Condition Survey of the United States History, Local History and Genealogy Collection of the New York Public Library

Article excerpt

Condition Survey of the United States History, Local History and Genealogy Collection of the New York Public Library

The New York Public Library (NYPL) has been deeply concerned for a long time with the deterioration of its collections. Several attempts were made over the years to gain some sort of quantitative information on the size and nature of the preservation problems. In 1982, Wesley Boomgaarden surveyed NYPL's World War I and World War II collections. It demonstrated their severely deteriorated condition and assisted the library in obtaining funds to treat that collection. In January 1983, the Conservation Division accepted James Wellvang, a student enrolled in the Columbia University School of Library Science's Preservation Administration Program, to do a field study project during the spring term. Mr. Wellvang and I continued refining a methodology for surveying the collections.

Past surveys both at NYPL and at other libraries were researched. One important survey had not been reported in the literature. That was the recently completed Yale University Libraries' survey under the direction of Gay Walker and Jane Greenfield. They kindly agreed to explain their techniques and methodology to us. That survey, which has since been published, was the most ambitious and thorough condition survey yet attempted.[1] Their three-year effort resulted in the development of procedures and methods which could be adapted for use at NYPL. Because of the meticulous attention to detail and careful documentation that had gone into the Yale survey, the staff of that institution gave us a great deal of assistance in adapting their techniques to the survey we were planning. In addition, Jeffrey Simonoff, one of the statisticians who had worked with Yale on the survey, worked with us on the project.

One important fact learned from the Yale staff was that a test or pilot survey was necessary to assess methods and procedures. John Baker, chief of the conservation division, decided to proceed with a pilot survey. Because of the large number of subject areas concentrated in the United States Local History and Genealogy (USLHG) Division, for which the research libraries of NYPL had accepted primary collecting responsibilities under the RLG Collection Management and Development Program, that division was chosen as the subject of the pilot survey.


The material surveyed included only bound volumes and those items shelved with bound volumes (packages of unbound serials, envelopes containing pamphlets, etc.). Other material held by the division, such as postcards, glass-plate negatives, and local views, was not included. The number of items in the surveyed portion of the collection totaled 143,253.


Though this was only a relatively small proportion of the library's holdings, it was still a very large number of objects to examine individually; fortunately, that was not necessary. If randomly selected, a much smaller number of samples would give an accurate picture of the condition of the entire collection. Obtaining a completely random sample is an important and difficult task. The extremely complex and diverse nature of the Yale collections required the Yale surveyors to use more sophisticated sampling techniques than any that had been used in library condition surveys reported in the literature. In collection condition surveys, the physical volume must be the basic unit surveyed. The shelflist cannot be used because it does not correlate exactly to physical volumes: one catalog entry may represent more than one volume and, conversely, one volume may be represented by more than one card. Consequently, a sampling method which selects samples directly from the shelf must be used to allow each physical volume in the surveyed collection an equal chance of being selected and evaluated. To do this the collections are separated into areas (or, as Yale called them, "strata"). …


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