Libraries, archives, and cultural institutions hold millions of items that have never been adequately described. According to a 1998 Association of Research Libraries' survey of 99 North American research universities' special collections, on average 15 percent of their printed volumes, 27 percent of manuscripts, and 35 percent and 37 percent of video and audio, respectively, are unprocessed or uncatalogued. Nationally, this represents a staggering volume of items of potentially substantive intellectual value that are unknown and inaccessible to scholars.
With generous funding from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Council on Library and Information Resources administers this national program to identify and catalog hidden special collections and archives. In 2008, CLIR issued the program's first Request for Proposals (RFP, in pdf), to which 118 libraries, research centers, museums, historical societies, and other cultural heritage institutions responded. A distinguished review panel of librarians and scholars selected fifteen exceptional projects for funding. The primary criteria the panel employed in evaluating the proposals were the potential national significance of the nominated collections for scholarship and teaching, the application of description standards that would provide interoperability and long-term sustainability for project data, and innovations in the design of workflow processes that maximized both efficiency and the potential for outreach to user communities. Funded projects will continue for up to three years.
The program's strategy assumes local autonomy and responsibility but also requires participants to agree to governing principles that ensure enterprise-wide coherence. All nonconfidential information that applicants supply is made publicly available through CLIR's Hidden Collections Registry. Contributions to the Registry from institutions who do not wish to apply for grant funding are also welcome.
As the program continues, program staff will develop a descriptive record of a subset of collections that are deemed most urgently in need of cataloging and documentation. The record will evolve as funded proposals are completed. Although the program does not provide funds for the creation of digital surrogates of cataloged materials, CLIR hopes that many funded projects will ultimately be enhanced through the creation of publicly accessible digitized versions of the newly cataloged materials.