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Grant will improve access to U. of I. Rare Book and Manuscript Library

Andrea Lynn, Humanities Editor


Valerie Hotchkiss
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University of Illinois Photo
Valerie Hotchkiss, is the head of the Rare Book & Manuscript Library, which has secured a three-year grant from the Mellon Foundation to catalog the one-third of its collection uncataloged.

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — A top U.S. rare book and manuscript library has begun taking the embarrassment out of its embarrassment of riches by making all of its collection accessible.

Only two-thirds of the materials in the Rare Book & Manuscript Library at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have been cataloged and are accessible, meaning the remaining one-third is “hidden to all but the most intrepid researcher,” said Valerie Hotchkiss, the head of the library.

However, a new grant of more than $600,000 from the Mellon Foundation will give the library the opportunity to begin “dramatically improving” access to its entire collection, a collection Hotchkiss described as “one of the largest and most remarkable in the country.”

The grant supports a “retrospective” project to catalog the library’s 70,000 rare holdings that have yet to be cataloged. The catalog records will be available online through the university’s online catalog and the national database OCLC, thus “revealing to any Internet user the rare and even unique items that are now hidden in our library,” Hotchkiss said.

“Increased visibility to the hidden treasures of one of the world’s premier library collections will improve scholarly communication worldwide,” she said, and “assure the security of the items.”

The project, which began this month, should take three years to complete and will be done entirely in-house. Five full-time-equivalent cataloger positions will be added to the Rare Book Library’s staff to accomplish the task, most of them graduate students to be drawn from the university’s Graduate School of Library and Information Science, which consistently is ranked No. 1 nationally.

The “hidden” collection consists of 16th-, 17th- and 18th-century imprints from Europe and America and includes a “strong collection” of Renaissance Bibles, important early English imprints, significant editions of the classics and numerous literary, historical, philosophical and scientific works.

Why have the items eluded cataloging until now? Hotchkiss said that while the
U. of I. has “long excelled at acquiring books – as is apparent from its status as the largest public university library in the country – for decades it has lacked the staff and resources to catalog the treasures it amassed.”

The Rare Book Library’s holdings – more than 300,000 items – have been valued at $750 million, making it “a collection that needs to be revealed,” she said.

The University Library owns more than 22 million items held in 38 separate departmental libraries, including the Rare Book & Manuscript Library. The University Library’s Web site receives some 235,000 visits a day, 550 of them going to the Rare Book Library.