Survey of Special Collections and Archives in the US and Canada

Details of the survey findings are available in the report,
Taking Our Pulse: The OCLC Research Survey of Special Collections and Archives.

We employed a detailed survey to study special collections and archives in 275 academic and research libraries throughout the United States and Canada. This survey  identified norms across the community and will thereby help define needs for community action and further research. The library director of each institution in the survey population received an invitation to participate in early November 2009.


Outcomes include:


This 2009 OCLC Research survey updated and expanded a similar survey administered by the Association of Research Libraries in 1998, the outcomes of which catalyzed the special collections community and led directly to numerous high-profile initiatives to "expose hidden collections." Since then, recognition of the distinction that unique special collections bring to our institutions has greatly increased.

"Hidden collections" are those special collections and archives that are undescribed or under-described, and therefore undiscoverable. Discussion of the overwhelming backlogs of such materials has been prominent within the research library community for more than a decade. We have no meaningful profile of these collections, however, which inhibits development of a system-wide strategy. Researchers increasingly consult large-scale information hubs in searching for materials; online descriptions not represented in such hubs can therefore be effectively hidden.

In addition, this survey added four organizations for which this was the first detailed survey of special collections and archives ever conducted. The survey population encompassed the members of the following:

  • Association of Research Libraries
  • Canadian Academic and Research Libraries
  • Independent Research Libraries Association
  • Oberlin Group
  • RLG Partnership (U.S. and Canada)

The survey enabled us to gauge progress made in exposing special collections over the past decade. More than 90% of ARL member libraries participated in 1998, which gave high credibility to the data. We sought to replicate this impressive rate of response with our survey, and we shared the results with the academic and research library community in the the report, Taking Our Pulse: The OCLC Research Survey of Special Collections and Archives [pdf].

We retained some of the essential questions asked by ARL for the purpose of longitudinal comparison, including key areas in the context of “hidden collections” such as collection size, new trends in collecting and the state of access. Expanded sections on other issues of current importance enabled us to ask questions such as:

  • How widespread is the implementation of new technologies in user services?
  • Are the latest approaches to archival management being widely adopted?
  • What is the current role of special collections in digital library development?
  • How much progress has been made in preservation and management of born-digital archival records?
  • In which of the core competencies recommended by professional societies do staff need more education and training?
  • How diverse is the staff of special collections libraries?
  • How much have library budgets been cut in the context of the global economic crisis?

Data was captured in these broad areas:

  • Collections
  • User services
  • Cataloging and metadata
  • Archival management
  • Digitized and born-digital special collections
  • Staffing
  • Funding

Participating institutions were identified, but no data has been associated with individual respondents. Contact information has been held as confidential.


New data beyond that gathered by ARL in 1998 is necessary in order to gauge progress within the ARL community and create baseline data for a broader population of academic and research libraries and archives. The resulting data about the North American inventory of "hidden collections" will enable both the five participating organizations and individual institutions to characterize the relative state of their collections, policies and capabilities, and to then determine appropriate actions to further expose their collections and more effectively deliver them to researchers.


Broad participation enabled participating institutions and organizations to learn about the extent of their aggregate collections, the access provided, the nature of the user base, the status of adoption of new technologies and more. The data will effectively support decision-making for strategic priorities and collaborative projects. Individual libraries will be able to place themselves in the context of relative norms across the community.

This project:

  • Conducted a detailed survey of special collections and archives in more than 300 academic and research libraries throughout the U.S. and Canada.
  • Reviewed the report of the 1998 ARL survey (published in 2001) to evaluate its outcomes and recommendations for future action.
  • Expanded the survey population beyond the 110 ARL libraries surveyed in 1998 to include the RLG Partnership (U.S. and Canadian institutions), as well as the members of ARL, IRLA, the Oberlin Group, and the Canadian Academic and Research Libraries.
  • Adapted the ARL survey, retaining questions that reveal the extent and accessibility of collections and adding content to address key issues that have emerged in the ensuing decade.
  • Opened the survey in early November 2009 and closed data collection in mid-December.
  • Analyzed the data.

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Most recent updates: Page content: 2011-12-05