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Mellon Grant Will Enable U.Va. Library To Develop A Plan For Preserving Its Millions Of Manuscripts And Archives

April 4, 2003-- The ledgers and papers in the old metal filing cabinets contain valuable records about 19th century Richmond, the Civil War and industrial slavery. When the University of Virginia Library begins a comprehensive survey of its vast manuscript and archive holdings this spring, the donated documents will probably be rated “high” for “work needed” to preserve them.

One of the largest special collections libraries in the country, with unrivalled resources in American history and literature, the library has received a $265,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to develop and test a plan for research libraries to prioritize the preservation and processing needs of their ever-growing collections of manuscript material.

As teams of trained evaluators survey the approximately 15 million manuscript items in the library’s special collections, they will rank each set of materials for its research value, ease of physical access and on-line descriptive access, and physical condition, said Michael Plunkett, director of the library’s special collections department. The project will list cataloging and preservation priorities and possibilities for more fully describing the material and providing images and texts on-line.

With the help of faculty consultants, the library also will take into account new trends and needs in scholarship. For example, African-American history is a growing area of research that will rate a high priority for easy access to documents by students and researchers.

The survey will produce “a sophisticated data base that provides an overall assessment of exactly where we stand,” Plunkett said. The two-year project will be completed some time after the department moves into a new, state-of-the-art facility, the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, scheduled to open in the fall of 2004. It will also enable the library to plan cooperative preservation efforts with the Library of Virginia and Virginia Historical Society, which has a similar Mellon grant to test a preservation plan for institutions its size.

“Any collections received in the last 30 years or so are well described and preserved,” Plunkett said. But “fifty years ago our predecessors had different methods for preserving.” Today many older collections may have items such as news clippings and letters that should be photocopied, or containers that need to be replaced.

“There is a lot of good old-fashioned hard work that needs to be done,” said Edward Gaynor, head of special collections’ technical services and the survey project. “A person has to look at each collection and make decisions.”

Over the next two years a project team of two librarians and eight student assistants will work with special collections staff to complete the survey. Larger collections that require detailed planning and substantial work will be earmarked for seeking special grant support.

Many research libraries have struggled with strategies to determine preservation priorities and funding needs, Gaynor said. The methodology his team will use was initially developed by historical societies but hasn’t been evaluated for use by a large research library. A good plan has to be both systematic and flexible, he said, and must meet the needs of everyone from visiting scholars to undergraduate researchers. “And new material is coming in all the time.”

Contact: Charlotte Morford Scott, (434 )924-4254

FOR ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: Contact the Office of University Relations at (434) 924-7116. Television reporters should contact the TV News Office at (434) 924-7550.

SOURCE: U.Va. News Services

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