Grey Literature: History, Definition, Acquisition, and Cataloguing

by Moya K. Mason

The History and Definition of Grey Literature

The term grey literature brings connotations of bleakness, apathy, indifference, and questionable authority to mind. Upon investigation this is far from true, unless you find papers from eminent scientists on sea grass or new innovations in agriculture boring. The grey in grey literature refers to the brain's grey matter since so much of it is highly intellectual, and is significant for research and development in many subject areas. An article appearing in Information World Review calls grey literature "the unsung hero, the foot soldier, the foundation of the building" (IWR 1996); it is literature that is not usually attainable through conventional channels. In his informative book on grey literature, Charles P. Augur writes that this is not a new phenomenon of the late twentieth century but something considered a genre since at least the 1920s, particularly in Europe among the scientific circles (Augur 1989,7). Grey literature is here to stay, but what is it?

M.C. Debachere has written that it is easier to describe, rather than to define grey literature. Collectively the term covers an extensive range of materials that cannot be found easily through conventional channels such as publishers, "but which is frequently original and usually recent" (Debachere 1995,94). Peter Hirtle in Broadsides vs. Grey Literature defines it as:

The quasi-printed reports, unpublished but circulated papers, unpublished proceedings of conferences, printed programs from conferences, and the other non-unique material which seems to constitute the bulk of our modern manuscript collections (Hirtle 1991).

Important contributions to the genre are translations, which constitute a major portion of grey literature. Two reasons easily explain why. If half the scientific and technical literature is written in languages other than English, and if scientists from all around the world, including those from English-speaking countries want to access the research, they need translations of the work (Augur 1989,63). Dissertations also make up an important part of grey literature, as well as meeting papers or preprints that are given out before conferences and meetings.

Grey literature was for many years synonymous with reports literature. At the turn of the century, documents coming out of research and development, particularly from the aircraft and aeronautics industries, were a very important means of communicating the results of research testing (Augur 1989,12). One such report from 1915 was called The Behaviour of Aeroplanes in Gusts, the first report written by NASA (Augur 1989,13). However, it was the onslaught of World War Two which had the greatest impact on report literature, transforming it into "a major means of communication" (Augur 1989,12).

The hallmark of that war was the development of technologically-advanced weaponry, from sophisticated tanks to the atomic bomb. These breakthroughs in science made accurate and speedy communications a necessity. The technical report was widely used to disseminate information (White 1984,18). The decades that followed saw the continuation of staggering amounts of scientific and technological research, which was amassed to improve both military and communication systems. The one thing that made grey literature so attractive and "attained its importance as a separate medium of communication was because of an initial need for security or confidentiality classifications which prevent documents being published in the conventional manner" (Augur 1989, 1).

In recent years, technical and scientific literature has continued to grow, but grey literature reports now come from many different avenues. The following types of organizations issue grey literature. This list has been copied directly from Charles Augur's seminal book, Information Sources in Grey Literature (page 22):



County councils

Educational establishments







Private publishers

Research establishments


Trade unions



By the 1970s, grey literature was a recognized dissemination vehicle for many organizations and considered important reading throughout the world. The problem was, it was not getting any easier to find. Consequently, both the Commission of the European Communities and the British Library Lending Division came together to form a very important database for grey literature called SIGLE or System for Information on Grey Literature in Europe. It is a bibliographic database that covers non-conventional European literature in the fields of pure and applied sciences, and technology. By 1984, social sciences, economics, and the humanities were also included. SIGLE also gives access to discussion and policy documents, research reports, theses, working and conference papers, and some important official publications, with citations in English. Grey literature is increasing in quantity because it has the advantage of great flexibility and speed, and allows those who write and issue it to be very concise, exact, and focused (Augur 1989,1). However, some inherent problems with grey literature should be discussed.

Problems Surrounding the Identification and Acquisition of Grey Literature

As Charles P. Augur points out in his book, the core reasons for difficulties in identifying and acquiring this type of literature are due to its "poor bibliographic information and control, non-professional layout and format, and low print runs" (Augur 1989,3). The implementation of bibliographic control through ISBNs, ISSNs, and report numbers has been somewhat helpful, but also disorganized. For instance, reports, which make up the lion's share of grey literature, do not as a rule use ISBNs, which require a depository (Augur 1989,39). Instead, report numbering was initiated as a means to introduce standardization. The problem is that these numbers were designed to include subject matter, date, form, agency, security classification, location, and additional data, and consequently, are quite long and confusing. In addition, given the nature of the literature, some categories contain security restrictions (Augur 1989,18). Furthermore, non-availability may be due to "incomplete or incorrect identification," since accession or report numbers must be correct to obtain access (Augur 1989,19). M.C. Debachere points out that problems arise in libraries when a patron requests a particular document, and the librarian does not know where to begin the search (Debachere 1995,95).

Many attempts have been made to provide sourcing for grey literature, including the Griseli Project in France; the UK's British Library Document Supply Centre; the Russian Union Catalogue of Grey Literature; and the previously mentioned SIGLE, which is maintained and operated under the auspices of the European Association for Grey Literature Exploitation (EAGLE). AGRINDEX database is available for life sciences and agriculture, but to date, very few grey literature documents are found in it. Energy and aerospace sciences documents are predominately found in STAR (Scientific and Technical Aerospace Reports) through NASA.

Many other countries have appointed organizations to keep track of the grey literature being produced. In Canada, the Canada Institute for Scientific and Technical Information (CISTI) has a network set up to provide information to scientists and researchers. It operates a document delivery service that has three million titles in its database and two million technical reports on microfiche. The United States issues a general index of government publications and technical reports in the Monthly Catalog of US Government Publications. Other publications report the work commissioned by the United States government, but use the minimalist approach of few details, no abstracts, and no indexes. Additionally, the International Federation of Library Associations (IFLA) developed the Universal Availability of Publications (UAP) program, which is supported by United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), and offers a wide range of educational, scientific, social, economic, and technical materials to anyone anywhere (Augur 1989,34).

Grey literature is sometimes available through exchange agreements with other organizations or by subscription. Annual subscriptions are expensive, but convenient, if complete subject coverage is needed (Augur 1989,30). Other facilities use UNESCO book coupons, monthly standing orders, and a company such as Communicating Science, to find the information, or Crimdoc, which maintains a criminology library database for grey literature from the criminology field. Currently, many items can also be purchased through booksellers and subscription agents as the scope of the literature is growing.

Overall, there are some important things to remember when a request for grey literature is made: 1.) if there is a known ISBN, use it, 2.) reports are often issued what are called accession or report numbers that can be crucial for identification, and 3.) date, author, title, and originating body are required (Augur 1989,31). Translations can be found in UNESCO's Index Translationum through the International Translations Centre, the British Library Document Supply Centre, the Consolidated Index of Translations in English, the Naval Ocean Systems Center, and the Canadian Index of Scientific Translations, among other sources. Meeting papers are more difficult to get, but Simonton's Directory is sometimes helpful.


Cataloguing and maintenance of grey literature should be considered on a library to library basis. It would appear that special libraries are primarily concerned with this literature, but academic libraries will have their share, depending upon the academic scope. Small libraries may not catalogue them at all, and choose to file grey literature in a pamphlet or vertical file collection (Augur 1989,40). AACR2 rules are available, which specify to catalogue under the corporate body, if possible. Another option is to use the guidelines set down by Committee on Scientific and Technical Information (COSATI) for technical and scientific reports. The following elements are included in the descriptive cataloguing process for COSATI and appear verbatim from Charles P. Augur's book (p. 40):

1. Accession or report number

2. Corporate author

3. Title

4. Descriptive role - subtitle or progress report, etc.

5. Personal author

6. Date

7. Pagination

8. Contract number

9. Report number

10. Availability

11. Supplementary note

12. Security classification


Many possibilities exist, but it would be more practical for some kind of universal standard protocol to be used to ensure that bibliographic access is available for all who need it. The Internet definitely helps to provide access to some kinds of grey literature, but it is difficult to sift through all the information to find what you need. Solutions for its identification, acquisition, and cataloguing are far from solved, and will need international cooperation and consensus.

Related Papers

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Library Catalogues and Collection Development
Collection Development for the Sciences in an Academic Setting
National Bibliographies and Collection Development
Publishers Catalogues and Collection Development
Subject Bibliographies and Collection Development
Trade Bibliographies and Collection Development


Augur, Charles P. 1989. Information Sources in Grey Literature. London: Bowker-Saur.

Debachere, M.C. 1995. Problems in Obtaining Grey Literature. IFLA Journal, Vol. 21, No. 2, pp. 94-98.

Hirtle, Peter. 1991. Broadsides vs. Grey Literature.

Information World. 1996. What is Grey Literature?

White, Herbert. 1984. Managing the Special Library. White Plains, N.Y.: Knowledge Industries Publications, Inc.

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