Hidden Collections in the 21st Century Research Library

Mark Diminuation

Half of our archival collections in the U.S. have no online presence at all, but the appetite for digital collections is unsatiable. Only 44% of all archival finding aids are online and born digital materials are undercollected and under described. In a response to this problem, Mark Dimunation, Chief, Rare Book and Special Collections Division at the Library of Congress, said that we need to think about how we process and make our collections available to our constitutencies. There are many hidden collections in libraries, primarily caused by backlogs in processing. Some of the problems that have occurred are:

  • We have tended to use a project approach to a system problem, viewing hidden collections as a fixed problem.
  • The nature of descriptive data is changing regularly. We have accepted the erosion of legacy data.
  • We repeat tasks over and over, forcing new types of data into a system designed to accept something else.
  • in our optimistic rush to solve the problem, we may have obscured a new meaning of it. We need to make access happen.

In 2003, a conference on hidden collections concluded that:

  • We must think globally and not tread over familiar ground in circles. We must make efforts to know what we have and report it to others.
  • There is a need to build, access, and report viable models for processing, cataloging, etc.
  • We do not need to invent another core standard but achieve technical simple standards.
  • We need to explore and embrace the collection-level record. Greater success can be achieved by cooperative ventures. Promote a national backlog project.
  • Funds should be reallocated and committed.

Hidden collections were targeted by a Mellon Conference grant in 2008. The program focuses on materials of wide scholarly interest and value. 47 projects at 17 institutions have received funding.

Today, many backlogs have decreased, but the number of hidden collections has grown. We need to move away from a model of special approaches and make these materials part of the overall workflow, perhaps considering digitization of the material prior to processing it.

Don Hawkins
Columnist, Information Today and Conference Circuit Blog Editor

My thanks to Carol Tenopir, University of Tennessee, for her contributions to this posting.


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