RLUK report reveals the growing problem of hidden collections

Some 13 million volumes of material remain uncatalogued in libraries across the UK, according to a recent report. Hidden Collections, undertaken in partnership with the London Library, is the first of three reports to be published by RLUK as part of its Unique and Distinctive Collections (UDC) strategic strand that will provide a comprehensive review of the state, and nature, of special collections in the UK. The report surveyed a wide range of libraries across the sector including university, museum and national libraries with collections totalling over 75 million items.

It is clear that the post-2008 financial situation and the reorganisation of some of the major bodies with oversight of these areas in the UK, for example, the MLA and JISC, has had a real impact as librarians struggle to do more with less.

Perhaps not surprisingly, non-traditional formats are heavily represented in backlogs as librarians are prioritising material that can be easily catalogued over that which requires specialist skills and expertise such as foreign language, cartographic and archival material. Some of the libraries surveyed admitted that their retrospective cataloguing or conversion projects have had to be halted in part or entirely due to a lack of funding, a situation exacerbated by the continual influx of modern material that is only adding to the overall backlog.

The report recommends the establishment of a national register of hidden collections that would allow collection holders to self-document their uncatalogued material, leading to a more coherent awareness of the scale of the backlogs nationwide and encouraging greater opportunity for collaborative and cross-sectoral digital initiatives and funding applications.

Another recommendation put forward in the report is the creation and utilisation of a freely available cataloguing tool, based perhaps on RLUK metadata and Copac, which would be especially beneficial to smaller-scale collection holders in making their collections discoverable online.

“The swelling backlogs present a real challenge to librarians, especially in these more austere times”, said Andrew Green of the National Library of Wales and Chair of the RLUK UDC project board. “The astounding wealth of hidden material is undoubtedly of a significant value for researchers and the wider public; they are the undiscovered treasure troves of our cultural landscape. It is clear that collective action needs to be taken in seeking solutions that overcome the financial, technological and human resource restraints that hinder us from bringing these hidden research materials to light. If well-documented collections such as that of the Women’s Library can have come under threat, then the dangers for undocumented collections are ever greater. RLUK is committed to supporting our members and the wider community, through our strategic work and the harnessing of our collective expertise and assets, to overcome these challenges”.

The second report in the UDC strand has been undertaken in collaboration with OCLC and will be released in January 2013. The final Promoting Unique and Distinctive Collections report is scheduled for release in the spring of 2013.

(ACCESS 83, December 2012)