Academic journal article Library Resources & Technical Services

The Condition of Our "Hidden" Rare Book Collections: A Conservation Survey at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Academic journal article Library Resources & Technical Services

The Condition of Our "Hidden" Rare Book Collections: A Conservation Survey at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Article excerpt

In response to the Association of Research Libraries" Special Collections Task Force's interest in "hidden" special collection materials, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign's Conservation Unit undertook a conservation needs survey of the Rare Book and Special Collections Library's backlog of uncataloged rare book materials. The survey evaluated the binding structure; physical, biological, and chemical damage; and unique features of more than 4,000 randomly sampled pieces from the collection. The information gathered would aid in planning for the integration of immediate preservation actions with future cataloging projects and to better direct future conservation efforts. This paper details the development of the survey, interprets the results, and suggests methodologies for assessing other rare collections as well as approaches to integrating the identified immediate preservation needs with cataloging and processing projects.

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Rare book collections in major research libraries have been perceived to hold a number of uncataloged and thus inaccessible items. In 2001, the Association of Research Libraries (ARL) formally acknowledged the need to address the problem of backlogs, and its Special Collections Task Force began exploring the challenge of enumerating the dimensions of the problem and providing access to uncataloged and unprocessed archival, special collections, and rare book materials. (1) The task force acknowledged that these hidden collections are pervasive in research libraries across the nation, and pose significant cataloging, storage, and preservation or conservation challenges (or both) to the libraries that hold them. In September 2003, ARL hosted the Exposing Hidden Collections Working Conference, where attendees were encouraged to outline the problems and potential strategies and solutions to this extensive dilemma. (2) At its close, the conference highlighted several plans of action, including support for "inter-institutional strategies to expand access to hidden collections including blending arrearage reduction efforts with preservation and retrospective conversion approaches, leveraging digitization efforts, and the sharing of expertise across and between libraries and archives." (3) This study provides one perspective for evaluating these hidden collections and sets a standard for other libraries to begin the assessment of their own hidden collections.

The Conservation Unit at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) began its condition and needs analysis of the library's hidden collections in February 2003. This survey was undertaken to help determine how preservation efforts could be integrated with future cataloging projects and to begin a dialog with the curators about prioritizing future conservation treatments. The Rare Book and Special Collections Library (RBSCL) holds an estimated 80,000 uncataloged items. Of these, an estimated 20,000 pieces are printed, bound materials from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. To narrow the scope of the project, the researchers selected these 20,000 uncataloged rare book materials as the focus of the project, though this collection is not as hidden as some other collections identified by ARL. All items do have author and title access through a card File, and English publications also are partially represented in the Short-title Catalogue of Books Printed in England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, and British America, and of English Books Printed in Other Countries, 1641-1700 and English Short Title Catalogue: 1473-1800 (ESTC). (4)

This collection contains materials in a variety of conditions, many of which were acquired by RBSC in disrepair. Sample surveys are not commonly performed on rare book collections due to the highly variable bindings and physical condition of the materials. However, because of the collection size, the timeliness of the library's needs in quantifying its hidden rare book holdings, and ARL's current interest in such collections, the conservation librarian proposed a survey that would generate more generalized answers to questions on the material's preservation and conservation needs more rapidly than an item-level survey. …

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