Taking stock

September 27th, 2011 by Merrilee

For over 10 years, backlogs and “hidden collections” have been of the utmost concern for special collections libraries in the United States. While many repositories have implemented “more product, less process” approaches that have streamlined processing routines, the size and scope of collection backlogs remains daunting. It’s clear that stepping up the rate of processing is not enough. In order to make priority calls and to ensure the biggest bang for the ever diminishing buck, institutions must think and act strategically. Many institutions have undertaken collection surveys in order to assist with planning and establish a prudent plan of attack.

But it’s not just about processing — for decades, institutions have been using collection surveys to document needs and plan preservation and conservation work. Archives grapple with increased pressure to digitize collection, come to grips with their born digital holdings, and tackle a range of other activities. With so many needs, you have to know what you’ve got before you can plan what you need to do. That’s where collections assessment comes in.

In a new report Taking Stock and Making Hay: Archival Collections Assessment, collections assessment is defined as “the systematic, purposeful gathering of information about archival collections.” And although institutions have been surveying collections for decades, a single, commonly-understood approach to or methodology for collections assessment does not exist. Rather than attempting to invent or point to a single way of approaching collections assessment, the report identifies projects and methodologies that can be applied. Hopefully knowing that tools are out there will make it easier for institutions of all types to undertake collections assessments and will help encourage a community of practice. The report also suggests areas that need work: for example, none of the tools we looked at would help an institution assess the copyright status of a collection, or were aimed at assessing what parts of a collection would be appropriate for digitization.

You can read more about the report, or download it. Most of the credit is due to Martha Conway (University of Michigan) who is the lead author and who I can recommend as a fantastic collaborator. Other members of the working group are David DeLorenzo (University of California, Berkeley), Christine Di Bella (Institute of Advanced Study) and Sarah Stauderman (Smithsonian Institution).

Like many OCLC Research publications, this report was written to help meet the needs of the OCLC Research Library Partnership. The Partnership not only inspires but also effectively underwrites this type of work, so many thanks to the institutions who contribute to our work!

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2 Responses to “Taking stock”

  1. Bill Landis Says:

    Haven’t read the report yet, but I hope it covers issues of *prospective* appraisal and donor discussions. I think it is insane for special collections/archives not to be pushing back on donors for either funding for processing, or even more important, having them do some work to make sense out of a collection before it ever even hits the repository’s loading dock. This should be standard operating procedure for all incoming collections. The work that has been done over the past decade at Manuscripts and Archives at Yale under Chris Weideman’s leadership pushing at the edges of this envelope is, I think, a model that other repositories need to explore. I know for a fact that in spite of protestations to the contrary, nothing like this is happening at my current employer. I’d bet that most collecting repositories are still operating under the assumption that processing will happen on all incoming collections, which just seems unsustainable to me in most places, given staffing and budget realities. Can’t wait to read the report!

  2. Merrilee Says:

    Hi Bill, I hate to disappoint you (and hope it doesn’t deter you from reading the report!) but it doesn’t deal with prospective collections. I do think that conducting a collections assessment on all collections, covering most or all bases will help put future collecting into perspective. I agree with you that Chris’ approach is laudable, and perhaps that is another area for exploration — documenting institutions who have good (or great!) practice in dealing with appraisal and donors.