Assessment for Planning: Special Collections Research Center Uses Data to Drive Location Decisions, and More

Planning to move the Special Collections Research Center  from its current space to the new library building takes careful planning, with different challenges than the general collections. For one, there are manuscripts AND books to be stored, with collections that vary in size from a few pages to many, many boxes. Not every item is described at the same level. Much is very rare, and much is fragile. And yet, through our robust discovery systems and extensive finding aids, an item could be requested at any time.

Fortunately, the Special Collections Research Center (SCRC) staff including Jessica Lydon (a member of the Libraries’ Assessment Group), and the rest of the “Mapping the Move” team, have already started to collect and analyze data that will inform the decision making as to what materials go where.

For instance, SCRC collections will be housed the new library in two separate compact shelving installations, open shelving in the reading room, and in a dedicated aisle  within the Automated Storage Retrieval System (ASRS), as well as off-site at the library depository.  Each of these locations has strengths and challenges in terms of proximity, accessibility, access, and time to retrieval.

Jessica and the team are using reports from AEON (the SCRC registration, circulation, and tracking  system) and DB/TextWorks (the collection management database), as well as other reference and cataloging statistics to help map material to appropriate storage. A collection that is frequently used, but not too large, might  go to onsite storage. A collection that is extensive and housed in many, many boxes, may go to the depository  where contents can be searched by staff prior to delivery, or to the ASRS. Any material heading to the ASRS will need to be listed at the box level, with each box added as an item to the collection’s catalog record.

While data is useful, it also must be reviewed with a human eye to make meaningful decisions. For instance, the Albert Einstein Medical Center records received lots of use this last year, but that demand was influenced by their 150th  anniversary and planning that went into an online exhibit and a history of the center.  That collection may now be stored in a less accessible space.  The Philadelphia Special Investigation Commission (MOVE) Records receive constant use from many types of patrons (students, community, media) so this will be housed onsite.  The Science Fiction book collection, which is used less frequently and cataloged at the item level  will go to the off-site vault.

Data also will inform decisions about public services. The move to the new library may  necessitate closing the reading room for some periods. Data shows us that the type of patrons using special collections in the summer (visiting scholars) have a different use pattern than the heavy afternoon use when classes are in session (Temple undergraduates).  This kind of information will be useful as well when the communication plan is put into place.

Staff in SCRC are asking questions of other services as well.   In October 2016, they  conducted an analysis of their reference transactions, applying a READ (Reference Effort Assessment Data) scale to understand the complexity of the reference work they were doing. This month they are doing that exercise again, in order to compare the two time frames, when different types of patrons use SCRC. While the READ scale was not difficult for staff to include in their record-keeping, they admitted that a generic tool like READ does not adequately reflect transactions in special collections — reference requiring a combination of expert knowledge of the collections as well as complex strategies for addressing questions, and specialized interview skills.

Using special collections data to guide decision-making is never a straight path, and seemingly straight-forward questions may require multiple data sources.  “What is the time frame between the creation of a finding aid, or the cataloging of a rare book, to its subsequent use?” We have anecdotal evidence, but not concrete numbers. To get at this answer, SCRC staff members  consulted reference statistics and in-house use documented in the  AEON system, technical services processing data, and looked at Google Analytics for web use information. And there may be no discrete dates to compare:  the processing of a collection can take months.

This kind of fuzziness in addressing questions would make most of us throw up our hands in frustration and despair! Fortunately, in SCRC, we have dedicated folks who are willing to handle the complexities as we consider the special nature of their collections move.


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