Guidelines on the Selection and Transfer of Materials from General Collections to Special Collections

Fourth edition

Approved by the ACRL Board of Directors, June 25, 2016

1.0 Introduction to the Guidelines

Many libraries intentionally acquire “special collections” -- materials characterized by their artifactual or monetary value, physical format, uniqueness or rarity, and/or an institutional commitment to long-term preservation and access. Most if not all libraries, however, have materials that, with time and changing circumstances, become scarce and may gain cultural, historical, and/or significant monetary value. Librarians have a responsibility to identify the rare and valuable materials held in their general and open-stack collections and to arrange for the physical transfer of these materials to a more appropriate setting. For many libraries, the preferred transfer location is the special collections unit.

Some libraries have alternatives to the special collections unit for providing secure, environmentally-sound storage and appropriately supervised use of rare and valuable materials. Policy and other considerations for making effective use of alternative spaces are addressed in Section 5.0: Options Other Than Transfer to Special Collections.

2.0 The Transfer Policy

Selection criteria and transfer policies vary from institution to institution and depend on the nature, strength, and use of general and special collections; staffing; and the physical setting. These guidelines are intended for use by a range of library types and sizes, provide an overview of the considerations regarding selection criteria, and recommend procedures for an effective transfer policy.

A successful transfer policy relies on cooperation and coordination at every level of the library organization. In developing the transfer policy, it is essential to obtain the support and approval of the library's senior administration. The transfer policy statement should align with the library's mission and philosophical framework, provide protective status to transfer candidates, and document the recommended procedures.

The transfer policy should be written by those who are administratively responsible for the program and should receive functional support from appropriate units within the library, including special collections, collection development, preservation, and cataloging.

The transfer policy should:

  • Articulate the library's definition of and policy toward transfer candidates
  • Justify the measures required to protect transfer candidates and describe how implementing these measures will enhance the institution's ability to carry out its mission
  • Establish firm lines of authority to facilitate an effective and expeditious program
  • List and document criteria for the selection of items for transfer, which may be influenced by the nature and strengths of the library's general and special collections
  • Set forth clear procedures implementing the transfer process. These should include:

○ selection and approval of transfers
○ inspection by preservation staff
○ physical handling and processing
○ updating bibliographic and circulation records
○ maintenance of security throughout the process

The library may find it helpful to contact professional consultants and colleagues from other institutions to help write the transfer policy, refine selection criteria, and/or inventory the collections. Once completed, the transfer policy should be approved by the library's senior administration and widely incorporated into collection development policies, including those that have been articulated for or by the special collections unit.

3.0 Transfer Criteria

Although the specifics and their application will vary from one institution to another, some combination of the following criteria should be considered when evaluating candidates for transfer:

  1. Market value
  2. Rarity and scarcity
  3. Date and place of publication
  4. Physical and intrinsic characteristics
  5. Bibliographic and research value
  6. Condition

The following discussion of criteria, and the examples given for each, are provided for general guidance and are not meant to prescribe what ought to be transferred.

3.1 Market Value

Library materials with high monetary value are easily identified and especially vulnerable to theft. The transfer criteria should include a threshold monetary value -- an amount defined by the library as “high.” Items located in the library's general collections with a market value at or above that threshold should be identified and considered for transfer. The threshold value should be reviewed periodically and adjusted as needed.


  • Books and other items with a market value above $1,000

 3.2 Rarity and Scarcity

In the context of these Guidelines, “rare” is defined as “not found in large numbers and consequently of interest or value.” “Scarce” is understood to mean “insufficient for the need or the demand.” Some library materials, such as limited edition and small press books, are rare by definition. Other library materials, with time and changing circumstances, become scarce and, for example, show in WorldCat with few copies held.


  • Fewer than ten copies held in the United States
  • Fewer than three copies held in the consortium or the geographic region
  • Items not available in HathiTrust or another trusted digital repository
  • Books printed in editions of 100 copies or fewer (limited edition and small press books)
  • Books and other materials having local interest, about local history, or by local authors
  • Books and other materials not regularly available in the rare or used book market

3.3 Date and Place of Publication

The longer an item survives, the more it becomes one of a decreasing number of witnesses to its own time and place and to the technology of its creation. Examples of these “witnesses” include books printed during the hand press era (approximately 1455 to 1855) and mid-nineteenth-century publications that contain illustrations created with early photographic processes. Date of publication can therefore be particularly useful as an initial criterion in identifying candidates for transfer. Many libraries set a “trigger” date and, as a matter of course, consider for transfer all items published before it.

Date of publication is an even more useful criterion when considered alongside other factors, such as place of publication and the development of the discipline or the topic the item documents. Books and other materials published in a particular geographic region in the years immediately after printing was established in that place are known as “regional incunables” or “pioneer imprints” and usually have significant monetary and other value. The term “pioneer imprint” can also refer to an early work on a particular topic or in a particular discipline, which will have certain value for a library with a strong collection on that topic or in that discipline.


  • Books and other items published in Pennsylvania between 1685 and 1695
  • Books and other items published in Texas between 1817 and 1823
  • Books and other items published in Oregon between 1846 and 1856
  • Books and other items published in Latin America before 1851
  • Books and other items published in Hawaii before 1965
  • Cookbooks published in the United States before 1850
  • Travel books published in the United States before 1900
  • British literary periodicals published before 1920
  • Children's literature published in the United States before 1920
  • Road atlases published in the United States before 1950

3.4 Physical and Intrinsic Characteristics

Library materials often have physical and intrinsic characteristics that qualify them as candidates for transfer. Some of these features may make them vulnerable to mutilation or theft; others give them monetary and/or artifactual value.


  • Books with decorated end papers, unbound plates, original art or photographs, vellum or publisher's bindings, or dust jackets
  • Unique volumes, such as extra-illustrated books and hand-created compilations
  • Books with moveable parts or fold-outs
  • Books made by hand or of unusual material
  • Books in non-standard sizes or shapes
  • Scrapbooks, photograph albums, and manuscript (handwritten or typed) materials
  • Broadsides, posters, and printed ephemera
  •  Books and other materials with significant provenance or evidence of association (including bookplates, inscriptions, and marginalia)

3.5 Bibliographic and Research Value

Secondary sources, including reference works and periodicals, still needed for general use frequently become valuable and should not be overlooked as candidates for transfer. This is especially the case if facsimile or other reprint editions are available to replace them in the general collections and/or the works support or complement in-depth holdings in a particular field of study or genre of literature.

Federal, state, and local government documents are another category of material with increasing research (and market) value. Reports of nineteenth-century scientific discoveries and expeditions, government publications containing maps or plates, ethnographic reports, and documents produced during major historical events are examples of types of material that should be considered for possible transfer.

Other categories of material with potentially significant bibliographic or research value include censored, repressed, or challenged books; books of a seminal nature or importance to a particular field of study or genre of literature; and materials produced for use by a private group with no subsequent public distribution.


  • In-depth, subject-specific collections
  • First editions of works that have many later editions
  • Materials having local interest, about local history, or by local authors

3.6 Condition

When reviewing library materials for possible transfer, condition may be the most important criterion, since all other criteria -- especially market value -- may be greatly affected by condition. Library materials that are badly worn or have been rebound or much repaired should not be de facto transferred unless they also present a compelling example of one or several of the other transfer criteria. Thoughtful consideration should be given to a decision to transfer copies in less than perfect condition.

4.0 Transfer Policy Procedures

The transfer policy has five procedural phases:

  1. Identification of materials that fit the selection criteria
  2. Preservation assessment
  3. Review and decision to transfer
  4. Cataloging review and changes to records
  5. Physical transfer

4.1 Identification of Materials that Fit the Selection Criteria

Candidates for transfer may be discovered by way of a proactive review process, through routine library functions, or at the suggestion of staff and patrons. Ideally, a library will systematically inventory large segments of its general collections according to the selection criteria. Few libraries, however, find such a comprehensive assessment possible. More often they choose to review materials and records selectively and incorporate the identification process into existing library operations. Other effective approaches include a selective review based on the history of the collection or a review that focuses on areas of known strength. Many institutions find it worthwhile to solicit suggestions and comments from faculty, students, researchers, professional appraisers, and other experts to aid in identifying transfer candidates. The library should publicize its willingness to consider recommendations from patrons. Regardless of the identification program’s scope, direct inspection of both individual transfer candidates and corresponding bibliographic records is essential.

A proactive identification process may include shelf (or shelf-list) reading in classifications likely to contain candidates for transfer; examining chronological files for early imprints of particular interest and value; producing review lists from the online catalog based on name, title, imprint date, classification, place of publication, literary genre, subject, provenance, or other relevant elements; and consulting bibliographies, databases, dealer catalogs, dealer websites, and other reference tools. Transfer candidates may also be identified during routine library functions, such as cataloging and classification (including retrospective conversion and catalog record enhancement projects); collection management (binding, circulation, preservation, weeding, etc.); interlibrary loan (the scarcity of an item is sometimes revealed when conducting interlibrary searches); preparation of exhibits; and reformatting operations (digitization, photoduplication, and microreproduction).  Titles identified as candidates for transfer but not yet removed from the circulating collection can be flagged (physically and/or in the catalog) to prevent circulation prior to review.

This stage in the process provides an opportunity for inviting input from bibliographers, subject liaisons, language specialists, or external stakeholders (such as faculty) in assessing the item’s suitability for transfer.

4.2 Preservation Assessment

Physical changes made to an item after its original publication diminish its value as a candidate for transfer. For this reason, a preservation assessment focusing on the physical condition of candidate materials should be conducted in consultation with special collections staff. The preservation assessment may occur either prior to or after the transfer decision, the nature of the item's physical condition, and its anticipated use. For example, candidate items that are damaged or mutilated will require a preservation assessment prior to the transfer decision. The assessment will determine whether or not the damage can be remedied in order to make the item suitable for transfer. Alternatively, the preservation assessment may occur following the decision to transfer if the item has such value that it would be accepted into special collections without regard to its physical condition.

The preservation assessment will also include a recommendation regarding the need for conservation treatment and, if it is needed, when (before or after transfer) it should occur. Treatment decisions should be made in conjunction with special collections staff and will range from minor repairs, stabilization and protective housing, to full conservation of the item.

4.3 Review and Decision to Transfer

The decision to transfer or not to transfer should fall to the head of special collections, the collection curator, or an authorized staff member trained to determine whether the item falls within the department's collecting scope and meets criteria described in this section. The reviewer may seek advice from a conservator, bibliographer, subject liaison, language specialist, or external stakeholders (such as faculty) in assessing the item’s suitability for transfer. Not every item identified as a possible candidate will be chosen for transfer to special collections. For example, multiple copies of a title should be reviewed carefully to determine whether transfer of one or more copies is appropriate. Or, an item may be in such poor physical condition that it cannot be stabilized using standard conservation treatment, and thus loses its value as a candidate for transfer.

4.4 Cataloging Review and Changes to Records

Some libraries, in addition to updating catalog records to inform library users that the location of an item has changed, make a general announcement when a certain category of material (for example, all books published before 1800) has been transferred. When appropriate, catalog records should be edited to meet rare book cataloging standards.

4.5 Physical Transfer

Once the decision to transfer is made, it is essential that the physical transfer be completed in a timely manner and that an appropriate level of security be provided during each phase of the transfer procedure.

5.0 Options Other Than “Transfer to Special Collections”

Two essential characteristics distinguish the special collections unit from other library locations: the conditions under which collection materials are stored or shelved and the conditions under which collection materials are used. In a “typical” special collections unit, collection materials are stored or shelved in an environmentally-sound and well-secured closed stacks and made available for use in a monitored reading room. Some libraries have alternatives to the special collections unit for providing secure, environmentally-sound storage and appropriately supervised use of rare and valuable materials. These include open stacks in a non-circulating or building-use-only location, and offsite or other appropriate storage locations from which collection materials are requestable for delivery to and use in a monitored reading room or other supervised setting. Both of these are viable options for protecting and providing access to certain categories of collection material for which transfer to special collections is neither merited nor feasible.

Most libraries have materials in their general collections that do not meet the criteria for transfer to special collections but nevertheless warrant a higher level of protection than is afforded by the current setting. Some libraries refer to this category of material as “medium rare” and identify it for transfer to an appropriate location. Thoughtful consideration should govern any decision to transfer rare and valuable materials to a shared print repository or other setting from which materials circulate. Particular attention should be paid when considering transfers to single- and last-copy collections and repositories.

Collection materials for which transfer to special collections is merited but not feasible -- most likely due to space constraints in the special collections unit -- can be “sheltered in place.” This involves indicating in the catalog record and/or by other means that the item will eventually be transferred to special collections and in the meantime should be made available for use only in a monitored reading room.

6.0 Resources

Developing, refining, and updating a selection and transfer policy requires vision, good judgment, and profits from wide and informed reading. Although there is no literature dealing with transfer per se, the following resources may be helpful to those charged with forming or revising their library's policies.

6.1 Online Resources

ACRL/RBMS Bibliographic Standards Committee. Standard Citation Forms for Rare Materials Cataloging

ACRL/RBMS Bibliographic Standards Committee, Web Resources for the Rare Materials Cataloger

ACRL/RBMS Publications Committee. Your Old Books

ACRL/RBMS Security Committee. Guidelines Regarding Security and Theft in Special Collections

6.2 Print Resources

Bernard, Philippa, Leo Bernard, and Angus O'Neill. Antiquarian Books: A Companion for Booksellers, Librarians and Collectors. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994.

Brook, G. L. Books and Book-Collecting. London: A. Deutsch, 1980.

Carter, John. Taste and Technique in Book Collecting; with an Epilogue. London: Private Libraries Assoc., 1970.

Carter, John, and Nicolas Barker. ABC for Book Collectors. New Castle, DE: London: Oak Knoll Press; British Library, 2006.

Cave, Roderick. Rare Book Librarianship. London: Clive Bingley, 1982.

The Evidence in Hand: Report of the Task Force on the Artifact in Library Collections. Washington, DC: Council on Library and Information Resources, 2001.

Gascoigne, Bamber. How to Identify Prints. 2nd ed. London and New York: Thames and Hudson, 2004.

Gaskell, Philip. A New Introduction to Bibliography. Winchester, UK: New Castle, Del.: New York: St. Paul's Bibliographies; Oak Knoll Press; Distributed in the USA by Lyons & Burford, 1995.

Glaister, Geoffrey Ashall. Encyclopedia of the Book. New Castle, DE: London: Oak Knoll Press; British Library, 1996.

Miller, Julia. Books Will Speak Plain: A Handbook for Identifying and Describing Historical Bindings. 2nd ed. Ann Arbor: The Legacy Press, 2014.

Peters, Jean. Book Collecting: A Modern Guide. New York: R. R. Bowker, 1977.

Peters, Jean. Collectible Books: Some New Paths. New York: R. R. Bowker, 1979.

Powell, Lawrence Clark. "Rare Book Code," College & Research Libraries 10 (3) (October, 1949): 307-308.

Streit, Samuel A. "Transfer of Materials from General Stacks to Special Collections," Collection Management 7 (2) (Summer 1985): 33-46.

Trienens, Roger J. Pioneer Imprints from Fifty States . Washington: Library of Congress, 1973.

Walsh, Jim, et al. Rare and Valuable Government Documents: A Resource Packet on Identification, Preservation, and Security Issues for Government Documents Collections. Chicago: American Library Association, 1993.

Wilkie, Everett C. Guide to Security Considerations and Practices for Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collection Libraries. Chicago: Association of College and Research Libraries, 2011.