Behind the scenes Collections Long read

Digitising and Cataloguing the Special Collections

Posted on behalf of Ourania Karapasia, Metadata Assistant (Imaging).

A prime example of neo-Gothic architecture and one of the most visited attractions in Manchester, The John Rylands Library holds one of the finest collections of rare books, manuscripts and archives in the world. Our Special Collections are our greatest strength.

Since the time of its foundation, the Library has been a pioneer in embracing technology: Basil Champneys’s building generated its own electricity; it also featured an in-house photography studio, installed by the Library’s Governors in 1910, which signalled the launch of the Imaging Service in order to support scholarship especially at a distance.

An aeon later, the fast paced digital age is synonymous with an ever-growing expectation for a broad range of material to be digitised and made available online. Responding to this demand, the Library initiated an ambitious digitisation programme to inspire and sustain research of our Special Collections. More specifically, during the last decade or so, the team formerly known as Heritage Imaging (HIT) has progressively maintained one of our most important ‘missions’ as an academic library and world-leading research resource: the creation and management of digital content of our Special Collections in order to support teaching, research, and public access.

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A large number of items are already available in the Manchester Digital Collections. From 2008 onwards, through collaborations and partnerships, many small and large-scale digitisation projects have been completed, including the JISC-sponsored Middle English manuscripts project and the AHRC-funded the Genizah project; the Dante project funded by the British Academy; and a Shahnama project funded by The Islamic Manuscript Association. More recent material digitised includes:

  • A selection of Japanese Maps done in partnership with the School of Arts Languages and Cultures (SALC), the Japan Foundation and The Great Britain Sasakawa Foundation.
  • Several digitisation projects of material from the Christian Brethren Archive have been made possible with the support of a charitable trust.
  • In partnership with SALC, and the support of the Delia Derbyshire Estate, the digitisation of a series of items related to the music and sounds created by Delia Derbyshire.
  • In partnership with the School of Social Sciences’ Sociology department, the digitisation of a unique collection of documents reflecting the events and aftermath of the Peterloo Massacre.
  • In partnership with the School of Environment, Education and Development, the digitisation of a unique collection of historic documents encompassing original campus maps, development site plans, architectural drawings and historic student guides.
  • A substantial project on Hebrew Manuscripts funded by The John Rylands Research Institute and a private foundation.
  • Almost all of the Mary Hamilton Papers.
  • A selection of Early Methodist Conversion Testimonies 1738-1828.

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Nonetheless, making Special Collections available to researchers and the wider public goes beyond just digitisation. “Thorough cataloguing, consistent metadata schemas, and effective search tools, as well as outreach to promote the availability of collections online, are all vital in aiding resource discovery.” [1] However, even the most methodical cataloguers are more often than not faced with the reality of falling behind when it comes to workload. An increase in demand for cataloguing tasks or a reduction in resources to meet the demand, sometimes a combination of both, are factors responsible for an accumulation of jobs not completed or materials not processed that are yet to be dealt with. This is what is commonly known as backlog. Backlogs found in many libraries often consist of thousands of items that have been awaiting cataloguing for years. “Backlogs are left as backlogs because in some cases they lack the same urgency as other library tasks.” [2]

We were not dissimilar to other libraries that face this challenge. Perhaps the only difference is that our backlog was a digital one. Dating back to 2008, it was created by our team’s dual function: on the one hand there were the ‘big’ cataloguing projects that called for attention and compliance with strict deadlines. On the other, there was the pledge of the team to provide an imaging service to the University’s staff and the wider public. Managing the crucially important projects alongside the ever-increasing demand for images originating from a diverse range of customers requiring our services proved to be the underpinning reason behind the formation of our backlog.

In the last few years there has been a concerted effort to address and eradicate this backlog of inaccessible images. In my next post I will present the methodology of dealing with our legacy backlog and measures developed to prevent the re-occurrence of a similar situation in the future.

In the meantime, let me take this opportunity to wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Ourania Karapasia

[1] Kyle, R. 2015 Making Archival & Special Collections More Accessible report – 5 Essential takeaways. Available on:

Making Archival & Special Collections More Accessible report – 5 Essential takeaways

[2] Asaolu, Aderonke Olufunke and Idiegbeyan-Ose, Jerome (2014). Handling Issues of Backlog: The Covenant University Library experience. International Journal Lib. Int. Sci., 6 (1)

All images unless otherwise stated are copyright of the University of Manchester and can be used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Non Commercial-Share Alike Licence. With thanks to the Imaging Team.

1 comment on “Digitising and Cataloguing the Special Collections

  1. Pingback: Digitising and cataloguing the Special Collections: Marking the ‘End of an Era’, making headway in bringing the digital backlog and cataloguing practice under control | John Rylands Library Special Collections Blog

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