The foreign dissertation collection at the Center has been less a "hidden collection" than a "forgotten collection." Uncataloged by early policy, the collection grew over the years to its present size of nearly 800,000 dissertations.
Formed by a major gift from the Library of Congress of more than 200,000 pre-1940 foreign university dissertations, deposits from member libraries, and active exchange or depository agreements with nearly 100 universities, primarily in Western Europe, the collection was never placed under bibliographic control.
The decision not to catalog the dissertations was based on the assumption that depositing libraries would know of the materials they were depositing and that the Center's member libraries also would know of the extensive dissertation collection. Over time, however, institutional memories dimmed. Some members simply forgot about the collection, and without materials identified through a catalog, little use was made of the dissertation collection.
In 2002, a benchmark year, use of the dissertation collection was less than two percent of CRL's total collection circulation. From time to time Center members urged that the collection be placed under bibliographic control, but those recommendations were not acted upon. In 2001, while interim president of the Center, I appointed a Collection Assessment Task Force, chaired by the late Ross Atkinson of Cornell, with members Randall Barry (Library of Congress), Judith Nadler (University of Chicago), Edward Shreeves (University of Iowa), Stephen Wiberley (University of Illinois at Chicago), Melissa Trevvett (CRL), and myself.
With generous support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation, the task force worked for nearly a year to find ways to increase the utility and use of the Center's holdings. The Task Force recognized the importance and uniqueness of the foreign dissertation collection. Using OCLC records and sampling techniques it found that 81 percent of the titles in the collection were held by three or fewer libraries.
A major recommendation, and a unanimous one, was that the international dissertation collection be cataloged. The Center, under the direction of Bernard Reilly, did not ignore that recommendation, but instead acted upon it. The cataloging project now is complete. Bibliographic records go into OCLC WorldCat and records are added to the ProQuest dissertations database.
New technologies have enabled the digitization of dissertations to provide electronic access on demand. The Center has been able to ensure the preservation of this major scholarly collection while also making the research reported in the dissertations available to users. Use now is over six percent of the Center's annual circulation. The Center's foreign dissertations collection is a collection of world wide importance. Comprised of rarely held and rarely used materials—the original purpose of the Center—the dissertations now are now easily accessible to the library and scholarly community. The Center is to be congratulated on its accomplishment and contributions.