Tiers for Fears:
Sensible, Streamlined Sharing of Special Collections

An OCLC Research Report by:

Dennis Massie, OCLC Research

Download the report »
(.pdf: 367K/39 pp.)

Key findings:

  • Lending physical items from special collections is now more common than not, at least within consortia.
  • A sense of good will exists in the ILL community toward institutions that are willing lend special collections.  
  • Sometimes only the loan of physical items from special collections can satisfy a request.
  • The rareness and condition of an item significantly impacts the lending decision.
  • Risk is the most common reason for not sharing returnable special collections.
  • The dominant factor in determining the level of lending effort and overhead is attitude toward risk.
  • A tiered approach to streamlining workflows associated with lending special collections can be invoked based on the material, the request and the risk tolerance of curators and administrators.
  • Trust must exist not only between borrowing and lending institutions but also between ILL and Special Collections.


The lending of physical items for exhibition purposes has long been a core activity of archivists and special collections curators. Now, with the increased visibility of special collections, requests for research loans are multiplying. There are legitimate instances—based on the nature of the material, the type of research question, or the need for extended access by a distant scholar—when only the loan of a physical item from special collections can satisfy a researcher’s request.

Prudent approaches to lending rare and unique materials are justified, and providing a digital surrogate is usually the answer. But such thinking is not appropriate for every item in special collections, or for every request, and often results in time-consuming, overly cautious procedures. Streamlining such procedures is critical. Labor-intensive processes and policies can be simplified to fit the nature of the material, institutional resources, the circumstances of requests, and the risk tolerance of curators and administrators.


This report presents strategies for providing efficient and affordable interlending of actual physical items from special collections for research purposes, as well as advice on determining if a loan is the most appropriate way to fulfill a particular request. A working group made up of resource sharing supervisors and special collections curators from OCLC Research Library Partnership institutions created a set of tools that will help institutions reconsider and streamline their processes for handling loan requests for special collections materials. Included are a model written sharing policy, a facilities "trust" checklist, and a flexible, tiered framework for getting to a sensible "yes" as often as possible.

For More Information:

Dennis Massie
Program Officer
OCLC Research


Related links:

Tiers for Fears: Sensible, Streamlined Sharing of Special Collections

Report publication announcement:
Tiers for Fears report offers sensible, streamlined approach for sharing special collections

Tiers for Fears video (10:14)

OCLC Research theme:
Mobilizing Unique Materials

Related activity page:
Sharing Special Collections

Dennis Massie's bio page

Suggested citation:
Massie, Dennis. 2013. Tiers for Fears: Sensible, Streamlined Sharing of Special Collections. Dublin, Ohio: OCLC Research. http://www.oclc.org/content/dam/research/publications/library/2013/2013-03.pdf.


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