The intention of this historical survey is to elaborate upon the conspectus experiences of libraries around the world during the last quarter century. The development and use of a formal structure and methodology for better defining and characterizing information resources within individual and "collective collections" has enabled librarians and administrators to be more responsive to the changing information environment and the demands of the digital information explosion. As the number of books, journals, manuscripts, and digitized files has grown, our ability to meaningfully use title-specific and bibliographic level comparisons has become ever more difficult. The need to characterize, compare, and manage information resources at a macro, rather than a micro level has become more and more apparent. And this realization coupled with the experience of librarians has resulted in a tool called CONSPECTUS. Like most good tools and technologies, it is flexible, adaptable, customizable, and easy to use. The process and the resulting information can be utilized in every type of library, across national borders and languages, and with libraries arranged by Dewey Classification, Library of Congress Classification, or Universal Decimal Classification that closely parallels Dewey. It can be useful at the broad discipline level or at the narrowly defined level of a specific subject. It is a tool that is adaptable to specific library needs and projects. By accident, as things happen, I have been near the center of much of the conspectus practice and adaptations for most of conspectus history so let me explain what I see as significant in the development and evolution of this tool. This history serves to illustrate the many ways in which librarians have adapted this basic tool to fit many different local or national agendas and to use aspects that meet their goals while ignoring those aspects that are not useful in their environment or circumstances.
While the term "conspectus" has only been in use by libraries since the mid-1970's, the practice of collection assessment in public libraries in particular goes pack to the 1930's and 1940's in the United States. In the professional library literature, one finds references to many practices that might be included under the term collection assessment. These practices included a wide variety of techniques to ascertain the quality of the collections and the most useful materials to be retained and/or acquired. The practice of examining the particulars of the materials in a library's collection and the techniques employed to do so were termed "collection mapping" or "collection assessment" but did not become a standard practice in the profession until much later.
As information and publishing proliferated, the ability of a librarian to "know" the collection became harder and harder. While one could determine whether a library contained a specific title, it was increasingly hard to determine the depth and breadth of information on a particular subject. Publishers responded to the concerns by librarians for quality materials by creating journals just for the purpose of providing reviews to librarians and reference publications that identified the "best" books for various types of libraries. These journals and "standard lists" aided librarians in identifying appropriate mainstream publications but the unique characteristics, both strengths and weaknesses of collections, were ever harder to define and to communicate to others across time, functions, types of libraries, and languages.
Then in the 1970's when the so called "information explosion" threatened to bury libraries in unreasonable amounts of information and publications, librarians became still more interested in the quality of their collections. The fears of the librarians that the glut of information could not be retained in ordinary libraries without perpetual building projects to create almost unlimited miles of shelving resulted in still further concerns about quality. The quality concerns were not just centered upon the "good things" that a library might have but also began to include concerns about the role of each particular library and the need for a clearly defined mission statement that could take into account the requirements of a particular community of potential clients for the library. The differences between the information needs of university professors and those of ordinary citizens began to be more clearly understood and taken into consideration. In Europe, North America, and elsewhere, librarians began to better understand the need for more discrimination in the selection and retention of materials and in matching potential users with the right type of material.
About the same time, public librarians began to recognize the need to practice "weeding" or "de-selection" on a far more regular and systematic basis. Few libraries could afford to continue to add to their collections without directing more attention to the appropriateness of everything taking space on shelves, in drawers, or in other ways being described, classified, and stored for the "just in case" business of libraries. Gradually, the old library belief that "something is better than nothing" proved to be less true as information began to change quickly and to be obsolete within months or even hours! The accuracy, reliability, and appropriateness of information became a major factor in discussions about quality collections. No longer could all types of libraries afford to allow material that was no longer accurate to sit on a shelf taking space. The space was needed for appropriate material. The practice of de-selection began to be adjusted for not only "condition" but for use, age of information, and client-appropriateness. These factors began to influence what libraries could afford to maintain in active collections. The whole practice of collection management rather than merely collection-building began to take on prominence and concerns with quality rather than just quantity of volumes were addressed in library education and library practice. The indiscriminant "gathering" aspect of librarianship began to be replaced with "collection management" practices and a whole new area of librarianship began to be recognized beyond the subject specialist-the "big picture" began to come into focus.
In the United States, a project initiated by the Research Libraries Group (RLG), entitled the National Shelf List Count, was annually compiling the size of the largest collections in the country by Library of Congress classification area or subject. A handful of visionary librarians, perhaps even rebel librarians, began to question the concept of relying entirely upon the typical American concept that "bigger is better" and suggested that perhaps in addition to the National Shelf List Count, the research libraries should devise another manner by which to describe and characterize their collections by subject. There was at this same time a renewed interest in collaborative or cooperative collection development and the shelf list counts did not really indicate the nature of each collection, but only the size. In the reality of the information explosion, cooperative collection development began to be seen as an important strategy to allow libraries to have access to the materials in collections that complemented rather than duplicated their own. But for cooperative collection development to work, librarians needed to have a much better idea of the scope, emphasis, strengths, and weaknesses of subject collections. The count of the number of volumes did not do an adequate job of indicating these things. In other words, the question began to be one related to quality and not just quantity even for very large research libraries with huge budgets. The need for a better way to ascertain the quality and strengths and weaknesses of smaller and poorer collections became even more evident. While one might assume that significantly larger collections are "better" than smaller ones, even this is not always true. And the more similar in size two collections are, the harder it is to determine how good or appropriate each is if judgment is to be based upon numbers alone.
Our rebel or visionary librarians determined that what was needed was a standardized way to examine and communicate with one another concerning the character of each collection segment without each library having to examine title-by-title, the collections of the others. The result was the conspectus concept that provides a standardized format, methodologies, and codes or indicators to characterize the nature and scope of collections. This tool enables communication and comparisons without the need for title-by-title comparisons. The goal, after all, is not to have identical collections, but collections that are uniquely capable of meeting users' needs while having general strengths or weaknesses that can be understood by librarians, staff members, clientele, and our political and funding bodies.
Webster's Third International Dictionary of the English Language (1967) defines conspectus as: "a survey (as of a comprehensive subject) usually in brief compass or rapid topical summary and often providing an overall view or perspective." (p. 485). Thus the library application of the concept of conspectus was to provide a tool that could provide the macro or broad outline or characterization of a library's collection without the detail bibliographic information of the shelf list count. What the RLG committee determined to do was to examine the collections and make a survey of them using broad areas to define the academic departments or disciplines as conceived in the modern university (circa 1975) and then to identify the Library of Congress classifications that typically contain the information and materials that support each discipline. The structure for this outline was similar to that of classification schemes generally-a hierarchy, with divisions for the discipline level, categories for the next finer level of distinction, and then subjects for the finest level of distinction within each division. The techniques to be used to complete the actual collection information for each line of the conspectus or outline would be those already being used for collection development purposes. These techniques included and still include, both quantitative and qualitative measures.
The RLG organization appointed committees to develop the basic outlines of the divisions, categories, and subject. Currently there are 24 divisions, over 500 categories and approximately 4,000 defined subjects. The RLG project resulted in worksheets for gathering data and call number guides to aid librarians in understanding the usual location or classification for each division, category, and subject. The conspectus structure is not classification or call number based. It is rather based upon subjects with classification or call numbers provided as navigation tools in complex collections with changing classification practices. The RLG Conspectus was developed using the Library of Congress Classification (LC) scheme as a guide because the majority of their members, and most of the largest libraries in the U.S. used LC to organize their collections.
A short time later, a group of visionary librarians in Alaska, most notably Dennis Stephens at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, felt that the same methodology being used for the largest libraries might prove equally useful for libraries with less than adequate information resources and a compiling need to develop information resources in a collaborative manner. This group used the time-honored library funding approach of grant writing to enable them to hire a consultant and conspectus expert, one of the original RLG librarians and a widely recognized proponent of cooperative collection development, Paul Moser. At that time Moser was at Stanford University in California. He worked with the Alaska group and encouraged the formation of a Pacific Northwest project to identify and profile information resources in that region. That grant-funded project resulted in a number of important developments in the conspectus evolution. Because we were interested in smaller libraries-school, public, special, and smaller academic collections-there was a need for a conspectus structure that would parallel as closely as possible the one developed for the research libraries but would use the Dewey Decimal Classification scheme most often used in smaller libraries in the U.S. and elsewhere. Such a structure was developed. Secondly, as technology improved and dreams of automating some of the work of collection assessment became a reality, a database structure was developed to enable a library to manage conspectus data, to store the conspectus structure, and to produce reports in both text and graphic formats.
The third evolutionary development during this period was that of expanding the collection level indicators or shorthand codes libraries used to characterize their collections. The RLG Conspectus used only five levels for collection description. With many smaller collections to be analyzed and compared, it became obvious very quickly that we needed more distinctions between levels. Meanwhile in other areas of the United States, groups of libraries were attempting to develop similar tools and unique codes for describing the collection levels. The Pacific Northwest group decided that comparability was essential and so made the decision to use the RLG codes but to merely expand within the structure of 0-1-2-3-4-5 to include subdivisions as appropriate. The codes were defined as: 0-1a-1b-2a-2b-3a-3b-3c-4-5. This enabled the smallest library to understand their limited collections more clearly and to compare their collections to libraries like themselves or to libraries unlike theirs. Dewey libraries could compare their collections to Harvard's collections on any division or category level despite the differences in classification and size of collections. This commitment to comparability and uniformity was a major step forward for conspectus practice. Gradually, the other collection level codes have disappeared and conspectus or assessment projects have adopted the codes initially developed by the Pacific Northwest library group.
The other major contribution to conspectus practice that occurred at this time was the expansion in professional practice. Suddenly librarians from all types of libraries of all sizes were adapting conspectus practice to their situations and using the recognized techniques to gather data and describe collections. This literal "practice" of conspectus resulted in a wealth of useful information and knowledge about what constitutes effective and efficient conspectus results in particular circumstances. This understanding of how-to-do-it in the real world and the network of collaborative training and communication in the Pacific Northwest provided the basis for continual conspectus evolution and adaptation. Furthermore, from these experiences various editions of a manual for conspectus practice were prepared and published to aid librarians in the design, implementation, and use of conspectus projects and data. The fourth edition of the manual appeared in 1992. (Powell & Bushing).
These five developments-the database structure and product; the Dewey classification option; the use of the existing code or collection level indicators with only internal structural expansion to provide for more distinctions; the development of a cadre of librarians and administrators who had effectively used conspectus for gaining a better understanding of their collections, for goal setting and funding justifications, for staff accountability, and for collaborative collection development projects of all kinds; and the dissemination of practical information about the process and the use of the products, moved conspectus practice forward as a solid and stable tool for libraries in a changing and challenging environment.
Eventually, the copyrighted conspectus structure, database, and related products were moved to WLN (Western Library Network), a very successful regional bibliographic utility, where development, training, and dissemination of information could be managed. Those libraries and librarians, who had initially developed and expanded the use of the conspectus tool, felt that it was essential for conspectus to have a stable form of funding and an identity. Because of the database developments and the ability of WLN to provide expert training and assistance with conspectus, the RLG Conspectus structure was also moved to WLN for administration.
During the next ten years, conspectus practice expanded internationally in a variety of ways with national projects initiated and supported by the national libraries of Australia and New Zealand and with conspectus projects in individual libraries in other countries. In the United States, statewide, university system-wide and consortia projects were completed with individual libraries of all sizes establishing conspectus as the standard for tracking collection goals and achievements. As projects were defined, goals set, and methodologies explored, the demands from users for further and further enhancements to the conspectus database software resulted in increasing options and support from the WLN staff, in particular Sally Loken. A statistical module was developed to enable libraries to track collection size, annual circulation statistics, acquisition expenditures, number of items added and withdrawn annually, and other relevant data by conspectus division, category, and subject. This feature has enabled libraries to realistically track the collection activity and appropriate development and goal attainment by subject specialists and other librarians with collection development and budgetary responsibilities. Now an individual and a library can measure progress towards specific information resource goals by something substantial besides merely using the concept of "staying within the budget allocation" as an indicator of good performance.
The database notes field was expanded from less than 50 characters to unlimited space at any level. Georgetown University Library in Washington, D.C., used this capability to articulate their collection development policy for each division within the conspectus structure. Using a template they developed to outline program levels, language expectations, and faculty research areas, this evolutionary use of the database notes field has become a model for other libraries. Coupled with the innovation of articulating collection policy within the software, the more recent ability to network the conspectus database allows libraries to make this profile information available from any point within their library or on their campus and to even make it available via the web. Librarians also discovered that they wanted to search all of their conspectus note fields by key word and that enhancement has resulted in yet more innovative ideas about conspectus practice and applications.
The 24 original divisions proved not adequate for all of the things creative librarians wanted to do with the wealth of information resulting from using conspectus. The software was again modified to enable libraries to create new interdisciplinary or local/national interest collection profiles without modifying the general conspectus structure and the built-in comparability with other libraries. Libraries can now modify their conspectus project to enable them to extract reports that identify their municipal or nationally focused information across all disciplines and divisions. Librarians also asked to be able to expand areas of the conspectus that do not adequately meet their needs for subject detail or national interest focus in a given area. Examples of such evolutionary conspectus practices are particularly notable in countries outside of the U.S. where the original conspectus structure did not expand any historical and literary subjects to a level appropriate in another country or region of the world. Modifications can be made to accommodate very specialized collections such as the Yellowstone National Park collection at my institution, Montana State University. The additional of local conspectus lines is easily accomplished when a library selects to do so.
Special libraries or libraries with very focused in-depth collections soon found that they wanted to have the ability to share with their peers the special classification schemes or detailed conspectus expansions they developed. Thus the evolution of a medical conspectus division that uses the NLM (National Library of Medicine) classification numbers as guides and a music conspectus that uses expanded subjects for more detailed handling for extensive music collections. RLG libraries in the 1980's wanted to have Women's Studies as a separate division and those worksheets and structure are also available for this often used interdisciplinary focus especially in academic libraries. Some public libraries in the U.S., Canada, and New Zealand wanted to be able to conduct analyses of their fiction collections that could also be compared across libraries. A group of libraries in Illinois developed this tool and it is still used by libraries that arrange their fiction alphabetically by author rather than putting novels and short stories in the literature classification areas. The most recent evolutional development in this regard is the current initiative to development worksheets and structure to more easily enable conspectus use by libraries using UDC.
In addition to the standard codes to characterize the existing collection, the rate of acquisitions, and the collection goal at each level of the hierarchy, a few libraries wanted to also use a conspectus project to identify collection segments and collections that might be priorities for preservation initiatives. This resulted in the development of preservation codes that enable libraries to document, produce reports, and justify preservation initiatives and grant applications with real data and descriptive information and not just generalities and opinions. In the mid-1990's, as the international use of the conspectus was growing, we felt there was a need to redefine and re-conceptualize the use of language codes. With its development within the United States' library community, these codes had a very geocentric orientation that assumed English as the primary language. The codes were redefined and explained to reflect our more global view of information resources with the primary language collections to be defined by a particular library. The codes also enable libraries to define two official languages when appropriate in dual language countries such as Canada and New Zealand.
In 1997, after four editions of The WLN Conspectus Manual, a new handbook for using the conspectus methodology and software was published by WLN. The manual, Using the Conspectus Method: A Collection Assessment Handbook, is used in libraries throughout the world and has proven useful to librarians for broad collection development issues as well as for specific conspectus applications. Just prior to the publication of the manual, an international self-appointed committee of conspectus-knowledgeable librarians worked together to revise the articulation of the collection codes to more accurately reflect our changing information environment and our continued understanding of issues to be clarified in conspectus practice. The handbook includes these definitions. The meaning and scope of each collection level indicator has not changed. What has changed and been more clearly articulated is what each now means in terms of typical information resources in a global information environment.
In 1999 when WLN became a part of OCLC, conspectus practice and development took another step in its evolutionary development. One of the latest developments in conspectus practice is the Automated Collection Assessment and Analysis Service (ACAS) available through OCLC/WLN to provide completely automated collection analysis through the use of MARC records. This new tool has many sophisticated functions and results in the production of collection profile information for a single library or a group of libraries. The results are produced on CD and enable a library to network the information so that all appropriate staff can access the data whenever it is needed and to print reports, in text and graphic formats that profile a library's collection in more detailed than ever before possible. One can easily see the relationship of divisions, categories and subjects in terms of size and median age. One can visualize basic collection characteristics at the beginning of a conspectus project and not only after hours of work to identify the necessary data parts and pieces.
Before concluding, let me share with you a couple of the conspectus projects that for me represent the ability of the concept and the software to be adapted by libraries to meet specific project and organizational goals and agenda. One does not begin with the goal of doing a conspectus project. Rather, one begins with a goal that requires knowing about and profiling in some manner a segment of or the entirety of the information resources in a library or a group of libraries. From that goal one can apply the tool of conspectus to aid in attaining the knowledge to achieve whatever the goal is at a particular time and place
- Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and U.S.A.: The user demands on the public libraries on this historic colonial eastern peninsula had changed radically in recent years. As the Cape became a highly sought after retirement locale for east coast professionals, the libraries were no longer existing in a sleepy historic region from September until June and then dealing with the summer tourist population who demanded mountains of recreational reading to fill their vacation and holiday time at the beach. With the increase in retirement population and the high educational and career experiences of these individuals, the libraries were being asked to supply information that these new clients had always received from large urban public libraries, or from academic and special libraries associated with former employers. Together the libraries on the Cape wanted to find a more cost effective way to change the character of their collections and at the same time to preserve their heritage and their very unique whaling documents. They recognized the need to get additional funding to facilitate cooperative efforts in these areas. They saw the conspectus as a means to document their needs and to design collaborative projects for resource sharing and historic preservation. They were very successful given the information environment and the conspectus tools in the late 1980's.
- Greece: Just two years ago a group of academic libraries in Greece decided that the conspectus might be able to help them to identify scientific and technical serial holdings in member libraries in an effort to facilitate more cost effective information sharing for researchers and to justify additional funding to enable increased access to such information. They correctly believed that being able to supply specific data that illustrated the true nature of the situation would enable them to better lobby on behalf of libraries and to more responsibly use the limited funds available. After researching the library literature and trying to identify methodologies that might aid them in this endeavor, they conceived the idea of using the conspectus structure and methodology to assess serial holdings in a small number of scientific and technical areas including computer science, chemistry and physics. While the conspectus had never been used in quite this manner before, they proposed and designed the project, and then used the software, conspectus structure, and general methodologies to accomplish their goals. The results are helping to change the way that the Greek universities do their information resource business.
- Wellington, New Zealand: The National Library of New Zealand began a national conspectus project in the mid-1990's and has coordinated the development of collection data for libraries across the country as well as doing in-depth analysis of their own collections. The results of their conspectus efforts included a more realistic definition of their own collections as well as a agreement about some defined responsibilities for subject collections of depth so that the burden of acquiring, warehousing, and managing specialized information is more purposefully shared by many. Duplicative efforts have been reduced and collections appropriately streamlined.
This overview of how the conspectus was conceived, how it has developed, and how it has been adapted and practiced is provides an essential understanding of the capabilities of the basic tool. As times change and the needs of libraries change, the conspectus has changed with them. The basic structure and the information required to characterize a collection have remained constant but the manner in which we acquire the information, the uses to which we put the information, and the ways in which we represent the information have all been adapted for use in particular circumstances and to meet particular goals. While the large cooperative projects are many and often more visible than the local library efforts, it is at the local level, in every type and size of library, that the conspectus structure and results have had the most significant impact on informing collection management and justifying funding and other initiatives. In every instance, librarians learn far more about the character of their collections than they ever knew before. They are better collection managers, better reference librarians, better catalogers, and administrators because of what they learn through conspectus. We may be experts and we may be well regarded in our own organizations, but our opinions seldom can provide the forcefulness that data, graphs, comparisons, and conspectus reports and insights can provide. Conspectus practice is alive and thriving because it is a tool that is adaptable to our specific goals. It is like a tool made of clay; we can keep reforming it to take the shape that is most pleasing to us at any given time and place.
As with all tools, it is to be expected that it will need to be adapted for different purposes. That is as it should be. It is not a sacred thing. It is merely a tool, developed by librarians and for librarians. The basic tool is very useful. How you use it and how extensively you use it, is up to you. The essential questions are: What is the goal? Can this tool be adapted to help you reach that goal? Are there other ways to achieve your goal? How do the two compare? Can the conspectus structure and software provide the framework upon which you might develop a more comprehensive and better-articulated understanding of your collections, individually and collectively? And might it serve you well in the broader international information environment, because like the MARC record, it is increasingly the standard for comparison of collections and the "language" used to characterize the scope, depth, breadth, and appropriateness of collections.
I will provide more detail regarding the practical applications of methodologies in the workshop later today but now I will be happy to take questions and to facilitate discussion. I apologize for not speaking your language. We Americans are rich in some ways but we are extremely poor in others-like the ability to speak in other important and beautiful languages.
Sources & Selected Additional Resources on Conspectus
American Library Association. Association for Library Collections and Technical Services. Collection Management and Development Guide Series.
Bushing, M. (1995, Winter). The library's product and excellence. Library Trends, 43, 384-400.
Bushing, M. (1992). The conspectus: Possible process and useful product for the ordinary library. In R.J. Wood & K. Strauch Collection assessment: A look at the RLG Conspectus, (pp.81 - 95). The Acquisitions Librarian, 7. New York: Haworth
Bushing, M., Burns, D. & Powell, N. (1997). Using the Conspectus Method: A Collection Assessment Handbook. Lacey, Washington: WLN.
Dorst, T. J. (1994). Employing collection management as an institutional change agent (at the Illinois State Library). In G. N. Olson & B. McFadden Allen (Eds.). Cooperative collection management: The conspectus approach. [Special Issue]. Collection Building, 13(2-3), 91-6.
Ferguson, A. W. (1994). The Conspectus as an on-site training tool. In M. A. Johnson & S. S. Intner (Eds.). Recruiting, educating, and training librarians for collection development. (New Directions in Information Management, No. 33). Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press.
Hawks, C. P. (1992). In support of collection assessment: The role of automation in the acquisitions and serials departments. (Presented at a conference at the University of Oklahoma, February 1992). Journal of Library Administration, 17(2), 13-30.
Jakimow, R. (1996, June). Model for the recording of preservation and conservation activity (The Australian Conspectus, Information Sheet no. 9). Canberra, AU: National Library of Australia, DNC Office.
Powell, N. (1994). Using the WLN conspectus in a non-automated environment. Collection Building, 13(2-3), 69-82.
Powell, N. & Bushing, M. (1992). WLN Collection Assessment Manual (4th edition). Lacey, Washington: WLN.
Reed-Scott, J. (1988). NCIP manual: Manual for the North American inventory of research library colletions (Rev. ed.). Washington, DC: Association of Research Libraries, Office of Management Services.
Wood, R. J. (1996). The conspectus: A collection analysis an development success. Library Acquisitions: Practice & Theory, 20(4), 429-453.
Webster's Third New International Dictionary of the English Language. (1967). Springfield, Massachusetts: C. & G. Merriam Company.
WLN Participant. Lacey, Washington: WLN. Issues from 1990, volume 10 through 1998, volume 17.