Collection management policy: Special collections

Mission: the Bodleian Libraries seek to acquire, preserve and make accessible special books, manuscripts and other materials for the benefit of teaching, scholarship and society

1. Terms of Reference

This document provides an overview of the basic principles and procedures governing the management of special collections within the Bodleian Libraries and is supported by an evolving suite of more detailed policy documents. The policy should be read in conjunction with the Libraries’ overall Collection Management Policy and may be amended and revised from time to time.

2. Overview

The Bodleian Libraries’ special collections have been developed from the late sixteenth-century, pre-dating the establishment of the British Library by over 150 years. Currently measuring some 54, 000 linear metres, these internationally significant materials are made accessible to academics, students and other researchers, both in reading rooms and increasingly through digital technology. For the wider benefit of the public, they are shared through exhibitions, publications, events and digital initiatives.

The collections form one of the world’s most important coherent bodies of documentary heritage and include items inscribed on the Unesco Memory of the World register. In addition to the written word, the collections include outstanding holdings of art, photography and a significant quantity of objects. The collections are recognised in Arts Council England’s Designation Scheme which ‘identifies the pre-eminent collections of national and international importance held in England's non-national museums, Libraries and archives, based on their quality and significance’.

Some categories of special collections material include legal deposit material (eg maps, music and rare books) but most is acquired through bequest, donation, purchase and allocation-in-lieu of death duties (AIL, administered by Arts Council England). Occasionally, material is taken on loan (or ‘Deposit’). Special collections material is regularly lent to recognised institutions for the purpose of public exhibitions.

3. Governance

The Department of Special Collections is led by the Keeper of Special Collections who reports up through the Deputy Librarian, Bodley’s Librarian, and ultimately the Curators of the University Libraries. In addition to the other sections (which are determined by format) the Keeper has general responsibility for the management of the University Archives but in recognition of the latter’s role in support of the University administration reports to a University Archives Committee drawn from the wider university. The Libraries’ public right to receive special collections allocated under the AIL scheme is regularly tested by The National Archives latterly under its Inspection and Approval scheme and henceforth though its Archives Accreditation Scheme: http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/archives-sector/accreditation.htm

4.  Staff and Resources

The Department of Special Collections is allocated an annual PRAC-funded budget in support of its staff and non-staff activities, but increasingly relies upon a variety of external sources to develop and manage the collections and to make them accessible. Adequate permanent resources for the management of special collections, including staffing, will form part of the organisational health criteria assessed by the National Archives in its accreditation scheme and the Libraries seek to achieve an appropriate complement of staff across the department.

5. Scope

The Department of Special Collections develops, administers and makes accessible materials of widely differing form and content. Some formats are consistent across sections and may require shared specialist management, as in the case of born-digital archives (including email, word-processing documents and websites). The Scope of collections is explained in further detail in the Special Collections Collection Development Policy (currently in draft), but can be summarised:

  • University Archives:  the university archives contains the administrative records of the University itself.  They date from 1214 to the present. 
  • Western Manuscripts: western manuscripts comprise archives and manuscripts in Western European languages. The Bodleian Library’s western manuscripts collections range from classical papyri and over 10, 000 medieval illuminated books to modern political, literary and scientific archives in paper and digital form.
  • Rare Books: printed material in any Western language, on any subject, from the emergence of printing in Germany in the mid- 15th century to 1900, with some post-1900 items deemed appropriate for special treatment, e.g. fine press editions, copy-specific editions, and modern named collections considered of particular merit. Ephemera is also collected. There is an ongoing programme of internal transfer of post-1900 materials held in the Libraries’ general printed collection for reasons of value, rarity or conservation need.
  • Oriental:  Oriental special collections comprise manuscripts, rare books and archives in Near and Middle Eastern, Asian and Far Eastern languages. The Bodleian Library’s Oriental Manuscripts collections range from Egyptian papyri and medieval illuminated books to modern archives.
  • Maps: all cartographic materials, from medieval manuscripts to modern digital maps are treated by the Library as ‘special’ by virtue of their format and the specialist knowledge required for their curation.
  • Music:  all music is treated by the Library as ‘special’ by virtue of its format and the specialist knowledge required for its curation and includes post-medieval music scores (manuscript and printed), some archival collections pertaining to music, recordings and concert programmes and named collections of printed materials.

6. Extent and Storage

The Libraries house 54, 000 linear metres of special collections in a variety of locations, including some site Libraries, but have been gradually consolidated in order to achieve optimum security, environment, and appropriate levels of accessibility.

From late 2014 the majority of special collections material will be housed between the Book Storage Facility and the Weston Library, both of which conform to the highest standards of modern storage for Special Collections. Policies exist for determining future locations of material and very detailed statistics are maintained relating to current and proposed locations.

The Libraries’ rapidly developing holdings of digital collections, whilst usually forming an integral part of paper collections, require different forms of management and are stored and managed by the BEAM (Bodleian Electronic Archives and Manuscripts) service.

7. Collection Development

The Libraries, through the Keeper, seek to develop their holdings of special collections through a variety of means and according to different criteria as outlined in its Collection Development Policy. The chief aims are the support of research and learning within and beyond the University of Oxford and the preservation of documentary heritage for the wider benefit of society.

No materials budget is allocated for the purchase of special collections. Acquisitions are made through gift, bequest, purchase, allocation-in-lieu of inheritance tax (AIL) or purchase. Gifts are governed by a donor agreement in the case of major collections and by a small gifts form or exchange of letters in the case of smaller collections. Purchases are made from limited restricted trust funds and through approaches to individuals and funding bodies. Significant purchases are dependent upon major campaigns of external fundraising. In rare circumstances, collections are taken on loan (or ‘deposit’), but usually only if there is a strong likelihood that they will come to the Libraries on a permanent basis. An exception to this is the provision the Libraries may make from time to time to house collections on behalf of Oxford Colleges.

8. Accessioning

Accessioning signifies the general acceptance of collections into the Libraries’ holdings but not necessarily on a permanent basis (see 9 below). Accessioning varies according to the management requirements of diverse formats of material, which may range from a single printed book to an archive comprising 10, 000 boxes, but all material is appropriately recorded in ledgers or on a collection management database and stored before being fully accessioned  through cataloguing.

9. Disposal policies

The Bodleian Libraries retain the right to weed, return, transfer or dispose of unwanted non-legal deposit material and would normally identify such material in the process of accessioning or cataloguing in the case of large collections which are impossible to appraise fully in advance of their physical arrival. This material would generally include categories such as non copy-specific texts readily available elsewhere including off-prints, publications, un-annotated proofs, mimeographed, photocopied or otherwise duplicated typescripts, facsimiles of archival material, duplicate books, maps and musical scores. Such material will be retained where it adds to the intellectual coherence or integrity of any collection of which it forms a part, or where it has a significant cultural value in its own right. The Libraries retain the right in exceptional circumstances to de-accession and transfer material when it can be more suitably used and accommodated elsewhere (for example diocesan records to local authorities).

10. Cataloguing

Since the foundation of the Bodleian, the Libraries have undertaken numerous cataloguing initiatives and many historic catalogues still serve an important function in providing access to library collections. Several different approaches are taken to current cataloguing, depending upon format and availability of funds, but in each case the approach conforms to recognised standards such as RDA, DCRM(B) and local OxCat rules in the case of printed materials and ISAD-G in the case of manuscripts. Current cataloguing initiatives aim to make information relating to collections available online and, where resources allow, are supplemented by campaigns to retrospectively convert earlier manual finding aids to searchable online catalogues.

11. Collection Care

Conservation and care of special collections is achieved with the support of the Libraries’ Conservation and Collection Care department (C&CC). Highly technical work may be undertaken on certain classes of manuscript or printed books, often facilitated by external grants. Key elements relating to general practice are:

  • Housing of collections: in the case of archival collections which largely comprise loose paper, boxing is a pre-requisite for appropriate storage, handling and fetching. In the case of single items, boxing protects and facilitates access and security. Other forms of housing, such as foldering are determined on a case by case basis.
  • Environment: all areas housing special collections are monitored and maintained to provide acceptable conditions under the appropriate national standard.
  • Emergency Response procedures: protocols exist to respond to emergency situations affecting special collections and these are kept under review.
  • Loans: loans to other institutions follow established protocols. Loans between British institutions or involving private lenders (including deposited collections) may be covered by Government indemnity.
  • Born digital materials: matters relating to the preservation of born-digital materials are covered by the Libraries' Digital Preservation Policy.

12. Access

In keeping with the vision of its founder, Sir Thomas Bodley, the Libraries’ aim to enable the widest possible use of its special collections by students, scholars and other researchers able to present a reasonable case for access, and to do so within a framework of regulations designed to preserve and protect rare, valuable and delicate materials. In addition, readers are required to abide by legislation pertinent to the use of special collections, including Data Protection, Freedom of Information and Copyright.


Dr Christopher Fletcher
Keeper of Special Collections
18 May 2015

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