Since 2008, with the support of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Council on Library and Information Resources has invested in innovative and efficient approaches to describing rare collections through Cataloging Hidden Special Collections and Archives: Building a New Research Environment. The impetus for this program was a widely shared acknowledgement of the need to rethink cataloging methods toward greater standardization, efficiency, and scholarly impact. The urgency of this need, explored through a decade of research beginning in the 1990s, compelled the Foundation and CLIR to create a national program that would fund the creation of records for unique cultural heritage that would be available through the internet and the Web. The original proposal submitted by CLIR to the Foundation for the Cataloging Hidden Collections program can be read here.
By 2014, when the program announced its final awards, CLIR had provided 129 cataloging grants totaling over $27.5 million to a wide variety of institutions in the United States and Canada. These grants have made it possible for scholars, students, and the general public to find and use vast quantities of diverse materials that were not previously discoverable online. Collections exposed through the program include rare books and serials, manuscripts, archives of all kinds, architectural drawings, photographs, artworks, maps and almanacs, textiles, audio and audiovisual recordings, ephemera, and much more. To qualify for awards, CLIR required that applicant institutions nominate collections of the highest significance to scholarship and that they convince reviewers that their approaches to cataloging were consistent with the best, most efficient practices current in the cultural heritage professions. Projects funded through the program will continue to create new records through the end of 2017.
Cataloging Hidden Special Collections and Archives was never intended to be a long standing program. It was conceived as a kind of incubator which, if successful, would contribute to a shared understanding within professional and academic communities that while all special materials are by nature local, creating standardized descriptions of them that can be accessible anywhere and anytime is an exceptionally important goal. One of the more critical of the desired outcomes of the program was a change in professional commitments to exposing hidden materials that would remain priorities after the program concluded, and concomitantly a willingness to pursue and integrate more efficient workflows into the normal operations of individual institutions. Grant recipients have generously shared their experiences, resources, and lessons learned with others, and it is the hope of both CLIR and the Foundation that these lessons and experiences will continue to inform practice in years to come.
Large amounts of materials still await cataloging in cultural heritage institutions, and CLIR recognizes that this work remains an important priority. However, in keeping with CLIR’s mission to inculcate innovations in practice that support the creation of new knowledge, CLIR designed a new program in 2014; its goal is to facilitate complete access to rare cultural artifacts online. To inform decision-making about the new program, CLIR and the Foundation engaged in an intensive research and consultation process throughout 2014. Some of this process has been documented on CLIR’s blog, Re:Thinking. (See: So what do we mean by “hidden”?, Making the Rules; Addressing Tensions; What You’ve Told Us; and Un-Hidden Collections).
In January 2015, CLIR launched Digitizing Hidden Special Collections and Archives: Enabling New Scholarship through Increasing Access to Unique Materials. Like its predecessor, Digitizing Hidden Collections funds projects in which locally executed protocols contribute to a national good, using methods that are cost efficient and subject to wider adoption. It supports the creation of digital representations of unique content of high scholarly significance that will be discoverable and usable as elements of a coherent national collection. Digitizing Hidden Collections will enhance the emerging global digital research environment in ways that support new kinds of scholarship for the long term, ensuring that the full wealth of resources held by institutions of cultural memory becomes integrated with the open Web. By encouraging strategic collaboration and communication among this program’s grant recipients, CLIR expects to help broaden understanding of the complexity of these issues in the professional communities responsible for rare and unique collections. To view the proposal submitted by CLIR to the Foundation for the Digitizing Hidden Collections program, click here.
Looking ahead, Digitizing Hidden Collections will be managed as an element of an emerging, interrelated set of national conversations that is the purview of the Committee on Coherence at Scale. The encompassing vision of the Committee conceives of large scale projects and programs as aspects of a larger whole that is most efficiently built and maintained as a functioning system. The Committee promulgates a set of principles and working assumptions that will help guide this program. Some of those working assumptions include :
- The current array of digital projects offers a rare opportunity to think about the feasibility of a new, robust digital environment for higher education that, if designed as a system, would create a virtual educational ecology that would correlate many aspects of knowledge organization, the cycle of scholarly communication, knowledge discovery, and pedagogy;
- A well-designed environment that correlates these various facets of scholarly communication should enhance productivity and encourage new discovery. Working within this multifaceted environment will also foster new methodologies and intellectual strategies over time;
- The digital environment or system could be more cost-effective over time than if a more traditional path of separated projects individually funded and supported were adopted, because traditional funding of projects is problematic: most, if not all of these projects, are temporarily sustained by grants and/or annual subscriptions or dues levied on institutions of higher learning.
The first awards for the Digitizing Hidden Special Collections and Archives program were publicly announced in January 2016, and The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has generously agreed to support another round of funding for digitization projects in 2016. While it is CLIR’s hope that Digitizing Hidden Collections will continue for several years, its funding is subject to renewal on an annual basis. Information about any future iterations of the program will be posted on the program website as it becomes available.