BL RIC logo 1.0 Retrospective Conversion in the UK: Scale of the task, the issues, opportunity and need for a national strategy

(Note. This summary of the main features of this report was used as the basis of a 4-page 'strategic statement' on retrospective conversion in the UK ( This statement was launched at a reception held at the Library Association on 24th June 1997 and was subsequently widely distributed.)

1.1 Background

The two projects which are the subject of this report surveyed the number of catalogue records in the UK still awaiting retrospective conversion. A particular focus were the records for special collections and special libraries which still await conversion to machine readable form. (Note. Special collections were defined as 'any collection of material forming a collection separate from the remainder of the stock and not incorporated into the main sequence of the library'.) In addition both studies identified issues, such as access to items and to machine readable records, bibliographic standards, funding, priorities, management and other factors, which have to be addressed if maximum benefit is to result from a national approach to the problems posed..

Many catalogues are now computerised and can be searched and their records exchanged across networks, but, although much has been accomplished by enterprises such as the ESTC - The Eighteenth Century Catalogue 1701-1800, the Cathedral Libraries Project, special Non-Formula Funding in the higher education sector, and other initiatives, there has been no coordinated approach to the problem posed by the tens of millions of records still available only in traditional catalogues which have never been converted to machine readable form. The information these catalogues represent is not widely accessible, but today networking and computerised information services provide the means for an efficient solution to this problem.

The benefits of retrospective conversion of library catalogue records are both local, within the holding institutions, and to the wider library, research and scholarly communities. Once the catalogue records are created they are valuable in themselves since other libraries and services can use them without duplicating professional effort and the data itself can generate income.

Local benefits include:

Resource sharing benefits include:

1.2 Scale of the task

The number of libraries in the higher education and public library sectors is known and well documented; however, there are thousands more libraries and collections, many known only to a very limited range of users. The difference in the range and size of the printed collections covered by the two studies is enormous: the smallest numbered eighty items, the largest more than five million. The statistics maintained by libraries vary considerably in detail and, while precise figures were available on many occasions, those provided by the librarians which responded to the surveys were sometimes based on informed best estimates.

More than 50 million records await conversion. Estimates for the libraries responding to the two surveys were:

1.2.1 Higher education libraries

1.2.2 Public libraries

1.2.3 All other libraries

graph showing the millions od records to be converted in HE, public and other sectors

1.2.4 Costs

The unit cost of converting an existing manual catalogue record to machine readable form falls within a range of 1 to 5, the 'mean' being within the range 1.50 to 2.

These costs are applicable to all categories of library.

1.3 Issues

The following issues result from a synthesis of views expressed in: Advisory Group discussions, the FIGIT Study's Focused Consultation Group (ANNEXE 2) and the BLRIC Study's Seminar (Appendix A)

Retrospective conversion of library catalogues is complex. In addition to the number of records requiring conversion, there are problems posed by the sheer range of materials; the languages and scripts involved; and making sure that the large number of libraries from so many sectors - each sector with its own priorities - can work together effectively toward a common goal. The task of converting 50 million catalogue records to machine readable form is challenging, but it is an area where, once money has been invested, a permanent benefit is assured.
Access to items
A national programme of retrospective conversion requires agreed criteria to ensure satisfactory access to items in the collections of the participating institutions. The legitimate interests of owners must be protected. In return for funding, reasonable facilitities for access must be guaranteed for consultation of material, either in its original state, or, where this is not possible, in a surrogate format.
Access to catalogue records - standards and distribution
Converted records will need to be produced to acceptable standards and a decision made as to how these records are to be distributed and accessed. The common bibliographic data and formal rules to which converted catalogues conform should be the minimum required to enable the catalogue records to be consulted effectively and exchanged within and across national boundaries. Records created as a result of a national retrospective conversion programme should ideally remain in the public domain. This would be consistent with the Recommendation on Retrospective Conversion of Library Catalogues to Machine readable form (R(89)11) adopted by the Council of Europe's Committee of Ministers on 19 September 1989. The cataloguing of older books from the hand-press period demands that great care be taken to ensure that data, such as provenance or variations in the printing, are recorded accurately.
Staffing and expertise
There is a need for skilled cataloguers (they are no longer produced by departments of library and information studies in the numbers that they were) and expertise in the management of retrospective conversion projects. Many smaller libraries, and libraries which are not publicly funded, are administered by part-time or voluntary staff and, even when the necessary expertise is possessed by the staff in post, there may be little or no spare time to undertake the additional work involved. In the event of a team of cataloguers with the necessary skills being appointed, or brought in from outside the library, the necessary accommodation and equipment must be available.
It might be argued that increased handling of items can lead to accelerated deterioration in the physical condition of the items concerned. Collections are far more likely to be in danger through lack of knowledge of what they contain, or inadequate awareness by the owning institutions of the value of the items they possess. This can easily lead to neglect and dispersal of material and prejudice scholarship and the value of collections.
Priorities will need to be set to determine which catalogues should be included in the initial phase of a national programme. If the catalogues of larger library collections are converted first then many smaller libraries can benefit from access to the records created; however, conversion of records in particular subject areas, languages, or by dates of publication might be deemed to have greater importance. Priorities will have to be set with full knowledge of local circumstances and other factors which might assist the shaping of a particular project.
The success of a national programme must depend on the collaboration of libraries across sectors. Cooperation will entail guarantees on the part of participating libraries that they will provide reasonable access; ensure retention of material for which catalogue records have been converted and, as a general rule, contribute to the funding costs; although for many smaller and privately funded libraries financial inducements to participate in the programme are likely to be necessary.
Money is vital to solving the problem as the total cost of retrospective conversion nationally would be between 80 - 100 million. As a general rule, matching money would be expected from institutions in receipt of special funding - this could be in 'kind', but it could also come from a third party. Allowing for matching money of 50 per cent, the additional money required would be 40-50 million. Assuming a five-year programme this would amount to 8-10 million a year.
There is a need for one body to have responsibility for coordinating a national strategy. At present, agencies and institutions operate independently; there is no single body with overall responsibility for coordinating projects and setting priorities for retrospective conversion in the UK.
Machinery will have be established for managing a national programme - to coordinate effort, set priorities, target funds and ensure the maintenance of the programme. There needs to be proper management of the awarding of grants; the progress of individual institutions will need to be monitored; applications will have to be vetted; allocation of funds accommodated within budgetary constraints and decisions taken to ensure that the greatest benefits from the programme are derived at the earliest possible date.

1.4 The opportunity and the need for a national strategy

There is a need to develop a strategy for implementing a national programme of retrospective conversion. This should incorporate a business plan with tight budgeting and be prepared at an early date. If nothing is done, the consequences for research, especially in the humanities and social sciences, will be serious and will prevent the full use of the unrivalled resources in the nation's often unknown and frequently under-utilised library collections.

Significant developments in recent years have provided both the challenge and the opportunity to tackle the retrospective conversion of library catalogues at a national level:

Together, these initiatives provide a unique platform from which to launch and fund a continuing national programme of retrospective conversion.

  1. The Library and Information Commission is the body capable of coordinating the formulation of a national strategy and can advise central government on its implications on behalf of all library sectors in the UK. This strategy should encompass the interests and harness the energies of all those agencies currently involved in trying to drive the process forward.
  2. A significant and continuing sum of money is required. There are a number of possible sources: the HEFCs, schemes administered by the British Library, charities and trusts and possible involvement of the commercial sector through a Private Finance Initiative (PFI). Perhaps the most likely source is the Heritage Lottery Fund which is administered by the National Heritage Memorial Fund. The latter 'gives financial help to improve public access to . . . collections'. A national programme of retrospective conversion of library catalogue records is highly relevant in this context and a number of significant grants have already been awarded to institutions which have made individual applications.
  3. The implementation and management of a national programme should be entrusted to an umbrella management group, representative of bodies currently active in the field.This group should have its own secretariat and be responsible for: overall planning, funding, establishing criteria for projects and priorities, tendering, ensuring that catalogues/databases are properly maintained, standards met, and regular monitoring of progress.
  4. A particular concern must be the the standards applied in the creation of the machine readable records and how they are to be distributed and accessed. Results from both surveys clearly demonstrate the need for this concern.There are currently a number of aggregations, or 'clumps' of online public access catalogue databases - those of the Consortium of University and Research Libraries (CURL) and the British Library, including the English Short Title Catalogue, and the union catalogues of the major bibliographic cooperatives and agencies such as BLCMP, LASER Viscount and SLS. A distributed approach, presenting a virtual union catalogue to the user, is the likely way ahead.