BL RIC logo Making the most of our libraries: a statement

Library catalogue access: the issues and the opportunity

Books and other printed materials housed in the nation’s libraries represent the collective national memory essential to understanding our history and culture. They constitute a treasury of incalculable value for education, research and scholarship: their worth as a national capital asset is measured in billions of pounds. This national printed archive is not solely represented in the collections of the three national libraries: that responsibility is shared with other libraries, large and small, public and private.

The indispensable keys to these riches are their catalogues.

Many catalogues are now computerised and can be searched and their records exchanged across networks. Although much has been accomplished by enterprises such as the English Short Title Catalogue, the Cathedral Libraries Project, special Non-Formula Funding in the higher education sector and other initiatives, there has been no co-ordinated approach to the problem posed by the tens of millions of records still available only in traditional forms 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.

We propose that a national strategy be adopted for the conversion of these catalogue records to machine readable form. We believe the cost can be justified in relation to national research needs in the humanities and social sciences and the overall educational and cultural benefit.

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:

‘Retrospective conversion’ or ‘retroconversion’ means the conversion of the existing records in manually produced catalogues into machine readable form. The majority of the catalogues to be converted are card catalogues, but other forms include guardbook, microform, printed book and sheaf. The physical destruction of these older forms of catalogue is not proposed as they can represent a valuable archival resource

Scale of the task

Two projects in 1995 and 1996 addressed the task of converting the catalogue records still outstanding and the related issues, particularly those for special collections and special libraries i. Recommendations were formulated for tackling the problems if the most effective use is to be made of the nation’s printed heritage. The first project, on behalf of the higher education community, was commissioned in 1994 as a result of a recommendation from the Libraries Review Group chaired by Professor Sir Brian Follett and was funded by the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC).

The second, funded during 1996/97 by the British Library Research and Innovation Centre (BLRIC), was on behalf of a range of other libraries e.g. public, learned and scientific society, professional, religious. (The national libraries were not included as their catalogues have been the subject of previous studies; however, they would be essential participants in any national programme of retrospective conversion.)

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 was 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.

(Note. In what follows, special collections are ‘any collection of material forming a collection separate from the remainder of the stock and not incorporated into the main sequence of the library’.)

50 million records await conversion.

Estimates for the libraries responding to the two surveys were:

Higher education

Public libraries

All other libraries

Histogram of  Special Collection and other records to be converted. In millions of records:  Higher Education c. 27 total (c. 24 other, c. 3 special);  Public c. 12 total (c. 6 other, c. 6 special);  all others c. 9 total (c. 7 other, c. 2 special)


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.



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 ‘retrospective catalogue conversion is an issue which is measurable, finite and capable of resolution’. 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 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. Co-operation 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 co-ordinating 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 co-ordinate 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.

The Opportunity

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.

Coordinating a national strategy

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.

Funding a national programme

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.

Managing a national programme

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.

Standards and distribution of catalogue records in a national programme

Of particular concern must be the manner in which the machine readable catalogue records are created, the standards applied in their creation and how these records are to be distributed and accessed. 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.

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 our often unknown and frequently under-utilised library collections. We cannot afford to waste them.

We propose that a plan for implementing a national programme of retrospective conversion, incorporating a business plan with tight budgeting, should be prepared at an early date.

‘We do have to create an access policy’

‘There should be a momentum to include retrospective conversion in the national information policy arena. We do have to create an access policy’.

Chief Librarian of a major London Borough.

‘ We must be ready to cooperate. We need to know the size of the problem and how it could be tackled . . . Everyone needs to be involved and there should be no HE/non-HE split’.

Librarian of a major University.

‘A more strategic approach to providing library facilities in support of research in all subjects needs to be developed involving both higher education institutions and other providers of research oriented library and information services’.

The Libraries Review Group Report. 1993.

‘Libraries are the guardians of collections of local, national and international importance. . . . Libraries contribute to the quality of our lives by encouraging creativity, supporting our democracy, promoting cultural values, fostering literacy and lifelong learning. Now they stand on the brink of the information revolution which could offer the people of Britain so much’.

From: A Library Manifesto, issued by the Library Association. 1997

This statement has been edited and developed by Philip Bryant, with the advice of Barry Bloomfield, Graham Jefcoate and Bernard Naylor, incorporating issues from a report of a focussed interview group held at the Isaac Newton Professional Development Centre on 6 April 1995 as part of the FIGIT funded project, and discussion at the seminar held at the British Academy on 8 May 1996 in connection with BLRIC funded project. The views of the members of the two advisory groups have been influential in identifying issues and developing particular emphases.

Although the two studies were funded respectively by the JISC and the BLRIC the details and opinions expressed in this document are the responsibility of the Editor.

© British Library Board, June 1997

i Making the most of our libraries: the report of two studies on retrospective conversion of library catalogues in the United Kingdom, with recommendations for a national strategy is published by the BLRIC as British Library Research and Innovation Report 53. It will also be available from UKOLN’s World Wide Web Server at This statement is at