduate students are working with scholars and cultural heritage professionals to catalog hidden collections housed at a local library and museum (Shreyer 2007). For the museum collection, they are using item-level cataloging, whereas they are using more standard archival practices with the library collection. In addition, a professional archivist is using minimal processing techniques to process a jazz collection and a contemporary poetry collection housed at the university. Whereas the students are producing detailed descriptions, the archivist is taking a more stripped-down approach, allowing Chicago to test the effectiveness of each model. Similarly, to reduce archival backlogs and provide research experiences for graduate students, the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) launched the Center for Primary Research and Training (CFPRT), which "pairs graduate students with unprocessed or underprocessed collections in their areas of interest and trains them in archival methods, resulting in processed collections for us and dissertation, thesis, or research topics for them" (Steele 2008). UCLA develops a plan for processing each collection and uses an online calculator to estimate costs.

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