Librarians Create New Inventory Tool for Special Collections

NEW YORK, November 5, 2004 - Librarians at Columbia University have devised a new tool to inventory partially, or not-yet-processed, special collections materials. It was built using a methodology developed by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania (HSP) and Microsoft Access, and gives librarians quick access to specific information about archival items, including details such as value, quantity, and physical attributes. Other libraries will be able to use this powerful new instrument to address their own backlogs of unprocessed special collections, a problem that the Association of Research Libraries has recognized as urgent and international in scope.

The new tool was created during a recent survey of unprocessed and under-processed archival collections at Columbia University Libraries. In 2003, Columbia received funds from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to carry out the one-year survey in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library (RBML), Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library, and C. V. Starr East Asian Library. The survey was conducted to expose hidden collections, and to create an inventory system that is transparent and ongoing.

In the process, Columbia librarians used a survey tool developed by HSP, making specific adaptations to give the tool broader applications. For example, the instrument was adjusted to account for nonprint and nonpaper media, such as photographs, still film, audio tape, and computer disks.

Archivists can use this tool to access items in special collections, generate reports, and compare and combine information about the collections. Categories for value, condition, and access are rated on a one-to-five scale. Archivists can also query the database to produce ranked lists of collections, combining any of the data points, for instance, all collections with top ratings for value and poorest physical condition, or all collections containing photographs.

“We can now compare collections across the three repositories on any of these bases while grouping or sorting them by subject, language, creator type, and other criteria,” noted Janet Gertz, Director of Preservation at Columbia University Libraries. “Also, the reports generated from the new database allow for a quick and simple representation of a collection to those outside the institution, and will be especially valuable in grant applications.”

Columbia tested the instrument and database by surveying 550 collections amounting to 15,100 linear feet, and has now adopted it as the primary accession database for new collections. The instrument is free, and available to any interested institution. The survey package is available on CD and includes the template and database, an instruction manual, and definitions of all the rating terms. Requests for a copy of the CD should be sent to

Columbia University Libraries is one of the top ten academic library systems in the nation, with 9.2 million volumes, over 65,650 serials, as well as extensive collections of electronic resources, manuscripts, rare books, microforms, and other nonprint formats. The collections and services are organized into 25 libraries, supporting specific academic or professional disciplines. Columbia Libraries employs more than 400 professional and support staff to assist faculty, students, and researchers in their academic endeavors. The Libraries’ website at is a gateway to its print and electronic collections and to its services.

11/05/04 JD