Related product Collections Management

Planning Surveys and Assessments — Interview with Ann Lindsey

An Interview with Ann Lindsey, Head of Conservation at the University of Chicago Library

Mary Burns, Special Collections Catalog Librarian at Northern Illinois University

For 2019-2020, the CARLI Preservation Committee is sharing a series of interviews with Preservation Managers, Conservators, and other library specialists who graciously described their experiences on preservation and conservation topics of interest to CARLI libraries. This month, Mary Burns, Special Collections Catalog Librarian at Northern Illinois University, asked Ann Lindsey, Head of Conservation at the University of Chicago Library, to share her knowledge and experience about planning surveys and assessments.

Interview with Ann Lindsey on Planning Surveys and Assessments:

Thank you for contributing to the Preservation Committee's annual project, Ann. What is the Preservation role you play in your institution?

I am the Head of Conservation. In addition to the conservation treatment of the Library’s paper based materials, we participate in numerous preservation activities such as environmental monitoring, pest monitoring, disaster planning and response, and assessment.

Can you give us a quick summary of your planning survey or assessment project?

We have a six-week preservation internship every summer, the Mary and Samuel Somit Preservation Internship. It is intended for students or recent graduates of a library training program who would like to pursue preservation in their careers. We decided that the 2016 internship would be a condition survey on a large portion of our Special Collections Research Center. We planned and executed a statistically sound random sample survey. We surveyed 300 randomly chosen items, and developed a questionnaire with over 40 questions for each item. We then ranked each on a 5 point scale for condition. 

Can planning surveys and assessment of collections result in cost savings for a library?

Absolutely! A condition survey can help to focus on the greatest needs of the collection, and reduce the sometimes scattershot approach to conservation treatment. A building assessment can pinpoint problems that regular maintenance can address before it spirals into a larger and more expensive project. One example would be finding evidence of leaks in a building assessment. Perhaps a case could be made to find the source and fix them. Or you might be able to move a known problem up on a priority list.  It takes not only time, but expertise to conduct a statistically sound survey or building assessment, but the costs can be well worth the effort. 

What were the goals of your project?

We wanted to get hard data so that we had a better understanding of the condition of a large portion of our Special Collections. We could also use the data for fundraising for more conservation staff. In these competitive times, administrators and budget managers need specific data. It might be a commonly held belief that your collection is in dire need, but without numbers, your needs can go unmet. To be able to say that a certain percentage of your collection is in poor condition according to your well defined and well supported data makes for a much stronger argument for staff, supplies, or equipment.

Do you feel like you met your goals?

I do feel like we met our goals. We learned quite a bit about the types of materials in our collection as well as the condition of the items. We have used this to target our conservation efforts more effectively. Fundraising is a more tenuous endeavor. Even if it hasn’t been immediately productive, it has gotten our department noticed. We are able to say with a fair amount of certainty what level of work is needed, and we know that the work will be multi-generational. There is more work than we can ever do in my lifetime, but that is something every conservator learns to accept. We also know that with the data acquired in our survey, we can make intelligent decisions.

How much staff time did your project require?

As I mentioned we had a six-week internship. After our intern got up to speed on statistics, he designed the survey tool. That took about two weeks. It takes two people to effectively do a survey. Technically, it could be done with one person, but it ends up being quicker if one person is doing the observation and one person is documenting the response. It took two of us three weeks to do the survey. A less intensive survey with fewer questions would undoubtedly be quicker. It then took about a week to analyze the results and write a report. So, all told it was about nine weeks of work.

What level of expertise do you feel like your project required?

This project required a fair amount of expertise both in statistics as well as a thorough understanding of the material, in our case, book structure and history of the book. You must strictly adhere to the methodology in order to ensure accurate results.

Were there any surprises? if so, how did you deal with them?

I’ve done many surveys, but looking back, the biggest surprise is fatigue. Everyone gets tired, but after hours of doing a survey, you get decision fatigue, and it affects your ability to make good decisions. I usually only expect do to do the surveying for half days at the most. This can make scheduling difficult, but it’s best to avoid skewing the results.

What would you do differently if you could?

I would have expanded the survey to encompass our entire Special Collections. But that would have taken much, much longer. Ultimately, I was very happy with the results.

Do you have any recommendations or suggestions on how others might learn more or keep up-to-date on this topic?

There are many resources both in print and online. A couple of good resources are: 

  • Library Collection Assessment through Statistical Sampling, Brian Baird, 2004.
  • Preservation in Libraries : Principles, Strategies, and Practices for Librarians, Ross Harvey, 1993.
  • “The Yale Survey: A Large-Scale Study of Book Deterioration in the Yale University Library, “Walker, Greenfield, Fox, and Simonoff, from College and Research Libraries, March 1985, pp. 111-132.

CARLI members,

If you or your institution would like to share preservation or conservation knowledge or experiences you've had on one of the remaining topics below, it's not too late to volunteer to be interviewed:

  • Creating or implementing a long-range preservation/conservation plan
  • Preservation of digital collections
  • Emergency response 
  • A program for environmental controls
  • A program for conservation treatment
  • Preservation of archival materials
  •  Improvements to reduce exposure to light
  • Collections security
  • Integrated pest management

Please contact the CARLI Preservation Committee at  by November 1 with your interest.  

Return to Preservation Interviews: Learning from our Collective Experiences, the homepage of the Preservation Committee's 2019-2020 Annual Project.