Everything you ever wanted to know about collections audit (but were afraid to ask)


Once upon a time, there was a soldier called Major MacLachlan. One of his most treasured possessions was a collection of ancient poetry. He inscribed his name carefully in each volume, and after his soldiering days were done, he would take a volume from the shelf some evenings and leaf through it; now and then, his gaze would stray through the window, and his dreams of past campaigns would mix with the landscapes of the poems.

When a certain group of scholars learned of this collection, they became excited – so rare and so fine were the poems! After much entreaty, the Major very reluctantly lent his collection to Mr Mackintosh, who looked after the scholars’ library.

But soon after Mr Mackintosh took possession, the Major died, and shortly after, so did Mr Mackintosh. Before long, even poor Mr Smith, who had translated the poems, had joined them.

For five long years the Major’s niece and heir, Mrs Marshall, made vigorous efforts to recover the collection, referring to a letter from the scholars in which they had promised to return the books to the Major. But the scholars argued that the letter was not genuine, and Mrs Marshall never got the poems. What the scholars didn’t say, is that they had already lent one of the books to an antiquarian, Mr Thomson, and that he had not returned it.

The scholars decided it was time to entrust the care of their collection to a bigger organisation, the Advocates’ Library in Edinburgh; since then, it has been studied and looked after to the best library standards of the day. Even this, though, did not prevent a further mishap: some time before the Great War, a second item, as an old catalogue sadly records, ‘somehow fell out of its place in the collection, and is at present temporarily amissing’.

Another hundred years passed, during which time the Advocates’ Library gave its historic collections to found the National Library of Scotland. Like a hedge of thorns, electronic doors and strongrooms have since sprung up to guard the collections, and a host of procedures have been introduced to keep track of where everything is. Material is circulated and exhibited under much more strictly controlled conditions now, but in vastly greater quantities: each month, the movements of around five thousand items are electronically tracked around the storage areas and reading rooms, and similar quantities are tracked using paper systems which record their arrival at each stage of their journey. I tell the sad story above, not because it is (or ever was) a common occurrence, but because it shows what can happen when books, with their unnerving resemblance to needles, go missing amongst monstrously large collections of haystacks, without a pocketful of breadcrumbs or a ball of thread to guide them home.

So do our modern day, watertight systems of controlled circulation remove the risk of items going astray? And can the circulation process itself act as a rolling check, whereby readers present a continual stream of requests, allowing us to identify and fetch items for them, and along the way to become aware of any missing items?

The answer to these questions is yes, to some extent, since any requests which cannot be fulfilled are funnelled into our missing item identification procedure and reported to collections managers for follow-up.

However, we also know that some books, like people, circulate better than others. Some are highly sought after, whereas others, through no fault of their own, arouse little curiosity. This means that some items are never checked through the circulation process: they could go missing and we might never know.

To redress the balance, the National Library of Scotland has a programme of Collections Audit to gauge the health of all its stock, irrespective of the level of current demand. Each year, collection managers nominate collection areas to be checked, item by item, against shelf-lists, and the results of these checks are reviewed and acted upon. Furthermore, data is collated from other planned work which ‘indirectly’ produces auditable information, such as stock moves and digitization.

In addition to the comparatively rare occasions when items are found to be missing from their correct locations, there are areas where, in the transition from printed to electronic cataloguing systems, some books have been omitted from the electronic catalogues. The audit programme is identifying areas where this problem is particularly widespread, and hence is uncovering a small amount of material which has become buried by the sands of time. In many cases, the ‘found’ material is unremarkable; but in the past month, several items have been turned up that are unique in British libraries. In a time of diminished purchase budgets, reclaiming even small numbers of books makes a worthwhile contribution to the work of disclosing our hidden collections.

'Stowaway' items rediscovered by collection audit!
‘Stowaway’ items rediscovered by collection audit!