So, what surprised me?

We had an excellent round of Q&A following last week’s webinar on Taking Our Pulse, the report of our survey of special collections and archives. One question posed was “What surprised you?” Off the top of my head I thought of only a couple, but, upon reflection, I was surprised by a lot of things. Here are some. Would you have expected these results?

By the way, if you don’t like anal detail or idle opinion, just read the first sentence under each point. :)


Longitudinal comparisons with ARL’s 1998 survey reveal huge increases in collection size and acquisitions funding. The mean numbers of printed volumes and archival materials went up 50%, while for some audiovisual formats the increase was as much as 300%. Mean acquisitions funding more than doubled. (Speaking of ARL, it was fantastic that 84% of our ARL respondents also had answered the 1998 survey. This enabled us to consider changes across the ARLs pretty valid.)

The mean number of special collections printed books held by IRLA libraries (320,000) is higher than that of ARLs (285,000). I wouldn’t have guessed that.

Only two institutions hold half of the gigabytes of born-digital archival materials reported! (This doesn’t include data reported by LC and NARA, whose collection size counts were left out of calculations to avoid big-time skew. If they had been included, the percentage held by the top four institutions would probably be more than 90%.)

User services

Visiting scholars and researchers comprise almost the same percent of onsite users as the combined totals for affiliated campus faculty, grad students, and undergrads. Is that good? Bad? Both?

Only 47% of Oberlin users are undergraduates. This strikes me as low, given that undergrads are the focus of attention at liberal arts colleges. Not necessarily problematic, but definitely unexpected.

IRLAs reported the most impressive data in various areas of user services: number of onsite users, use of numerous Web 2.0 applications, and research fellowship programs, to name only three. This speaks to the richness of IRLA collections, as well as to the huge emphasis these institutions place on outreach, given the lack of a permanently affiliated primary user group. More evidence of this: IRLAs make 80% as many presentations to college/university courses as do ARLs. (By the way, it was great to learn that the ARL mean has nearly doubled since 1998.)

Users are permitted to use digital cameras in 87% of reading rooms. So this is one controversial issue that we can stop debating, yes? (And if you’re in the other 13%, read this or talk to Jen and reconsider.)

Nearly half of respondents have a special collections blog, and more than a third make collection links from Wikipedia pages. That’s pretty decent movement into the social networking zone.

Original special collections books are loaned (albeit selectively) by 38% of respondents. I didn’t ask about the percentage of requests approved, but we all know it’s highly selective at some institutions, right? In other words, 62% never even consider a single physical loan? That has to change. It’s one of those things that kills credibility in the context of avowed dedication to increasing access. Dennis has a project underway in which he’s working with both ILL and special collections librarians to develop best practices intended to lower some barriers.

Cataloging and metadata

The data show minimal improvement in the percent of ARL materials with online catalog records, particularly given all the “hidden collections” initiatives of the past decade. The only area of significant progress is archival finding aids (52% online, up from 16%). Conversion of all that “legacy” data has made a big dent, though it’s far from enough. Where are (at minimum) those get-‘em-out-there-quick collection-level descriptions, folks? There is broad professional consensus that they’re desirable, and researchers want them. Period.

In addition, lots of backlogs have increased: 29% of respondents reported increases for printed books, and 41% for archival and other materials. Yes, collections are growing, but, given the widespread emphasis on increased production and efficiency, I find this not only surprising but also disturbing. Our core responsibility is to make the stuff discoverable, howsoever minimally.

Archival management

The institutional archives reports to 87% of libraries, and 71% are responsible for records management. I knew that lots of university archives had migrated from university administration to the library’s purview in recent years, but I didn’t realize to what extent. How many have staff trained in records management, which is such a different kettle of fish?

Digital special collections

“Large-scale” digitization projects have been done by 38%, per our definition, which emphasized (1) copying complete collections rather than being selective and (2) using streamlined production methods. 38%!! The shift from selective to wholesale began only a few years ago, so this seemed amazingly high. Follow-up with respondents revealed, alas, that results generally haven’t been at all impressive in terms of throughput or scalability. But there’s hope: Ricky has started a project to bring attention to approaches to capture of archival materials that have been effective.

26% of our respondents have contracts with commercial firms to digitize materials and sell subscriptions for access. For IRLAs this rises to 73%. The good news: that’s a lot of stuff digitized. The bad news: none of it’s available as open-access content—which is increasingly a strongly held value across the library profession.

I wish I could say that the low, low, looooow extent to which born-digital archival materials are being actively collected or managed was surprising, but alas, I expected it from this particular population. If one were to survey state archives, on the other hand, I’m guessing the picture would be far more positive. Accountability for government action is taken so much more seriously in that sector than in academic institutions.


Staffing has decreased more in public services (23% of respondents) than any other area, despite widespread increases in use across all formats. Talk about disturbing.

Half of respondents reported a need for education or training in cataloging and metadata. Gosh. Really? If there’s one area in which I expected minimal needs, this was it. It may be that figuring out appropriate metadata approaches for digital collections is the stumbling block.

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About Jackie Dooley

Jackie Dooley leads OCLC Research projects to inform and improve archives and special collections practice.