The Foundations of Discovery


With support from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, NISO member organization The Council on Library and Information Resources launched a regranting program, the Cataloging Hidden Special Collections and Archives program, to address a particular and pervasive issue: the inaccessibility of special collections and archival materials due to increased accession rates and outdated practices for cataloging and processing. By dispersing more than 27 million dollars through such grants between 2008 and 2019, the information community made progress towards the development of "efficient practices for describing collections as well as innovative approaches to connecting those collections with researchers, faculty, students, and broader communities of interest." This report documents the value of those projects and identifies next steps. 

Key Take-Aways

The analysis documents the critical importance on cataloging materials found in institutional special collections and archives, but questions the long-term sustainability of online catalogs themselves. How institutions will sustain discovery of and access to unique digital collections remains a significant question. Short-term funding of such cataloging projects may be insufficient in ensuring the quality of the descriptive elements. 

Pulling together the threads of CLIR’s retrospective analysis of the Cataloging Hidden Special Collections and Archives program, four general points seem evident:

• The investment made in cataloging materials across the United States and Canada made a significant impact on the culture of collecting institutions and the attitudes held about the importance of historic collections and the people that work with them.

• Recipient institutions represented a diversity of types and sizes of GLAM organizations which also allowed for an impressive breadth and depth of item types made accessible through the program.

• Long-term sustainability of online catalogs is challenging for many of these institutions. Library support organizations like CLIR must determine what, if any, resources or advice they can offer to constituents facing difficult financial decisions affecting the availability of collection descriptions over time. 

• In an increasingly digital research environment, there is a pressing need for search and discovery systems that bring together descriptions of both physical and digital artifacts so that researchers can learn about them alongside one another.

Related to these general conclusions about the projects funded through the program are three areas for further study:

• Integrating Description with Digitization: How can workflows be optimized to enable both appropriate levels of description and quality digitization for diverse material types?

• Sustaining Access: What work needs to be done to assure sustainability of infrastructures for discovery and access to special collections and archives when institutions are faced with difficult financial choices? What percentage of descriptive data is lost over time?

• Ethical Staffing: What are the career outcomes of those who work on grant-funded projects on short-term contracts? How can funders support career development in ethical ways?