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Symposium on Hidden Collections

March 30, 2015
L.C. Vass and Mr. and Mrs. Crowley, ca. 1898, from the Vass Family Papers (RG 476-6). (Image number 3335)

On Friday, March 13th, I attended a day-long symposium at the University of Pennsylvania Libraries’ Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts. The symposium, organized by the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR), brought together archivists, librarians, and researchers to discuss the theme of Cataloging Hidden Special Collections and Archives: Innovation, Collaboration, and Models.

“Hidden” collections are those that have been received by an archival repository by donation, purchase, deposit, or transfer, but not yet processed (appraised, arranged, described, and preserved according to archival standards) and made discoverable online.[1] Most, if not all, archival repositories have hidden collections (sometimes called backlogs) because material comes in faster than we are able to procure the necessary resources (human skill, supplies, technology, time) to process them. Many of the symposium presentations discussed innovative ways to efficiently process archival materials as well as make them accessible to researchers. After all, we want people to use the unique collections in our care!

The goal of access is closely related to the activities of outreach, and presenters and attendees of the symposium shared many great ideas for attracting people to holdings of special collections. One repository in South Carolina has started reaching out more to tourists, as the heritage tourism economy has surged. Archivists at two medical libraries speaking on the topic of privacy encouraged their colleagues to publicly tout the benefits of research that uses medical records, rather than shy away from potentially sensitive material. As most institutions have a presence on social media, one attendee noted the importance of using tools like Facebook and Twitter to engage in two-way conversations with users and potential users of collections. To show visitors the work involved in cataloging and preserving a recently acquired collection of Churchill Weavers textiles, the Kentucky Historical Society temporarily put its own staff on exhibit. And WGBH archivists in Boston invited the community to help decide which analog videos from hundreds of public television programs should be digitized and mounted online.

Here at PHS, we’re always trying to reach new audiences while assisting the researchers and supporters who already know about the treasures in our collection. Professional development opportunities like the CLIR symposium inspire us with new ideas about how to fulfill our mission to collect, preserve, and share the stories of the American Presbyterian experience.


[1] PHS, as a member of the Philadelphia Area Consortium of Special Collections Libraries (PACSCL), was fortunate to receive support from CLIR a few years ago to reveal several hidden collections in our holdings that have high research value. As a result of the project, enhanced descriptions of the Vass Family Papers, the Maggie Kuhn Papers, the Religious News Service records, and others are discoverable online, and the materials are now more accessible to researchers.