So, how strong is your pulse?

Last week we publishedTaking Our Pulse: The OCLC Research Survey of Special Collections and Archives, which updates and significantly expands an earlier survey done by ARL in 1998. Some pretty fascinating outcomes, at least for those like me who are deeply invested in the special collections and archives realm and also have a data geek streak. I also presented a webinar on some of the major outcomes, and the slides are here (recording coming soon).

How to summarize? For starters, here’s what I call the “wet blanket” overview of the data, otherwise known as “What’s wrong with this [big] picture?”

  1. Overall collections size is growing
  2. Use is increasing
  3. Too many materials remain “hidden”
  4. Backlogs continue to grow
  5. Staffing is generally stable (or was, as of 2008/09)
  6. 75% of library budgets have been cut

What does this tell us? IMHO, anyone who is waiting for a miracle drug in the guise of a generous handout of staff and funding is in danger of going on life support. Let’s get real: challenges in managing special collections are huge, and perhaps getting huger — but are we any different from other research library sectors in which demands, old and new, outstrip available resources? Our collections may be “special,” but when we’re competing for the same nonexistent resources as our other library colleagues, we better be able to demonstrate a healthy lifestyle. And that means responsible special collections management that places top priority on making all materials discoverable, and without delay.

The report includes a bunch of recommended action items intended to address some weaknesses that seem to affect the collective health of special collections, to wit:

  1. Develop and promulgate metrics. (We can’t justify what we can’t measure.)
  2. Explore potential for collaborative collection development. (Why don’t we do it? What would it look like?)
  3. Deal collaboratively with preservation of audiovisual materials. (They’re rotting. Do we care?)
  4. Liberally facilitate access. (If you say you permit digital cameras, interlibrary loan, and access to unprocessed stuff, say yes more often than no.)
  5. Adopt replicable, sustainable methodologies for cataloging and processing and stop the growth of backlogs. (Too much new stuff pouring in? Too few staff? Sorry, but excuses don’t cut it: your job is to get the stuff at least minimally discoverable.)
  6. Develop shared capacities to catalog published materials that remain invisible. (Less than half of maps and one quarter of graphics have online access. Can we somehow collaborate?)
  7. Convert legacy finding aids. (Just. Do. It.)
  8. Develop models for large-scale digitization. (Boutique is out; wholesale digitization is in. Can we attain impressive production levels?)
  9. Figure out where the corpus of digitized rare books is weak. (Are there big holes in what’s available online, including as open-access content?)
  10. Get moving on born digital! Define which types need “special collections” treatment, basic steps for getting off the dime, and use cases and cost models. (Progress on born-digital in academic and research libraries is … unimpressive.)
  11. Confirm areas in which education and training opportunities aren’t adequate. (E.g., more than 80% lack the skills for managing born-digital? No wonder we’ve gotten nowhere.)

Are these important? Feasible? Don’t get me wrong—I’m not saying they’re easy. But let’s be collectively ambitious. Let me know what you think. Help set the agenda. Let’s get our collective pulse racing.

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About Jackie Dooley

Jackie Dooley leads OCLC Research projects to inform and improve archives and special collections practice. Activities have included in-depth surveys of special collections libraries in the U.S./Canada and the U.K./Ireland; leading the Demystifying Born Digital work agenda; a detailed analysis of the 3 million MARC records in ArchiveGrid; and studying the needs of archival repositories for specialized tools and services. Her professional research interests have centered on the development of standards for cataloging and archival description. She is a past president of the Society of American Archivists and a Fellow of the Society.