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Uncovering Hidden Collections: a Look at the RIHS Graphics Collection Survey Project

By Jim DaMico, Graphics Project Archivist
On January 16, 2007, the RIHS Library embarked on a systematic survey of the entire collection of graphic materials held by the Society. This collection includes visual materials ranging from 17th century maps to 1910’s picture postcards to 1970’s television footage. Not surprisingly, photographic prints and negatives make up the majority of the collection surveyed so far. The primary reason for this mammoth undertaking is to make accessible, through the library’s online public access catalog NETOP, the rich visual and auditory resources that have been collected by the Society since 1822.
The first step to making any collection accessible is to know what it contains. The Project Archivist pulls each box from the shelf, opens the box and does a visual inspection of the overall material. This allows the archivist to determine what preservation steps can be taken at this initial stage, such as re-housing items using archivally sound storage. The next step is to create a minimal, core catalog record of descriptive information which is then entered into a database.
The catalog record includes the title, creator, date, description, donor and preservation notes. We also record the quantity of new storage material needed to protect the items adequately.  The importance of knowing, for example, that we need 82,000 new sleeves is useful for determining a yearly budget for supplies or for applying for small preservation grants that provide for archival supplies. This survey and collecting the data is also important to set preservation and conservation priorities and determine disaster response priorities.
Much like other cultural institutions across the United States, space is at a premium in the library building. A concerted effort has been made to maximize shelf space by storing like-sized boxes together and consolidating where possible.
To date, a total of 5,668 collections containing 154,730 individual items and occupying 619 linear feet have been examined. We have estimated that the data collected so far will result in a 30% increase to the graphics holdings available through our online catalog, NETOP. When complete, this survey will represent a major strategic advancement for the Society’s collection management efforts.
An example of a before and after processing a large photograph collection:

BEFORE

GFXSurvey_before

AFTER

GFXSurvey_after

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