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Analysis & Evaluation

Processing Special Collections: Blurring Boundaries, Backlogs and Intra-Institutional Cooperation, or, What Do We Do with All This Stuff?


Ask a user to explain the difference between a library and an archive, and chances are, s/he’ll be stumped.  Much has been made over the past half-decade about the convergence between libraries, archives and museums (LAMs), yet the professions remain distinct in both identity and culture.  Traditionally, the distinctions between these institutions have been based on what we collect: libraries collect print materials, archives collect documents with evidentiary value, and museums collect objects.[i] Each profession has developed its own method of providing access to these materials, and the inability to reconcile the differing philosophies that inform them undermines this call for convergence.  My experience at the Tamiment Library in Fall 2010 has given me a glimpse into the practical workings of an institution that experiences this convergence on a daily basis, on an intra-institutional level.* I saw firsthand the cooperation that occurs between archivists and librarians as they struggle to dig out from seemingly insurmountable backlogs.  I assisted users who made no distinctions between archival collections and print materials, users who were pleased to find serials and monographs available alongside organizational papers and moving images.  Yet I also saw how blurring boundaries between libraries and archives can confuse our respective missions, and how the rush to provide access—any access—can call into question our professional priorities and even our raison d’être.


Exposing Hidden Collections

A common concern of librarians and archivists over the last decade has been the drive to expose “hidden collections,” the unprocessed or underprocessed backlogs that have plagued research libraries across the country.  The concern is this: in an increasingly digital world where libraries struggle to justify their existence, a spotlight was shone on the uniqueness of special collections and their ability to attract funding and prestige.  Yet this spotlight on what makes special collections “special” also brought to light the enormous problems with providing access to these collections.  In 1998, the Association of Research Libraries conducted a survey of libraries’ collections that led to the creation of the ARL Special Collections Task Force (2001-2006), charged with enhancing access to and “surfacing hidden collections.”[ii] In 2005, Mark Greene and Dennis Meissner’s seminal work, “More Product, Less Process,” was published in American Archivist, calling for minimal processing of most archival collections as a means to reduce current (and prevent future) backlogs.  The consensus now is that it is better to provide some access to materials rather than none.  In archives, this means processing at the box or series level unless the anticipated research value of a collection warrants further detail.  In special collections libraries, it means creating collection-level or in-process catalog records so that researchers at least know that materials exist, even if item-level information is not available.  It may seem like common sense to some, but these developments were quite revolutionary for the conservative world of special collections professionals.

We are now at the point where research can be done to test the effectiveness of these methods at achieving results.  A 2010 OCLC Research report on special collections and archives finds that “while many backlogs have decreased, almost as many continue to grow.”  It also includes the troubling assertions that “75% of general library budgets have been reduced,” while “use of all types of material has increased across the board,” calling into question the ability of future librarians to enhance access.[iii] In the archival community, Stephanie H. Crowe and Karen Spilman of the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis conducted a survey to measure the impact of Greene and Meissner’s ideas.  While they found widespread adoption of the principles of minimal processing, many of the survey respondents were unsure of its long-term utility.  Concerns ranged from privacy issues to professional de-legitimization to a decreased ability to assist researchers.[iv] Even with minimal processing and collection-level cataloging, the likelihood that libraries and archives will be able to make progress in reducing backlogs while faced with enormous budget cuts remains questionable.  Is it really possible to do more with less?  And what will the impact be on future researchers, not to mention future librarians who are left to sort through tomorrow the underprocessed collections of today?

The Tamiment Library & Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives

The Tamiment Library & Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives at New York University maintains a research collection devoted to “documenting the history of radical politics: socialism, communism, anarchism, utopian experiments, the cultural left, the New Left, and the struggle for civil rights and civil liberties.”[v] The library was originally established by the Rand School of Social Science in 1906, making its way to NYU in 1963; in 1977, the Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives was established, and it remains the designated repository of the New York City Central Labor Council’s member unions.  Tamiment is no stranger to cataloging and processing backlogs, though some progress has been made in recent years.  In September 2010, I joined the library as an intern and was charged first with processing additions to the Tamiment Newspapers Collection, and later the Tamiment Library Pamphlet Collection.

An unspoken part of the discussion on hidden collections is the fact that librarians and archivists spend an inordinate amount of time cleaning up the mess of previous generations, who themselves were pressed for time, short on resources and very often rooted to outdated professional conventions.  This is certainly the case at the Tamiment Library.   My work processing print materials to be added to the cataloging queue was a lesson in the futility of looking for closure in special collections.  The most laborious part of my workflow was simply determining if the library already owned the materials in hand.  For example, Tamiment is home to a collection of 8,762 pamphlets that were microfilmed in the 1970s, under the name Radical Pamphlet Literature (RPL).  Although a reference book was created containing a title list (alphabetical by author, with no subject indexing), the pamphlets themselves were never cataloged at an item level.  By now the pamphlets have assumed “Cadillac” status among the library’s pamphlets, yet currently only 2,357, or 27%, have catalog records in BobCat, NYU’s online catalog.  Any attempt to process additions to the library’s pamphlet collection requires first checking this print volume (in addition to two other lists of uncataloged materials) to see if the item in-hand is a duplicate.  Due to the high value placed on these pamphlets, duplicates in good condition are added to the collection.  An intended by-product of this exercise is that as incoming materials are cataloged, more RPL pamphlets will be cataloged.  Yet it begs the question: why not simply catalog the RPL collection to begin with, further streamlining the process for additions to the collection?  The answer, simply put: lack of resources.

A similar scenario presented itself in processing additions to the Tamiment Newspaper Collection.  This collection contains approximately 1,500 newspapers in 561 boxes.  Currently only 15% of the titles are cataloged.  As a workaround, the library has created a finding aid in Archivists’ Toolkit that serves as a running inventory of the collection, so that researchers have some access to the materials.  Newspapers are rehoused, and title, publisher, place of publication and year are input into the library’s Access database, which then provides a PDF report that is posted on Tamiment’s website.  The same title information is also input into Archivists’ Toolkit, so that it is searchable via NYU’s online finding aid search tool.  Finally, detailed holdings information is kept in a binder at the reference desk, from which the titles will eventually be cataloged (as time and resources permit).  In this case, one might ask: why not simply process the newspapers as an archival collection?  The answer, simply put: these are serials, and who would look for serials in a finding aid?


Radical Pamphlets, the Underground Press & Printed Ephemera

Part of the problem of determining the best course of action for processing Tamiment’s collections is the ephemeral nature of the materials being addressed.  Many of the pamphlets are nothing more than stapled and photocopied tracts that were disseminated on college campuses in the 1960s and 1970s.  The newspapers, too, are frequently part of the underground press, with distinctively un-uniform titles and erratic frequency of publication.  In recent years there has been a growing respect for the value of printed ephemera in scholarly research.[vi] For libraries and archives, though, the very mention of ephemera can cause shudders as it immediately conjures up difficulties: ephemera is difficult to store, catalog, and preserve.  Further, it is notoriously difficult to define.  Young’s examination of printed ephemera settles on the following definition: “Ephemera are printed artifacts, usually less substantial than books, which, though intended for specific limited purposes or events, are kept by libraries and archives because they contain continuing research value, notably for the study of popular culture.”[vii] Generally speaking, the materials in the Tamiment Library Pamphlet Collection and the Tamiment Newspapers Collection could easily fall into this definition.  Young addresses a further concern for libraries housing printed ephemera:

One final challenge presents itself as an administrative hot potato: should ephemera be part of printed collections, or should they be under the jurisdiction of archives?  The simple answer might seem to be that printed should go with printed.  However, owing to the difficulty of cataloging, much ephemera are often gathered into groups; and groups of items brought together because of a common theme–especially nontraditional, flimsy, somewhat rare items–start to sound like prime candidates for archival arrangement.[viii]

Tamiment’s decision to process these materials as part of the library’s print collections stems from existing conventions, and may not be the quickest or best method for providing access to researchers.  Yet, is increased access the only consideration to be had in dealing with special collections materials?  Does providing any access to collections justify the risk of simply “convert[ing] materials from ‘unprocessed’ to ‘hidden?’”[ix]

Blurring Boundaries Between Libraries and Archives

Pamphlets and underground newspapers provide an interesting case study of real-life collaboration between libraries and archives.  For, if collections-based distinctions no longer apply, how are processing decisions made at an institution that includes both a library and archive, for collections that could theoretically come under the jurisdiction of either?   At Tamiment, cooperation between the librarians and archivists in dealing with these nebulous collections has been spurred by a recent project to dismantle the library’s vertical files.  Originally organized into author files, organizational files, and topic files, they contained the usual suspects of library printed ephemera, and were cataloged at a collection level, under the jurisdiction of the library, not the archive.  For example, the file for Socialist Party USA was simply cataloged as “[Publications relating to Socialist Party USA],” with no more physical description than “pieces.”  These files are now being arranged into “Printed Ephemera” archival collections–artificial collections processed at the folder level.  The Socialist Party file now has a detailed finding aid arranged into five series at the folder level, and users can see that it comprises 12 linear feet.  Further, users can search across finding aids using the keywords “printed ephemera” and “pamphlet” to locate all of the collections that contain pamphlets.

As the processing archivists dismantle the old vertical files, they separate pamphlets of interest that they consider to be good candidates for item-level cataloging.  These pamphlets make their way into the library’s cataloging queue via processing by student workers such as myself.  In turn, when processing pamphlets that originate from donations, the library can now search for an existing Printed Ephemera collection and file it accordingly, allowing resources to be focused on pamphlets that warrant item-level cataloging.  Clearly, processing the library’s printed ephemera as archival collections provides better access for researchers.  Moreover, it gives the library a better understanding of what is in its collections, for collection development purposes as well as security concerns.  Cooperation between the librarians and archivists has resulted in increased access to the printed ephemera as well as increased item-level cataloging of pamphlets with high research value.  Why, then, hasn’t the same treatment been applied to the Tamiment Newspaper Collection, when currently only 15% of titles are cataloged?

Problems of Archival Arrangement

Pamphlets are frequently included in definitions of printed ephemera simply because their format differs from traditional library materials; they “have a hard time standing up straight on a shelf.”[x] Newspapers, on the other hand, are most definitely serials, and serials belong to the print tradition.  Moreover, there is a well-established method of cataloging serials in libraries.  Serials records have built-in mechanisms for establishing relationships with other serials, such as the 76x-78x linking fields in MARC records.  These fields indicate relationships such as “absorbed by,” “continues,” etc., and can be very valuable to researchers tracking the publication of, say, a labor union newsletter.  Archival arrangement is simply unable to offer this level of description.  In a sense, creating an original catalog record for a serial is like writing a mini-history of the publication itself.  As such, the records themselves can assist researchers and point them in directions that were previously unknown to them, in addition to providing information that can then be used as copy cataloging by other institutions.  Unfortunately, serials catalog records are also notoriously time-consuming to create, which may account for the enormous backlog experienced at the Tamiment Library.  So, should Tamiment staff forsake the research value of creating serials records in favor of reducing their backlog?  Processing the newspaper collection as an archival collection would free up resources to process other collections, increasing access and uncovering those hidden collections that have become the focus of archivists and librarians alike.  Yet the cost to future generations of scholars and librarians surely must be considered in determining the best course of action.

Item-level Cataloging as Literary Legitimation

The issues that arise in whether or not to process the Tamiment Newspaper Collection using traditional item-level serials cataloging or folder-level archival arrangement reflect not only the current discourse on special collections backlogs, but also the philosophies of access that inform the library and archival professions.  Archivists are content to lead the researcher to a general destination, but leave plenty of opportunities for that “Eureka!” moment to occur.  They provide context and maintain original order; it is up to the researcher to discover specific materials within the collection himself.  Librarians, on the other hand, attempt to create bibliographic surrogates that can provide identifiable information about the cataloged item in such a way as to negate the need for users to see the item itself.  That is, archivists depend upon researchers sifting through materials to locate information; librarians want users only to have to scroll through a catalog to locate materials.

Further, library catalogs are intended to become reference works on their own.  That is why we have multiple levels of subject access and tracing across formats and collections.  While it can be argued that well-crafted scope and content notes of archival finding aids can transform them into reference works, they remain in essence an inventory or container list.  That is why the minimal processing methods advocated by Greene and Meissner have been embraced so thoroughly by the archival profession; it corresponds with the basic philosophy of maintaining original order that informs archival arrangement.  Collection-level cataloging, on the other hand, runs contrary to librarians’ traditional concepts of bibliographic control.  Moreover, libraries have long served a legitimizing function for the print materials they collect.  They have undoubtedly contributed to the canonization of a variety of literature over the years simply by virtue of adding a work to their collection and creating a catalog record for it.

We see this today in the professional literature surrounding zines in the library.  In his profile of librarian James Danky, Chris Dodge explains the similarities between today’s zines and the underground newspapers of the 1960s, calling both “homemade periodicals, produced for reasons other than to make money, usually photocopied and published irregularly.”[xi] Danky was a pioneer in collecting alternative library materials since his appointment as Newspapers and Periodicals Librarian at the Wisconsin Historical Society in 1976.  Dodge discusses the political nature of Danky’s decision to collect alternative materials, noting that WHS’s zine collection is integrated into the library’s larger serials collection.  He calls attention to their assigned Library of Congress subject headings, emphasizing that none is assigned “Fanzines” as a genre heading.[xii] That is, they are treated like mainstream publications in the catalog, thereby establishing alternative materials as legitimate scholarly resources.  It is appropriate, then, that this consideration factor into Tamiment’s decision to continue to catalog the newspaper collection at an item level, rather than opting for the more expedient solution of archival arrangement.


Thoughts for the Future

The much-lauded convergence of libraries, archives and museums is bound to be a boon for users who are unaware of the conventional divisions between the professions.  The ability to locate materials using integrated online systems rather than a myriad of idiosyncratic systems spread across individual institutions is not only desired but necessary if libraries are to remain relevant in this digital age.  For the professionals working behind these integrated systems, however, it is important to remember that although we are all working within the same framework of cultural heritage institutions, there remain very real differences between our professional values and methods of access.  Archival arrangement is not the same as library cataloging, nor should it be.  There are different principles at work behind each, and in our rush to reduce our backlogs and expose those hidden collections, we must not forsake our principles for expediency.  Otherwise we run the risk of creating another mess for future generations to sort through, as we lament having to make up for past mistakes ourselves.  Further, this highlights the importance of ensuring that there are still professionals at our institutions who are charged with making decisions as to the best method to process our backlogs.  With budget cuts across the board and an increasingly competitive fight for limited grant funds, libraries and archives are relying heavily on volunteers, student workers, and paraprofessionals to make progress in a desperate attempt to do more with less.  It is essential that there are professionals on staff who can inform these decisions with the ethics and foundations that the professions have relied upon from their very beginnings.


* This paper will look only at the relationship between libraries and archives, not museums.


1. Robert S. Martin, “Intersecting Missions, Converging Practice,” RBM: A Journal of Rare Books, Manuscripts and Cultural Heritage 8 (2007): 81.

2. Association of Research Libraries, “Special Collections Task Force Final Status Report, 2006,” ARL website.  Accessed December 10, 2010,

3. Jackie M. Dooley and Katherine Luce, Taking Our Pulse: The OCLC Research Survey of Special Collections and Archives (Dublin, Ohio: OCLC Research, 2010), 9.

4. Stephanie H. Crowe and Karen Spilman, “MPLP @ 5: More Access, Less Backlog?” Journal of Archival Organization 8, no. 2 (2010): 121, accessed November 29, 2010, doi: 10.1080/15332748.2010.518079.

5. “About the Tamiment Library, History & Description,”

6. Timothy G. Young, “Evidence: Toward a Library Definition of Ephemera,” RBM: A Journal of Rare Books, Manuscripts and Cultural Heritage 4 (2003): 21.

7. Ibid., 25.

8. Ibid., 19.

9. Barbara M. Jones, “Hidden Collections, Scholarly Barriers: Creating Access to Unprocessed Special Collections Materials in America’s Research Libraries,” RBM: A Journal of Rare Books, Manuscripts and Cultural Heritage 5 (2004): 97.

10. Young, “Evidence,” 16.

11. Chris Dodge, “Collecting the Wretched Refuse: Lifting a Lamp to Zines, Military Newspapers, and Wisconsinalia,” Library Trends 56, no. 3 (2008): 667.

12. Ibid., 671.

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