Last week I was honoured to be invited to speak at the CILIP Rare Books and Special Collections Group Conference – Hidden Collections: RevealedI spoke on the joint RLUK and London Library survey on Hidden Collections. Although the survey is now a few years old, we believe that the main conclusions are still valid and the picture the survey paints is of a significant amount of material either completely uncatalogued or described inadequately. The survey received 77 responses from a wide array of UK collection holders in HE and beyond. The results showed that:

  • Over 13 million volumes are uncatalogued in the libraries that responded, 18.5% of the total number of volumes held by those libraries.
  • Over 4 million more (in a smaller number of libraries) have unsatisfactory catalogue records.
  • Museums, public libraries and independent libraries have a higher proportion of collections which are invisible online.
  • While research libraries have better coverage of printed collections, their hidden archival collections often remain vast.
  • Modern material is being added to the backlogs. The presence of 21st century materials in the backlogs suggests that some libraries are unable to keep up even with current acquisitions.

One surprise of the survey was the age of the material that remained hidden. Not only are 21st Century materials being added to the backlog (showing that some institutions have trouble keeping up with new acquisitions), but significant volumes of material from the 15th-18th Centuries remain undiscoverable.

There is a feeling that we are seeing a renaissance in interest in special collections. In an age of ubiquity amongst larger research libraries for online journal and e-book collections, it is the special collections that deliver unique value to institutions. They can be used in publicity, outreach, and teaching, not ‘just’ in research, so bringing kudos to the institution. If we are to gain large-scale funding for exposing the hidden, then we need to make a wider societal case for the collections. This is especially true in periods of ‘austerity’.

One issue that does not help us make the case is the relative invisibility of special collections. It can be very difficult to compile metrics on the use of special collections – an author may cite a specific rare book, but do we know that it was the copy that is in your collection? RLUK would be interested in working with funders, researchers, and publishers to investigate extended citation standards that would ensure collections were more routinely cited. We believe that this is turn would allow us to demonstrate the value of collections more readily.

The Guard Room of Lambeth Palace, the grand setting for the second day of the Conference

The Guard Room of Lambeth Palace, the grand setting for the second day of the Conference

The survey made a number of recommendations, two of which are perhaps particularly important. Firstly, to ensure discoverability collection holders should adopt a community licence for any bibliographic records. Secondly, that a national register of hidden collections be created which would describe the extent of uncatalogued material and encourage the development of national and institutional priorities for cataloging and digitisation. We would be interested in knowing what appetite there is in the community for such a register.

I came away from the Conference enthralled by the stories of both collections and individual volumes – from the wonderful efforts of Cardiff University in saving the Cardiff City Council Collection from dispersal, to the London Library volume that has been rescued from a sunken ship in the First World War and bears the marks of ‘slight’ water damage. The rare books and special collections community clearly consist of committed and passionate professionals who relish the objects they work with. We know their collections contain riches, what we don’t know is what further riches remain to be discovered and rediscovered. We hope that following the Conference we can look again at how we reveal those hidden collections.

David Prosser, Executive Director, RLUK